We meet Adam, the main character in The Topeka School, as a teenager in the mid-1990s. He is on a boat in the middle of a lake with his girlfriend, Amber. Without looking at her, he talks ‘for a long time’ about his feelings. Turning to see the effect of his words, he finds Amber gone: at some point during his speech, she has dived off the boat and swum to shore. He docks the boat and finds her; she tells him about her stepfather, who used to give ‘endless speeches at dinner’, answering his own questions, heedless of everyone around him. Once, during such a dinner, she slid lower and lower in her chair until she was underneath the table, before crawling away. Her stepfather, oblivious, continued talking ‘to the air like AM radio’. ‘It would take Adam twenty years’, the narrator tells us, ‘to grasp the analogy.’
It’s a clever opening, one that sets the tone for the novel’s impressive investigation of gender and language. It also betrays a certain anxiety. Lerner’s two previous novels, the highly acclaimed Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, are both narrated by privileged white male writers who discourse, in eloquent and neurotic detail, on the role of art in times of political crisis, the ability of language to convey meaning and the difficulty of building and sustaining relationships. The Topeka School, which shares these concerns, is Lerner’s first novel since 2014, and times have changed since then: the world, or at least the world that has heaped such praise on Lerner, believes itself less tolerant of privileged white men pontificating.