- Homo Trumpiens:Ben Lerner's The Topeka School
It's tempting when considering the last thirty years of American fiction to adopt the speculative framework proposed by David Foster Wallace in his 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" and extend it to the present. The dominant mode among the young writers of his generation—Bret Easton Ellis, Mark Leyner, and A. M. Homes, among others: what some were then calling "post-postmodernism"—was in his view flat, numb, cynical, saturated in pop imagery, an analog to the "tele-visual attitude," a form of rebellion against structures of authority whose meanings it had tired of even bothering to examine. The style was a sign of exhaustion, fiction devolved to mere stand-up comedy in prose. Wallace predicted the next rebels would be "anti-rebels" who endorsed "single-entendre values" instead of irony, self-consciousness, and fatigue. They would treat "old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction." They would be sincere. [End Page 779]
The sincere turn did arrive, though not exactly as Wallace predicted. It didn't do away with cynicism so much as set it up as an ogre to be defeated, as in the dystopian rescue narratives of George Saunders's stories. It didn't do away with pop imagery so much as valorize it, as in the superhero bildungsromans of Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. And it didn't conjure new sources of reverence so much as locate them in the tragedies of the past and then sentimentalize them, as in the third-generation Holocaust narratives of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss (and again Chabon). If authority was still suspect under George W. Bush, at least the end of history was over, and a sense of American innocence had been regained after 9/11, the attacks that launched a thousand novels.
But if sincerity had to be buttressed by surrealism, superheroes, ahistorical improvisations, and artificial innocence, how sincere was it really? Soon enough there was Obama, who represented a restoration of the sort of authority American writers could revere, perhaps even identify with. There followed a turn to the authentic. Various strategies emerged among novelists, but none has drawn the critical heat directed at autofiction—a term that originated in French in the 1970s and in English has been applied largely to what the Germans call Künstlerromans, "artist's novels" that dramatize the author's formation and inscribe the creation of the novel on the book itself. Writers like Sheila Heti (a Canadian), Tao Lin, Jenny Offill, Teju Cole, and Elif Batuman have drawn on energies that had veered into the memoir, taken recourse to the diaristic and the essayistic, and deployed alter egos easily blurred with their authors. None of these strategies are exactly new, but they represent a departure from the dominant strain of realism, if not a drastic one.
The novels of Ben Lerner are worth scrutinizing with Wallace's predictions in mind. He is less an anti-rebel or anti-anti-rebel than a writer who has arrived at a truce between irony and sincerity by decoupling self-consciousness from cynicism. It's no accident that [End Page 780] postwar American fiction and television don't loom as the determining influences on his novels, as they did for Wallace and his cohort in a way that seemed inescapable at the time. Lerner's lodestars are the poetry of Walt Whitman and John Ashbery, visual art, and the classic European novel. His trilogy of autofictions—Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), 10:04 (2014), and his new book The Topeka School—examine the writer's progress: from anxieties of fraudulence, to the compromises of mastery, and now the retrospective project of locating the genesis of the writer's calling. The governing concept of The Topeka School is the "man-child," and you could call the three books Lerner's Man-Child Trilogy. In an essay on Karl Ove Knausgaard, Lerner applied Baudelaire's definition of the man-child to the Norwegian: "a man possessing at every moment the genius of childhood, in other words a genius for whom no edge...