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December 1, 2020

#Autofiction: The Topeka School

by N@ncy


Personal note:

  1. I am trying to reading  as many books
  2. as I can on #Obama’s reading list 2019.
  3. There are a few books I have pre-scanned
  4. that do not appeal to me…so I’ll skip those.

NOT READ —>“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: Zuboff
NOT READ —>“We Live in Water: Stories,” J. Walter (White)
NOT READ —>“A Different Way to Win: J. Rooney
NOT READ —>“Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
NOT READ —>“The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890

  1. When I saw The Topeka School on
  2. …I knew I was in for a challenge.
  3. There were many negative reviews!
  4. Score 2 – 1833x (…and counting)
  5. Score 1 –  602x (…and counting)
  6. I thought….” fools rush in where angels fear to tread…”
  7. Wish me luck…..



  1. The Topeka School is set in the late 1990s in Topeka, Kansas.
  2. It is a very complex family saga.
  3. Three intertwined narratives:
  4. Adam, his parents, Jonathan and Jane and misfit  Darren.
  5. Note: this is fictionalized autobiography
  6. It is helpful if you know something about Ben Lerner’s life. (Google)
  7. Characters Jane and Jonathan are modeled on
  8. …Lerner’s  own parents! Harriet and Stephen
  9. …clinical psychologists at the world-renowned
  10. …Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas
  11. Adam is representative of the author, Ben Lerner.
  12. Note: 
  13. It takes a very, very profound mind to write a book like this!
  14. Harriet Lerner (feminist, clinical psychologist)
  15. is one of the…most important influence on her son’s writing.



  1. Note:  reading this book
  2. …is physically and mentally exhausting!
  3. It took me 3 days because
  4. …I had to pause and digest the intense writing:
  5. …dreams, stream-consciousness, philosophical issues,
  6. …feelings of floating about life, dizziness,
  7. …backstories of several minor characters
  8. I can understand that some readers
  9. …are just are overwhelmed by this book.
  10. That can explain the many 1 and 2 scores.
  11. Note: if you want to read this book
  12. ….you must be committed to finish it.



  1. There are 4 alternating narratives.
  2. I decided to do something different:
  3. I read each narrative in its entirety
  4. …not alternating.
  5. In this way I tried to keep my
  6. …focus on one character at a time.
  7. Shifting POV….would make this book more difficult to finish!
  8. This is not an easy narrative!
  9. But…good books are often a challenge.
  • 4 sections Adam = 4,5 hrs reading time
  • 7 sections Darren = 2,5 hrs
  • 2 sections Jonathan = 1,5 hrs
  • 2 sections Jane = 2 hrs



  1. I thought this would be THE most important subplot
  2. that would bring the others together.
  3. I was wrong.
  4. Foil for the main character Adam.
  5. Inarticulate, compelled to use actual violence (rage)
  6. Social misfit adopted by Adam and the “cool kids”
  7. Part mascot, part clown.
  8. He is treated with cruelty and confused affection.
  9. This character is a symbolic role (discover in the book)
  10. …who serves for closure, bookends the story.


Adam: (voice of author)

  1. Pretentious student – very articulate, increasing his level of “cool”
  2. prize winning debater – anxiety-ridden,
  3. …callow, and too clever for his own good.
  4. Uses his linguistic prowess as a weapon!
  5. He can destroy (rage) in a debate (the spread) or
  6. He can seduce with poetry.
  7. What is the spread?
  8. Term used in debating to indicate that one
  9. makes more arguments,  give more evidence
  10. …than the other team
  11. can respond to within the allotted time.


  1. Challenge:
  2. difficult to keep track of Adam’s (author’s)
  3. …bizarre thoughts, revelations
  4. Core message:
  5. Feelings and language
  6. Jane: ( = Harriet Lerner)
  7. The stupid mistake psychologists make….
  8. We thought that if we had a language for our feelings
  9. we might transcend them.


Strong point:   commentary of society

  1. Ben Lerner gives some analysis of modern society
  2. ..that hits me with an antiseptic sting.


  1. He describes men as
  2. lost boys of privilege
  3. they are emptied out, mass men without mass
  4. perpetual boys, Peter Pans
  5. man-children since America is adolescence without end.


  1. He describes men as
  2. lost boys of privilege
  3. they are overfed; in a word starving
  4. the vacuum at the heart of privilege
  5. cannot be filled with stuff…
  6. the violence will recur periodically, like cicadas.


Strong point:   Lerner writes what he knows….the world of debating champion!

  1. Lerner give the reader a glance behind the curtain
  2. …before the debate begins
  3. Coaching...
  4. Debate coach Evanson….insights into
  5. why US elects Texans who went to Yale (Pres Bush)
  6. Rhodes Scholars from Arkansas! ( President Clinton)
  7. “Interrupt your highbrow fluency
  8. ….with bland sound bites of regional decency.”
  9. Serve into the folksy…and then BAM
  10. I want you all business again,
  11. back to  wunderkind analysis and 
  12. the movements we practiced.” 
  13. …gestures, lean the body into the speech, pace the floor.


Strong point:

  1. The reader experiences the ‘debate championship’
  2. from two sides:
  3. Adam on stage (chapter Adam –  The Cipher)
  4. Parents in the audience (chapter Jane –  Paradoxical effects)
  5. …the blending and blurring of their voices



Read more from Obama's Reading List

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