As a child, Ben Lerner showed up in his parents’ bedroom with his genitals covered in gum. Being renowned clinical psychologists, both knew how to react with humor and empathy, while they proceeded to remove the chewing gum that covered his urethra with a mixture of petroleum jelly, olive oil and peanut butter. But her mother, due to professional deformation, could not help but worry. Perhaps that nightly incident was not a joke, but an unconscious attempt not to turn into a boy and then a male adult. “In one of the Men”, affirms the literary double of his mother, Jane Gordon, in The Topeka Institute (Random House Literature). Thus, with a capital letter between ironic and fearful, she names the stalkers who, since her psychology books became unexpected best-sellers written from a feminist perspective, call her every night to insult her and wish someone to rape her in a dark alley . Jane suspects that her son has been listening to these anonymous voices and that his psyche has been hurt by their nefarious influence.
The scene is mid-novel, but it is key to understanding the multiple aspirations of this novel of unusual complexity and ambition, with which Lerner was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2020. “I wanted to trace a political prehistory of the present and then create a correspondence with a more personal dimension. I found it in the 1990s, that decade when Bill Clinton and the liberalism of the baby boomers triumphed, the illusion of a post-racial society where white children listened to hip hop and music. end of story that Francis Fukuyama theorized ”, sums up Lerner from a garage converted into an office in his Brooklyn home, where he lives with his wife, an ethnographer specialized in Latino immigration, and his two daughters, Lucía and Marcela. “All those fantasies of the white elite, convinced that all our problems were over, collapsed and foreshadow the current situation,” says the author, who became known in 2011 with Leaving Atocha station, a self-fiction inspired by the year he spent in Madrid thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, wandering the rooms of the Prado, trying to write an epic poem about the Civil War, and struggling to understand the political storm that followed the 11-M attacks.
The Topeka Institute it is many things at once. Above all, it recounts the difficulties of Adam Gordon, Lerner’s alter ego in the book, in becoming an upright man in a more backward and misogynistic culture than he appears. Like Adam, the author was born 42 years ago in the Kansas City that gives the book its title, where his parents moved in the 1970s to finish their studies at a prestigious psychiatric foundation. But his book also reflects the tribulations of a family that tries to stay together when abuses and infidelities come to light, and that protohistory of the present to which Lerner alludes, which dissects with special attention the first symptoms of a male fury that will end up exploding years later with the invention of social media, the rise of the New Right and the crisis of the white man as a backdrop.
“The virus has shown that we no longer share the same reality with others. There are those who believe in the vaccine and who think that it is a Jewish conspiracy “
Barack Obama placed the novel on his favorite reading list of the year, and a few months ago, we saw Kamala Harris buying it at a Rhode Island bookstore. “Actually, my book talks about how Obama and Harris themselves are part of a sinking ship: that of political discourse, which has already lost all contact with reality,” Lerner responds, not particularly flattered. “All that talk is bankrupt. We are in a terrifying moment, in which we no longer share the same reality with others. The virus has only shown it: there are those who believe in the vaccine and who think that it is a Jewish conspiracy concocted by George Soros. The right takes advantage of this situation to lead us towards reactionary positions. How can we create a new common language that is capable of responding to that?
Due to his eloquence, it is clear, in a few minutes of conversation, that Lerner was the star of the debate team at his institute, as he recounted in this book written in the key of self-fiction, which also reviews his dabbling with freestyle rap and experimental poetry, and reviews the alleged bomb-proof optimism of the 1990s. In Lerner’s description, it was a much darker decade than the official version says. “The Columbine massacre symbolizes it very well,” says the author, who decided to transpose it into a subplot of his novel. “It was the best example of a new middle-class nihilism, a precursor to that white resentment that, over time, has become a political force.” The flagrant insecurity of its different male protagonists, in the face of the force that her mother’s literary voice gives off in fiction – which would deserve a book for herself – has a critical background. “The identity of the heterosexual white man, of the most privileged subject, is subject to the terror that others will discover that he is a weak being. That is why it is so dangerous: to show that it is not like that, it resorts to extreme behavior, sexual violence or that of weapons ”. Lerner also denounces the hypocrisy of the society in which he grew up, which was believed to be very open and progressive, but in which racism and homophobia were beating, and suggests that perhaps the situation has not changed so much. “We must be careful not to confuse the appropriation and commercialization of black or LGTBIQ culture with progress,” he warns.
His book is full of moments when language breaks down. It happens when Adam suffers an anxiety attack at a poetry recital after his girlfriend breaks up with him via email, when his mother recounts a childhood trauma, and when, in the last act of the book, the “ungrammatical tribalism” of a new president who boasts of grabbing women by the genitals and praises his own daughter’s curves. “I’m talking about moments when language sinks and identity dissolves, which are terrifying, but also hopeful, because that’s when all changes become possible. It is what we live today. It is very scary to see racists storming the Capitol and that nobody can stop them, but it also shows that political language and power itself can change. Has your novel lost its relevance now that Donald Trump is out of the game? “I don’t think I am. The air seems cleaner, because it has left the White House and also Twitter, but the Republican Party has not returned to a more centrist position, but the other way around. In a way, Trump scares me more now than before. We will have to react with a new movement and with another political language, because at this point it is a bit naive to continue having faith in the institutions ”. Happy New Year.
Ben Lerner. Translation by Carlos Milla Soler.
Random House Literature, 2021. 304 pages. 20.90 euros.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.