The Topeka School
From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century: a tale of adolescence, transgression, and the conditions that have given rise to the trolls and tyrants of the new right.Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of 1997. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting "lost boys" to open up. They both work at the Foundation, a well-known psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater and orator, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is an aspiring poet. He is--although it requires a great deal of posturing, weight lifting, and creatine supplements--one of the cool kids, passing himself off as a "real man," ready to fight or (better) freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who brings the loner Darren Eberheart--who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father's patient--into the social scene, with disastrous effects.Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, Ben Lerner's The Topeka School is the story of a family's struggles and strengths: Jane's reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan's marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the new right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.

The Topeka School Details

TitleThe Topeka School
Author
ReleaseOct 1st, 2019
PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN-139780374277789
Rating
GenreFiction, Novels, Contemporary, Literary Fiction, Literature, American, The United States Of America, Audiobook, Family, Adult Fiction

The Topeka School Review

  • Adam Dalva
    January 1, 1970
    A fascinating departure for Lerner, but also a homecoming, as this novel's increasingly fractured language embraces poetics in a way LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION and 10:04 skirted. There is a sedate pace here that reminds me of Saul Bellow or John Cheever, with the massive ambition of re-capturing America of the 90's as a way to explain America now. Adam, the protagonist of L.T.A.S., returns, predominantly in high school, with his parents' monologues and Faulkner-lite vignettes from the A fascinating departure for Lerner, but also a homecoming, as this novel's increasingly fractured language embraces poetics in a way LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION and 10:04 skirted. There is a sedate pace here that reminds me of Saul Bellow or John Cheever, with the massive ambition of re-capturing America of the 90's as a way to explain America now. Adam, the protagonist of L.T.A.S., returns, predominantly in high school, with his parents' monologues and Faulkner-lite vignettes from the perspective of a mentally impaired classmate accompanying him. The book seems harder than it is - all comes together fairly neatly, the call-backs and set-ups become more apparent, and there are few of the non-sequiturs that peppered Lerner's earlier work. I think, most of all, of the movie WHITE RIBBON, by Haneke. That marvelous film is set in a German town during World War I, and tells the distressing stories of the children of that village. But the subtext, never stated, is the key: those children will become Nazis. Here, in the Kansas of the Westboro Baptist Church, in a time in the 90s where (in every frame of the book) rapidity overtakes reason in argument, where violence lurks everywhere, Lerner wants, transparently, to seed the roots of 2019. Toxic masculinity - a term used several times in the novel - and mansplaining, and fear begetting violence. It is, despite it's temporal setting, a novel of right now. One to look forward to, and then come back too.
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  • Meike
    January 1, 1970
    This book is like a skeleton clock: There are a lot of different elements, some of them only added or painted for show, coming together to form one mechanical piece – and while the first look suggests a complicated interplay of intricate parts, it’s ultimately just wheels and springs doing their thing, and the oscillation of the balance wheel remains minimal. Ben Lerner bombards his readers with topics and jumping timelines, but ultimately, the density of the writing does not cover up the fact This book is like a skeleton clock: There are a lot of different elements, some of them only added or painted for show, coming together to form one mechanical piece – and while the first look suggests a complicated interplay of intricate parts, it’s ultimately just wheels and springs doing their thing, and the oscillation of the balance wheel remains minimal. Ben Lerner bombards his readers with topics and jumping timelines, but ultimately, the density of the writing does not cover up the fact that this story is lacking depth and elegance. The main storyline focuses on Adam who is a debate champion at Topeka High School in the 90’s – just like the author once was. Adam’s parents work as psychologists, his mother is a renowned feminist and author – again, dito for Lerner, and that’s not all: The story is written down in 2019 by the now grown-up Adam, just like Lerner wrote this book. When it comes to mirror images and contrasts, it will be hard to outdo this book, because that’s basically what the whole construction relies upon. From this main narrative thread, Lerner