The Topeka School
By Ben Lerner
282 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
Ever since watching “The Wizard of Oz” as a child, I’ve wanted to be a storm chaser. Not just a storm chaser, per se, but a tornado chaser, like those guys (and Helen Hunt) in “Twister”, another movie that made storm chasing look oh so cool. I faced a few setbacks along the way, like living in a state that gets only the very occasional — and never very powerful — tornado, and regardless of how hard I pushed my parents to relocate the family to Kansas or somewhere else inside “Tornado Alley”, I was stuck to live a tornado free life in Arizona and, later, Florida.
This wasn’t the only setback. In 1998, enamored as I was with tornadoes, I insisted on visiting Universal Studios to “ride” their new “Twister” attraction. We waited for three hours in the June heat — I remember the beads of sweat rolling down my back to this day — and finally arrived inside to watch … what, exactly? Some special effects that made it kind of, sort of look like you’re mere meters away from a wispy column of steam meant to resemble a tornado? Googling it now, I’m happy to report that in 2017 “Twister” was closed, replaced by some Jimmy Fallon nonsense that has the advantage of replacing the worst ride ever.
All of which brings us to the third paragraph, the one in which I finally mention “The Topeka School”, the cover of which caused that old fascination of mine to flare up once again. A book about the life I COULD have had if we had lived in “Tornado Alley” and I’d grown up chasing tornadoes!
Except it’s not. I’m sorry to say that “The Topeka School” is about as much of a letdown as that “Twister” ride at Universal Studios. There aren’t even any tornadoes featured! Only a passing reference to one. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” indeed!
But I get it … the tornado featured on the cover of Ben Lerner’s book is meant to serve as a metaphor for the storm that our characters can see gathering over America from the front porch in their 1997 setting. Riiiight. Clever clever.
It doesn’t work. Lerner is trying to write a big, beautiful book on Trumpism, toxic masculinity, free speech, #MeToo, etc etc etc. All the things that make up modern American life. He swings wildly, shoots for the stars, throws a hail mary pass — choose whichever sports metaphor you like best — and misses. He tries to take on too much here, and what we’re left with is an overwritten, overwrought, overbaked novel that feels autobiographical but is too plodding and predictable to be real.
I wanted this to be good, I really did, and there are moments where you recognize in the writing that this could have been something special, the Great (Modern) American Novel, perhaps, but it never comes close. The writing is too dense, what little story there is too hard to follow, the characters blending together, all leaving me feeling I haven’t been paying enough attention.
I appreciate the fact that Lerner here is attempting a Michael Haneke, who in his film “The White Ribbon” shows us the Nazis as children, a “how did they/things get that way?” kind of novel, but despite a genuinely intriguing setting (and an excellent cover) it just doesn’t work.
These times require a better novel. Preferably one with real, not just metaphorical, tornadoes.