“Union Station”, “The Topeka School” and “The Grammarians”

November 24th, 2019  |  Published in November 2019

I’m learning that when “The New York Times Book Review” tells its readers that new books are experimental, or are breaking new boundaries in the structures of the work, or that the writers are breaking new ground in either short fiction (Zadie Smith’s new stories in “Union Station” or the novel itself (Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School”), to beware. I’m concluding that the “Times” reviewers use such tropes rather than to actually review the work critically, so that alleged experimental work is praised just for presumably being such, in and of itself.

Briefly, Zadie Smith’s new stories in “Union Station” are a hybrid combination of short fiction and the essay form, and they succeed at neither.  Mostly, the stories are what we’ve come to expect: rants on the lives of women of color (in this case, a rather privileged one in a London university), getting into the issues of the day concerning race, gender, class and power. Smith adds nothing either new or of particular interest in these alleged stories, and the story parts of the stories are weak, incomplete, dull, solopsistic and narcissistic.  Smith is usually a very compelling and exciting writer, but she should probably stick to either fiction or essays and not combine the two, as she has attempted to in these stories. They read as lazy, sloppy, inconclusive. She has done much better with either fiction or essays and we hope she returns to fiction or nonfiction, where she’s usually absolutely tops.

Ben Lerner’s much overpraised new novel “The Topeka School” is often deadly dull.  Lerner, who clearly loves words, language itself, offers us a family in Topeka, Kansas; both parents are psychiatrists in an America still addled by psychoanalysis, and their brilliant son, the narrator, seems to be trying to work out his masculinity issues in high school debating: Lerner’s quite interesting in describing this highly competitive world, wherein high school students are competing to win in two types of debating. We’re also privy to the narrator’s sets of friends from high school, spoiled, coddled, privileged;  chapters alternate with the presumed thoughts of a special needs young man that the group of “in” people at this high school pretend to befriend, but continually bully throughout the novel. The writing itself in those brief chapters where we sense the conflicted thoughts of this very sad boy is very beautiful. But it’s extremely difficult to have much affection or interest in the narrator himself, and his parents and their psychiatrist friends just stop short of being spoofs (intended or not is unclear).  The parents, of course (the mother’s interesting and empathetic), see their son only through the lens of psychoanalysis, and it’s rather fun to read these parts, although psychiatry has done an awful lot of damage to an awfully large group of people since its arrival in America (which Freud himself didn’t want to be part of the medical profession here).  If only Ben Lerner had shortened this overly long novel, or had a good editor to do so, the reader might have been drawn in more, but the novel goes on and on and it’s often very boring and it would be easy to just put it down. If “masculinity” is definable through how a young man uses lanaguage/words rather than through physical prowess, which was true at the time when the novel’s set, then surely this group of entitled friends wouldn’t have taken such pleasure in bullying the special needs boy: that part of the novel is, frankly, disgusting, and any compassion the reader might possibly have for the narrator is ruined by his/his friends’ constant and cruel attacks on this other child.  By the end of the book–and it was a struggle to get there–I didn’t care about most anyone in the book.

Another novel that deals totally successfully with the very idea of language it “The Grammarians”, by Cathleen Schine. Two female twins—identical—are born into an upper middle class suburban Westchester County family, and these girls have developed a special language between themselves even as babies; they are, in childhood and adolescence, inseparable, and are utterly fascinated with their (very sympathetic) father brings them home a huge dictionary; words become their toys, their playthings, thus interacting with their own invented language.  The small family unit, which includes the father’s psychiatrist brother (who is heavily spoofed throughout the novel), his wife and their bratty son Brian, is wonderfully rendered by Schine.

By the time the girls become women, they both find fascinating husbands (who become best friends with their own languages of friendship—and an understanding of how dominant the twinship is between their wives.  Both sisters will become writers, both of their published writings are about language; one writes  a column about the ongoing debasement of language, of grammar, of words, the other writing about what we’ll call the American vernacular, which she discovers by reading letters written during World War I, letters from the heart with their own internal poetry.  These different approaches to language cause decades of a rift between the women, who, of course, continue to circle around one another and remain highly competitive. That Schine defines these two fascinating women via their use of  and choices of the very purposes of language is a nearly unique trope in contemporary literature, and succeeds on every level, where “The Topeka School” flails around and around on itself.

“The Grammarians” is by turns funny, intense, fascinating, brilliantly structured, and always engaging.  Schine’s hit a home run with this very fine novel about words.

–Daniel Brown

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