ventures into the lives of Adam’s parents, his grandparents (to a lesser degree) and the married Adam, constantly changing perspectives and giving the whole text the appearance of being a montage of interviews. This impression is partly disturbed by the insertion of the life story of Darren, a kid with a developmental disorder who went to school with Adam. Treated cruelly by his peers, Darren’s rage drives him to commit a heinous act for which Adam feels partly responsible.Which leads us to the first major topic of the book: Toxic masculinity. Adam is struggling with migraines: “The pressures of passing himself off as a real man, of staying true to type – the constant weight lifting, the verbal combat – would eventually reduce him to a child again, calling out for his mother from his bed.” In his professional life, Adam’s dad is an expert for troubled boys, while he himself has issues with marital faithfulness; at the same time, his successful mother, “the Brain”, is confronted with sexist stereotypes, constantly stated by “the Men”. And then there’s Klaus, a holocaust survivor who, also a psychologist, is suffering from severe trauma (and might be gay). And then there’s Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Church, located in Topeka. And then there’s Adam’s friend Jason, and a father who abuses his daughter, and Donald Trump. This is a lot, and this is just one of the topics.Lerner also connects questions of politics, technology, media and language (“if he had the language he wouldn’t express himself with symptoms”) throughout the narrated time. Often, he does this by employing the aforementioned mirror images: For instance, there is a rosewood table and a rose painting, a kid with a head injury and a mother looking “concussed”, and there are even sequences repeated verbatim “mother, mom, mommy”, “the curve where her shoulder met her breast”, etc. Plus there are lots and lots of tornadoes and thunderstorms, fittingly sweeping up everything in a destructive whirl; Darren even thinks he managed to create a tornado with supernatural powers, thus wreaking havoc. And if you now think “enough already”, I’m sorry to break this to you, but there is yet another layer to this: Various strands in the book are playing with Hermann Hesse’s short story “Ein Mensch mit Namen Ziegler”. Ziegler is an average guy with a firm believe in the power of science and money, until he takes a mysterious pill; fast forward: He ends up in an institution (read the story and watch out for the pills / the institution that feature in Lerner’s text!). So much for the German short story, and I am aware that lately, it has been chic to incorporate German words into books, but kids “who had no volk beyond their common privilege” simply makes no sense. I see what you mean, Ben Lerner, but really: This is gibberish. Also, I had to look up “Kohlwurst”, because I’ve never heard of it (it’s apparently a real, but rather obscure thing), and God only knows why Lerner writes “Schirmmütze” instead of “cap”. So in a way, this whole novel reads like a debate (unsurprisingly, there are many debates depicted in the text) or one of the frequently mentioned Thematic Apperception Tests: “America was one vast institution; it had no outside.” This is a message that comes across, and there are some smart ideas and strong passages in this text, especially when Lerner talks about the relationships between the characters, but all in all, it’s overwritten. Less could have been more.
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  • Ron Charles
    January 1, 1970
    Ben Lerner’s new book, “The Topeka School,” is an extraordinarily brilliant novel that’s also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era. If you’ve been nervously hopping along the shore of Lerner’s work, now’s the time to dive in. As in his previous novels, this story is semi-autobiographical and the structure is complex, but “The Topeka School” is no Escher sketch of literary theory. Its complexity is beautifully subsumed in a compelling plot about two Ben Lerner’s new book, “The Topeka School,” is an extraordinarily brilliant novel that’s also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era. If you’ve been nervously hopping along the shore of Lerner’s work, now’s the time to dive in. As in his previous novels, this story is semi-autobiographical and the structure is complex, but “The Topeka School” is no Escher sketch of literary theory. Its complexity is beautifully subsumed in a compelling plot about two psychotherapists and their son. As Lerner revolves through these wholly realized characters, we come to know exactly who they are. And as we turn these pages with growing excitement, we know exactly where we are: here, in the middle of a rage-filled country tearing itself apart.The story takes place in the 1990s in Topeka, Kan., where a high school senior named Adam Gordon is a star on the debate team (as was Lerner). Early in the novel, we follow Adam on a Saturday morning to a tournament in an eerily empty high school. By any standard, this is a contest of no consequence in a remote place involving sweaty kids in ill-fitting clothes spouting off about. . . . To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:https://www.washingtonpost.com/entert...
