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Publisher's Summary

2019 New York Times Book Review Notable Books of the Year

2019 NPR Best Book of the Year

2019 National Book Critics Circle Award - Nominee

2019 Vogue Magazine Best Books of the Year

2019 Time Magazine Top 10 Books of the Year

2019 NYT Outstanding Books of the Year

2019 The Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year

2020 Folio Prize Shortlist

2019 Washington Post Best Books of the Year

2019 Amazon.com Best Books of the Year

2019 New York Magazine Best Books of the Year

2020 Pulitzer Prize - Finalist

2019 Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year

2019 Esquire Magazine Best Books of the Year

2019 NYPL Book for Reading and Sharing

Named one of the most anticipated fall books by Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Vogue, Vulture, The Observer, Kirkus, Lit Hub, The Millions, The Week, Oprah Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Nylon, Pacific Standard, Publishers Weekly, Slate, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Guardian

From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century: a tale of adolescence, transgression, and the conditions that have given rise to the trolls and tyrants of the New Right.

Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of ’97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting "lost boys" to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart - who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient - into the social scene, to disastrous effect.  

Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.

Cover photograph from The Wichita Eagle. © 1990 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used under license. Kansas.com

©2019 Ben Lerner (P)2019 Macmillan Audio

What listeners say about The Topeka School

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Strong novel about 1990s

Ben Lerner's book is excellent. Very smart about Kansas, town-gown social dynamics, poetry, psychoanalysis,, and more. It is deserving of the wide praise it's earned. It's brainy without being show-offy.

I found the complaints about the political views of the characters to be very strange. What did they expect in a novel about East-Coast Jewish psychoanalysts living in Topeka in the era of Fred Phelps & Co.? The characters' politics (notably Jane) and intellectualism (notably Adam) are not strident or intrusive at all. Regarding that complaint: nothing to see here; move on.

Regarding this audiobook: Two of the voice actors are excellent. They read the narration of Jonathan and Jane, the parents of Adam. These voice actors read, no perform, in a very believable manner: they really do sound as intelligent and thoughtful and, at times, conflicted as Adam's parents. They are both believable as psychoanalysts at the legendary Topeka School. I look forward to every time their characters get some reading time. Those two characters are by far the most interesting narrators in the novel, to these ears at least.

The audiobook's shortcoming is with the voice actor who reads Adam's part--and presumably with the director who was guiding him. Other reviewers have noted the actor's frequent mispronunciations. The Fugees become The FUGUE-EASE. Hobbesian becomes HOB-EASY-AN. And so forth and so on. I didn't make a list, but every time it happened I snapped out of the artwork's air of verisimilitude and into my humdrum world of, like, proper pronunciation of fairly common terms. Also the actor's voice doesn't have the personality and burnish of the voices doing the roles of Adam's parents. Maybe this is to represent the relative callowness of youth, but man is it annoying.

It's unfortunate that such a fine and celebrated novel can have an audio version that, at times, weakens rather than amplifies the power of its prose and its characters. And that the director, engineer, or whomever didn't have the attentiveness to say, 'hey, let's correct the mispronunciations. And can we make Adam's voice less monotone. Hie's more passionate and interesting than he sounds." I think they should do a revised version with a new performance of Adam.

44 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars

Great novel, narration flawed...

A beautiful novel, a beautiful writer. The story was graceful and quiet but moved swiftly, I couldn’t put it down. I felt like it was moving towards something major with the Darren character but it kind of didn’t— regardless of that I still thought it was great. One note is that one of the narrators should know how to pronounce popular musicians names/musical acts, such as Brian Eno (it’s pronounced “eee-no”) and for crying out loud, The Fugees are world famous and pronounced like slang for word “refugee” and not like “FOO-GEES.” How did no one notice this during editing? Embarrassing. It’s 2020 come on.

11 people found this helpful

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Novel turns into a post-Trump resistance polemic

The story is compelling in that it teases big violence, a showdown competition, and marital strife and then wraps all those up, but then remembers it has to be woke AF too - bleggh

8 people found this helpful

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not for listening

A wordy book. Full of self-spelunking, ego-diving and washed down by a big helping of tiresome psychobabble.Patches of excellent writing but too much of a slog to get to the good parts

8 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

a philosophical exploration of.... ?

This witty and well written book begins with a self-aware joke. Adam Gordon, the protagonist, is sitting in a boat, talking. He’s 17, a speech-and-debate whiz and an aspiring poet living in Topeka, Kansas. It’s the middle of the night and he’s with his girlfriend, Amber, monologuing passionately about something or other, when he suddenly looks around and realizes that he’s sitting in the boat alone. She has jumped overboard and swum away, and he didn’t even notice.

I initially thought this was going to be a thriller - that the gf disappeared in the water and the book would be about Adam trying to prove his innocence, having his self-mapped route to an Ivy League and Success and anything except Topeka ruined, hijacked and thwarted by this random trajedy which ironically arose from the very gift he is relying on to progress on his self-mapped route. BUT.... nope. Thought it's a good idea, I think, for a thriller. :-)

Then I thought this book would be about how a special needs boy (Darren) was teased beyond endurance and finally snaps when he hurls a cue ball at a tormentor. Nope. Another good book idea, though, IMO. :-)

So WHAT is this book about? That's a good question. On the surface, it's about words. Adam is a national debate champion, and the author is clearly familiar with this world. I enjoyed the tour of competitive high school debate much like Infinite Jest gave me a tour of competitive junior level tennis. But I think what it's really about is the internal life of a white boy of privilege, highly educated, highly verbal, and how he goes through his senior year making some good choices, some not great choices, some dumb choices. And then the book ends with him as an adult, doing his best to stand up for progressive moral ideals. In the final scene, Adam and his daughters attempt a protest against the Trump administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

This book is a reflection on privilege but also humanity - what makes a person an individual with specific views, biases, prejudices. It's a lovely contemplation of the role of privilege, intelligence and education and how those factors can form a young boy growing up in a small town yearning to escape.

I personally found the book a little dull - perhaps I am not erudite enough to enjoy such philosophical musings. Or perhaps since I was reading this during my typically "thriller" season, I just wasn't in the mood. For whatever reason, I recognize that this was a good book, but not something I would return to or recommend.

5 people found this helpful

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Fugue Ease

One of the narrators pronounced the name of the Fugees incorrectly as "Fugue Ease" and I think the author would be ashamed, considering it is a coming of age tale set in the late nineties.

8 people found this helpful

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Impressively boring

Literally. Nothing. Happens. Very odd comparisons to old psychology concepts.
Slow plot with rambling tangents, I returned it.

3 people found this helpful

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When it works, it works

A really good read about American men and their struggles for and against their own understandings of masculinity. It’s kind of hard not to read this book as being autobiographical, But it’s also hard to imagine the author actually holding some of Adam’s views. Definitely the most difficult part to listen to is “the spread” where the author flexes his large vocabulary as a way of exploring how men can say so much and convey so little.

2 people found this helpful

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Lovely writing; no plot

After listening to this book, my chief reaction was, "What was the point?" The portions about high school debate dragged, lots of (disjointed) story lines left dangling. An okay listen, but I wouldn't recommend.

1 person found this helpful

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paid endorsement?

I've lived in Topeka. love Topeka, but wow, the name dropping of every place, street and tourist interest was over the top. That being said, didn't enjoy the jump around story.

1 person found this helpful