Fatherhood, Caleb Klaces, Prototype, 160pp, 2019, £12.00 (paperback)
The Topeka School, Ben Lerner, Granta, 304pp, 2019, £16.99 (hardcover)
When my little brother was a baby he was extremely fond of a certain turquoise-coloured comfort blanket from Mothercare, which he christened Sha. Nobody knew why he called it that. Was it, perhaps, some obscure tribute to the Shah of Iran? This seemed unlikely: it was 1993 and the Shah, having been dead for fourteen years, was rarely if ever in the news. Some years later I read about Noam Chomsky’s famous thesis that the capacity for language is not something learnt but innate – pre-programmed in our genetic blueprint – and the mystery of Sha was solved: he’d called it that because he’d damn well felt like it.
The inexorability of language is a source of existential distress to the narrator of Caleb Klaces’s debut novella, who tells a friend he hopes to protect his baby daughter from words for as long as possible, because she ‘has the rest of her life to be mediated.’ The child has already started naming things: she ‘gave each new sight one of her small collection of sounds’; ‘All of her fluffy animals, regardless of species and gender, were Anne.’ His friend, who is altogether less neurotic, reassures him that language will ‘ease the pain of separation . . . When you leave the room, the kid has words to keep it company.’
Fatherhood begins with Klaces’s narrator, who is also named Caleb Klaces and is also a writer, inheriting some money following the death of a distant relative in Russia. He and his partner, who has recently given birth to their first child, use the windfall to buy a house in the Northern countryside, on a plot of land believed to have been the last resting place of Caleb’s great-grandfather. They are both copywriters by trade, and Caleb observes that parenthood will require them to repurpose their professional talents: when writing marketing copy, ‘The skill is to sound the opposite of how most parents want to sound: as though something is at stake, when nothing is at stake.’ The couple find themselves ‘easing from the puzzle-logic mind of copywriting into something looser, more in tune with the baby.’
Klaces published two poetry pamphlets and one collection, 2013’s Bottled Air, before making this first foray into prose. Though primarily a work of prose, Fatherhood dips into poetry at various points, exploring Caleb’s insecurities about having been forcibly fast-tracked to maturity – ‘The father / cried / into adulthood / by his child’:
To venture towards the inaccessible
I had a baby
and bought a car.
I didn’t know how to turn off the headlights
or be persuaded
cannot turn off.
Like many first-time parents, Caleb is somewhat unsure of himself. He cuts a jittery and unstable figure as he anxiously surveys other people interacting with their kids: ‘At the library I saw fathers perform one role or the other: intimate but brittle exuberance or benevolent but distant strength. I could see no future in either.’ Though he feels uncomfortable about bonding with other men – he finds ‘exclusively male’ companionship inherently awkward – Caleb does manage to befriend a local angler. This man tells him he has twenty-three pet hamsters, all of whom love him. He also strikes up a friendship with Terry, the Nigerian estate agent who sold them the house. Terry and his partner are unable to have children, and Caleb tells Terry about ‘how your body changes when you become a father. Everything’s much more tactile, you have to communicate without words and negotiate a completely new kind of intimacy.’
It transpires that the house was built on a floodplain. One day it is flooded, and many of the couple’s belongings are damaged; the manuscript for Caleb’s novel-in-progress is destroyed. He is, however, able to salvage ‘two notebooks. . . These were diaries written in broken lines. They were about fatherhood’; these will go on to form this novella. The flooding is no mere plot device: the spectre of climate change hangs over Fatherhood, with Caleb intermittently directing his gaze beyond the confines of his mall family unit, pondering local environmental pollution and bird migrations. The destruction of his manuscript is loaded with portentous symbolism: what will happen to our words – and our culture – when climate catastrophe strikes? We are invited to reflect that parenthood is in certain respects a collective enterprise: if our duty of care to the next generation entails more than feeding, clothing and schooling, and extends to keeping the planet habitable, then it goes without saying that we have, as a cohort, spectacularly failed. It will be down to them to fix the mess we have left behind. Caleb permits himself some tentative optimism, declaring that his daughter ‘will, I have no doubt, bring an end to war. She will break the carbon-military complex. She will save us.’
