Ben Lerner – The Topeka School

 

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Ben Lerner – The Topeka School

Adam Gordon is about finishing highschool, the only thing left to do are the final competitions in debating where he is a master and expected to become national champion. His parents have never paid much attention to this, even though they are psychoanalysts, really paying attention to the other family members seems to be something they cannot master. They are too much occupied with themselves, Adam‘s mother Jane who suffers from the lack of professional recognition, or their patients, Adam‘s father Jonathan who works with aggressive teenagers.

I really adore Ben Lerner‘s style of writing, he is one of those contemporary storytellers I appreciate most, yet I struggle with bringing his latest novel to the point. It is narrated from three different points of views, his parents are talking in first person to the reader directly and Adam‘s story is narrated by a third person narrator. Between the chapters, the story of Darren, a teenager whi struggels mentally, is told. Even after having finished I am not sure what to make of this. Is this meant to underline the parents‘ egocentristic view which keeps them at a certain distance from their son? I do not know.

Somehow the novel is a bit ecelctic, many pondering-worth topics are addressed, like e.g. how to cope with micro-aggressions and anxieties, what you remember and what your brain makes of these memories, talking to an analyst vs. talking to a friend, typical coming-of-age problems, feminism is a huge topic for Jane since she blames the lack of professional recognition mainly to the fact that she is a woman (which might well be the case).

After all, maybe it is all about language and how dominance is expressed with words. For the male characters, they often babble without providing any serious content, but nevertheless, they dominate the discourse. Women like Jane are forced to rather retreat into themselves and talk to a fictitious reader or themselves, it is not for them to speak up in public. A lot of food for thought and this toxic masculinity which is addressed surely is one of the hottest topics in 2019.

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

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Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

Gretel does not grow up like other kids do. Her mother is different, they live on a boat, stop here and there and they even invent their own language. After the mother’s sudden disappearance, Gretel is left on her own devices and has to find a place in the world. The early fascination for words quite naturally makes her a lexicographer, a very lonesome job in which she updates dictionary entries. Even though she hadn’t been in contact with her mother for more than sixteen years, she hasn’t forgotten her and always feared that she might be the person behind a newspaper article about a fatal accident. When they are re-united, also the long lost memories of their former time together come back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel is nominated on the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist, itself already an honour, but even more so for an author at the age of only 28. It only takes a few pages into the novel to see why it easily could persuade the judges: it is wonderfully written, poetic and shows a masterly use of language:

 

“I’d always felt that our lives could have gone in multiple directions, that the choices you made forced them into turning out the way they did. But maybe there were no choices; maybe there were no other outcomes.”

Gretel’s has never been easily and having found her mother, seriously marked by her illness, doesn’t make it easier since she will never get answers but has to live with how her life turned out.

What I found most striking was how Daisy Johnson easily transgresses boundaries in her novel: being female or male – does it actually matter? If you call a person Marcus or Margot, it’s just the same, you immediately recognize the person behind the label. Sarah and Gretel live on the water and on land, they blend in nature and don’t see a line between man and animal or plants, it’s just all there. The language itself also doesn’t know any limits; if need be, create new words to express what you want to say. And there is this creature, a fantastic being that can also exist either in Sarah’s mind or in this novel where so much is possible.

Just like Gretel and her brother Hansel who were left in the woods but managed to find a way out, Gretel follows the crumbs to her mother, retraces the journey they did when she was young and with the help of the people she meets, tries to make sense of her own and especially her mother’s life.

The structure is demanding since it springs backwards and forwards which I found difficult to follow at times. But the language’s smoothness and virtuosity compensate for this exceedingly.

Elif Batuman – The Idiot

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Elif Batuman – The Idiot

1995, Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, has just finished high school and can leave New Jersey behind to study in Harvard. She is unsure of what to study, where to begin to understand the miracles of life and the world. It is literature and linguistics that capture her attention first. She studies Russian and tries to understand the mechanism of how language works. She makes friends with Svetlana, a Serbian classmate, and Ivan from Hungary with whom she sits in the Russian classes. She falls in love with the charismatic mathematician who quite often shows strange behaviour. But in writing each other emails, they find a way of expressing their feelings. Selin seizes the chance to go to Ivan’s native country in summer with a programme to teach English in remote villages. This is where she really gets an impression of the world, much more than all her courses in Harvard could ever teach her.

Elif Batuman’s protagonist Selin is a very attention-grabbing character. On the one hand, she is quite intelligent and intellectual, on the other, she is completely incompetent when it comes to dealing with people and analysing her feelings. This makes it difficult for her to understand the relationships she has. At the beginning, she needs the simplistic Russian-for-beginners story about a young woman falling in love to parallel her own feelings, later, when she leaves her English-speaking environment, the misunderstandings due to lack of language knowledge somehow work as a cover for her. She is absolutely ignorant about who is she and who she wants to be. Literature is her way of learning about people.

The novel’s title has been borrowed from Dostoyevsky, yet there are no clear parallels to be found by me. The only one might be in the protagonists’ character, both Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel and Selin are open-hearted and innocent-naïve when they enter into contact with the real world.  They are somehow unique and do not have an easy start in adult life. Selin is always afraid that she is not intellectual enough for Harvard, she wants to say meaningful things and starts questioning even single words. Thus, she spirals down to appoint where there is no meaning anymore. From the bottom, she has to create meaning for herself anew.

Apart from the two very noteworthy and fascinating characters of Selin and Ivan, what I appreciated most was the style of writing. Batuman plays with the content, the psychology and philosophy of language is paralleled in her writing, it sometimes breaks down to very plain sentences and then they are full of double meanings. The author is especially strong in finding metaphors and comparisons, in particular with nature which brings the theoretical cogitation back down to earth.

It is not a very typical coming-of-age novel, it is much more intellectual and demanding, but nevertheless I also found it entertaining.