The Atlantic

Boy, Uninterrupted

Ben Lerner, portraitist of talkative men, explores the roots of white male rage.
Source: Alexei Vella

The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s third novel, begins with a self-aware joke. Adam Gordon, Lerner’s protagonist—who also narrates Lerner’s acclaimed first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station—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.

Men talking—specifically young white male poets from Kansas talking—have been a fixture of Lerner’s novels. Lerner, a white male poet from Kansas, even gave the name Ben to the narrator of his second novel, , in addition to endowing him with roughly his own biography. Both earlier books feature the interior monologues and exterior dealings of Lerner-types. Both are also ironic, formally experimental, skeptical of their narrators while deeply enmeshed in their particular way of seeing the world. And both books are beautifully, exasperatingly, transcendently wordy. In , an extremely stoned Adam—again monologuing—marvels, before passing out, at “language becoming the experience it described.” In , Ben is the kind of guy who admits that he cried on a park bench

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