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The Topeka School Summary & Study Guide

Ben Lerner
This Study Guide consists of approximately 38 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Topeka School.
This section contains 639 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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The Topeka School Summary & Study Guide Description

The Topeka School Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on The Topeka School by Ben Lerner.

The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: Lerner, Ben. The Topeka School. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

The novel’s prologue opens in a police station in Topeka, Kansas in the 1990s. A teenager named Darren was in police custody after assaulting someone with a billiard ball. The first chapter opens at Clinton Lake near Topeka, about a year earlier. High school student Adam was on a boat with his girlfriend, Amber. Adam began talking at length and lost focus on Amber, so Amber stealthily swam away. Adam went to find Amber, and she compared the incident to a time when she snuck out of the room while her self-absorbed stepfather was talking at length. The next day, Adam attended a debate competition at a high school in a neighboring town. Adam was a talented debater and did well in the competition. The narration notes that contestants often used conceptually shallow strategies to score points via technicalities.

The narration then gives background information on Adam’s parents: Jane and Jonathan. They were both born and raised in New York City. However, after they married, they moved to Topeka to work for an academic institution referred to only as the Foundation. Jane and Jonathan are both psychotherapists and psychological researchers. Jonathan focused his research on the possible uses of film and video in psychotherapy. Meanwhile, Jane focused her research on societal misogyny, as she experienced much misogyny from her male colleagues. Jane published her work in book form, and the book became highly popular and renowned. Many women praised the book for improving their lives, and many men vilified Jane.

The novel occasionally shifts focus to Darren, giving background on his youth. Darren was mentally handicapped, so he dropped out of school and began working low-paying jobs. His parents did not create a stable household environment for him, and he was often bullied by the young men whom he thought were his friends. The narrative then shifts focus to Jane. Her closest friend and confidant was a colleague named Sima. However, Sima began to emotionally withdraw from Jane after Jane’s book became popular. Unbeknownst to Jane, Sima and Jonathan eventually began to have an affair with each other.

The narrative gives background information about Jonathan’s youth. When he was a teenager, he and his family temporarily lived in Taipei; Jonathan’s father was a diplomat and had been stationed there. During Jonathan’s time there, he witnessed some of his male classmates committing crimes against locals with impunity. Jonathan lost his virginity to a sex worker during his family’s residence in Taipei. The narrative then shifts focus back to Adam. In his senior year of high school, he participated in high-level debate competitions. He was successful overall, but his training continued to emphasize technical strategies and manipulation over soundness and sincerity of argument.

One day, Darren’s supposed friends abandoned him miles from Topeka. Adam was among the group, and although he did not instigate the cruel prank, he also did not stop it. Darren was lost and alone for hours. Andre says or weeks later, Darren attended a party. Some of the people there pranked Darren into flirting with a young woman. Darren did so and was rebuffed. He then impulsively threw a billiard ball at the woman, badly injuring her. Darren was subsequently arrested by the police.

The novel’s final chapter takes place in the present day. Adam is now an adult living in New York City. He is a professional writer, a husband, and the father of two young girls. He does his best to stand up for progressive moral ideals. In the final scene, Adam and his daughters attempt a protest against the Trump administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

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This section contains 639 words
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