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8 Nov 4:00am

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner review – in a class of its own

The Guardian
Psychoanalysis, rap battles, poetry, school debates: this bravura US autofiction explores language as tool and weaponNear the beginning of Ben Lerner’s third novel, a teenager named Adam Gordon creeps into what he thinks is his girlfriend’s house. He goes into the bathroom and notices the toiletries there aren’t hers. “Along with the sheer terror of finding himself in the wrong house,” writes Lerner, “with his recognition of its difference, was a sense, because of the houses’ sameness, that he was in all the houses around the lake at once; the sublime of identical layouts”. It’s a typical Lerner moment: an anecdotal event is mined for latent content, the literal uncanniness of Adam’s experience suggesting something of the uniformity – both comforting and terrifying – of suburban America. Lerner’s first two works of fiction were intelligent novels of ideas about characters who were more or less like him: disaffected, overeducated young men. What saved them from self-indulgence was their sentence-by-sentence virtuosity, their imaginative density, and the fact that the cleverness of his prose always felt appropriate to the stories he told.
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