It might seem churlish to ask why Caleb hadn’t backed up his work, but his remissness is indicative. Contemporary internet slang, which revels in semi-ironic auto-infantilisation, has a neologism – ‘adulting’ – to denote the doing of grown-up things by overly self-conscious grown-ups who have trouble seeing themselves as grown-ups. In these pages, something as banal as driving a car can function as a stand-in for conventional, mature masculinity and the responsibilities that come with it; at one point Caleb’s bicycle gets a tyre puncture, leaving father and daughter stranded until a female passer-by fixes it for him. There is a fine line between the kind of radical, self-effacing candour that wins you over and the kind that curdles into overbearing neediness. Caleb’s tendency to wallow in his own helplessness is occasionally unattractive, but that doesn’t diminish its legitimacy as a rendering of human experience. Far from it: the sense of arrested development engendered by a lengthily protracted adolescence is a defining characteristic of twenty-first-century masculinity.
The new novel by Ben Lerner is similarly concerned with questions of language, parenthood and what it means to be a man. When the narrator of The Topeka School remarks in passing that ‘America is adolescence without end,’ this is not just a sociological observation: the phrasing suggests a deliberate nod to the English title of Tamaki Saitō’s 1998 book about the phenomenon of extreme reclusiveness among young Japanese men, Hikikomori: Adolescence without End. The allusion suggests an analogy between the recognised social pathology that is Hikikomori and the everyday chronic misery of American males in a country where the boneheaded machismo of the schoolyard bleeds heavily into adult life, in culture and politics alike. This condition has no name, because it is just the norm.
The Topeka School completes a trilogy by forming a prequel to Lerner’s two previous novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. As with those other two works, it is heavily autobiographical in its outline. The central character, Adam Gordon, is a precocious wordsmith, a champion debater turned poet from the ‘almost exotically boring’ city of Topeka, Kansas, just like Lerner; Adam’s mother, Jane, is – like Lerner’s mother, Harriet – a psychoanalyst who writes bestselling psychology books for a general readership. Set in the 1990s, the novel charts Adam’s upbringing through alternating perspectives. Several of the other characters, including Adam’s father, are psychoanalysts. Their relations are complicatedly entangled, resulting in passages like this:
it was one big overdetermined mess. Sima was in analysis with Klaus, who was like a second father to Dad, or maybe it was more that Dad was like a second son to Klaus; there was always some tension between Eric and us, even though we liked him, as we both thought he was overly aggressive with medication…
Adam is one of those conflicted souls who is simultaneously a precocious nerd and in with the cool kids. His mother, who has endured misogynistic harassment as a result of her work, laments the difficulty of raising a young man in a culture mired in chauvinism: ‘you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy, develop the right desires from within the wrong life.’ In their self-critical fretfulness and embattled idealism, the Gordons and their milieu are avatars for the conscience of liberal America, their parenting dilemmas bearing out the old second-wave feminist dictum that the personal is the political. The counterpoint to their cosmopolitan, Freud-quoting intellectualism is Darren, an inarticulate WASP loner who is befriended by Adam’s social circle in a spirit of ironic condescension lapsing into outright malice. Lacking the cultural capital required to gain a foothold in mainstream society, he eventually finds refuge in the only group that will have him: a posse of rabidly homophobic zealots who hold weekly anti-gay demonstrations.
Speaking at the London launch of The Topeka School, Lerner explained that he viewed the supposedly post-political 1990s – during which bien pensant opinion embraced what Francis Fukuyama had modestly declared to be the ‘end of history’ – as the ‘prehistory’ of Trump’s America. Adam briefly embodies the naïve complacency of Clinton-era orthodoxy when he expresses the hope that demographic change in the United States might spell ‘the end of the age of angry white men proclaiming the end of civilization’; the reader knows, with the benefit of hindsight, that it doesn’t quite pan out that way.
Lerner’s pointed depiction of the world of national-level competitive debating spotlights the way language has been co-opted by corporate interests, and public discourse debased, over the past two-and-a-half decades. The participants in these debates, many of whom will go on to become the political and industrial leaders of the future, hone their expertise in one of two rhetorical registers – soulless technocracy or populist platitude – that predominate public life in the U.S. Adam takes part in a debating contest sponsored by Phillips Petroleum, during which:
the supposedly disinterested policy wonks debate the intricacies of health care or financial regulation in a jargon designed to be inaccessible to the uninitiated while the more presidential speakers test out plainspoken value claims on civilians, a division underwritten by petrodollars.
