Towards the end of Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School, there is a scene of restrained but disturbing violence. By this stage, Adam Gordon – whose voice is one of three that Lerner uses to slowly circle around the moral core of the novel – has two daughters of his own, Luna and Amiya. He takes them to a local park where a boy aged seven or eight is being obnoxious and won’t let the girls have their turn on the equipment. The boy’s father sits on a bench to one side, disengaged.
When Adam confronts the man and asks him to help resolve the conflict, the man is also obnoxious. Everything in Adam’s mind tells him to walk away, to make excuses for the “bad father”, to avoid escalation. But he doesn’t. The scene ends with Adam knocking the father’s phone out of his hand.
The context of this scene, which the reader will enjoy working to piece together, makes it potent. In a few pages, Lerner shows ripples of male rage eddying in a playground. A boy scares girls as Adam watches his daughters beginning “to internalise whatever life lesson”. A father bullies another father with increasingly aggressive complacence. That other father, Adam, strikes out in frustration.
Adam, happens to be a man of words. All his life, they have been his weapon of choice. He has been a champion public speaker and debater, activities that the book elaborates in exhaustive detail almost as if they are contact sports. Now the articulate father lashes out at a stranger’s phone.