The most memorable passage in this section is a description of a technique called ‘the spread’, whereby debaters deliberately grind down their opponents by aggressively inundating them with a multitude of half-baked arguments so numerous and varied that some will inevitably go unanswered; these will be deemed to have been ‘conceded’. This forms a powerful metaphor for the mentally enervating information-overload that began with rolling news and continues to burgeon in our own era of digital superabundance – a development that has had profound implications for the capacity of an engaged and informed citizenry to participate meaningfully in democratic politics.
Even before the twenty-four hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives; meanwhile their politicians went on speaking slowly, slowly, about values utterly disconnected from their policies.
The intellectual preoccupations at the heart of this complex, multi-layered novel – the perniciousness of masculinist ideology; the cultural chasm between heartland conservatism and bicoastal liberalism; the spiritual destitution of ‘white’ America – speak urgently to the state of chronic socio-political crisis in which the United States is presently mired. As such The Topeka School is, from a thematic point of view, arguably the most important work of fiction to be published in the English-speaking world this year. But its essayistic seriousness comes at a price, because the prose is something of a grind. Readers of Lerner’s previous novels will know that he does a good line in stylised anxiousness: his narrative voice is a halting thing, relentlessly anatomising, unpacking and theorising in an approximation of real-time cogitation. In Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, the inherent preciousness of this mode of writing was offset with a good dose of wry humour, which is largely absent in The Topeka School. Without it, certain aspects of Lerner’s style can become grating.
One of his go-to embellishments is to clump together a triptych of clauses marked out by semi-colons. Here are two typical examples:
He always wore khaki Dockers and a yellow, grey, or brown Polo; his face remained boyish, smooth, but the intermittent double chin foretokened middle age; the standard haircut, too, could be read as either juvenile or professional, although his dark red hair had started to thin on top.
We were circling JFK, waiting for permission to land; the congestion was due to weather; we were at the tail end of a storm, suspended in turbulent air.
In both extracts it is hard to justify the use of two semi-colons; the passage would read much better with just the one. The author is entitled to punctuate his sentences as he pleases, but this particular affectation is deployed with such excessive regularity that one is moved to consider what purpose it is meant to serve. Presumably the intention is to generate a sense of flow and rhythm, imbuing the prose with a sense of lulling liquidity; in practice, the effect is of being entranced, not altogether successfully, by a hammy stage hypnotist.
Lerner’s use of language is sometimes a little overwrought, with a preponderance of postgrad humanities argot lending the prose a somewhat turgid texture: a ‘lived experience’ here, a ‘racialized or otherwise othered body’ there; Adam, feeling uneasy at confronting another young man whilst in the company of his mother, perceives her presence as ‘a structural embarrassment.’ Moreover, he has a slight tendency to over-explicate. Looking back on an early childhood incident in which Adam had contrived to thoroughly wrap his genitalia in chewing gum – the symbolism is so loaded it hardly warrants pointing out – Jane reflects that she ‘couldn’t help but wonder if it was a kind of simulated castration thing, an attempt not to be a boy, a man, one of the Men.’ No shit. Reading the aforementioned account of a debating contest, the average intelligent reader will note certain parallels between the debating culture – with its polarisation of registers between rarefied technical jargon and emotive plainspokenness – and the larger culture; but just in case you missed it, Lerner’s narrator is on hand to observe that ‘The parallel with the larger culture was imperfect, but undeniable.’
Of course, this nth-degree self-awareness – whereby the narrator shows the author’s workings in the process of telling the story – is not a failure of artistry but an intentional affect, integral to Lerner’s signature style. All the same, there is something unsatisfying about a book that explains its own cleverness so officiously – it’s rather like attending a production of Macbeth only to find Macduff reading aloud from the York Notes. If you can stand to be mildly irked in this way over the course of some 280 pages, your patience will be rewarded.
Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31. He reviews for The Guardian, Financial Times, The Irish Times, the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, The New Statesman and Literary Review. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017).
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