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  • Chelsea Humphrey
    January 1, 1970
    This is one of those books where the story is fabulous, but the execution and writing style aren't my cup of tea. I appreciate what the author is doing here, but the text is packed solid to the point that there is very little dialogue, and this paired with continuous thoughts that felt like mental run-on sentences, was a struggle. Again, I may not be high brow enough or as much of a literary fiction connoisseur as the reader who this novel is intended for, so I would definitely recommend with This is one of those books where the story is fabulous, but the execution and writing style aren't my cup of tea. I appreciate what the author is doing here, but the text is packed solid to the point that there is very little dialogue, and this paired with continuous thoughts that felt like mental run-on sentences, was a struggle. Again, I may not be high brow enough or as much of a literary fiction connoisseur as the reader who this novel is intended for, so I would definitely recommend with caution. *Many thanks to the publisher for providing my review copy via NetGalley.
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  • Angela M
    January 1, 1970
    Sometimes a book just doesn’t work for me and this is one of them. There was such an introspective feel right from the beginning and I usually enjoy that in a novel, but at 40% I’m giving up. I put it down several times and each time I wasn’t all that interested in finding out more about these dysfunctional and complex characters. Just not for me. I’m not rating it since I didn’t finish and I recommend you read the reviews of those who did. Too many books and so little time as they say, so I’m Sometimes a book just doesn’t work for me and this is one of them. There was such an introspective feel right from the beginning and I usually enjoy that in a novel, but at 40% I’m giving up. I put it down several times and each time I wasn’t all that interested in finding out more about these dysfunctional and complex characters. Just not for me. I’m not rating it since I didn’t finish and I recommend you read the reviews of those who did. Too many books and so little time as they say, so I’m moving on.I received an advanced copy of this book from Farrar, Straus & Giroux through Edelweiss.
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  • LostKnight
    January 1, 1970
    Dear Readers,This is a very cerebral book. It is very well written. The characters are three-dimensional. Very real. Very well and clearly written here.I hit a home run, and won this one in a goodreads.com giveaway. Shortly after having won it, I discovered a lovely writeup on NPR for this one.A most amazing feature of this book is the depth. This is a very deep book. This is an intellectual and very cerebral read.I thank the author for having written and published this book.
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  • Blair
    January 1, 1970
    Occasionally I read a book at a funny time in my life – when there's a lot going on and I don't have as much mental RAM available as usual – and I don't feel equipped to review it properly. That's definitely the case with The Topeka School, a wonderfully dense and intelligent novel exploring the youth of Adam Gordon and a group of characters surrounding him. (Adam is also the protagonist of Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and, in turn, also a stand-in for the author.) I'm not sure that I Occasionally I read a book at a funny time in my life – when there's a lot going on and I don't have as much mental RAM available as usual – and I don't feel equipped to review it properly. That's definitely the case with The Topeka School, a wonderfully dense and intelligent novel exploring the youth of Adam Gordon and a group of characters surrounding him. (Adam is also the protagonist of Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and, in turn, also a stand-in for the author.) I'm not sure that I liked this book as much as I did 10:04 – it had less emotional resonance for me personally, and initially I found it less accessible, which I wasn't expecting – but it feels like a bigger achievement. Strangely both narrower and more expansive, hyper-focused on the Topeka milieu to the point that I kept having to google names to see if they were real people, but also reflecting and remixing its story through different viewpoints so that it becomes a kind of narrative kaleidoscope that seems to spin and glimmer on forever. Words and phrases and phenomena recur – glossolalia, phosphenes, 'America is adolescence without end'. It's noticeably poetic, rhythmic, without moving into the potentially mawkish style often associated with the term 'lyrical'.One of the most ambitious and formally imaginative novels I've read this year, rivalled only by Gina Apostol's Insurrecto.I received an advance review copy of The Topeka School from the publisher through NetGalley.TinyLetter | Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr
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  • Jonathan
    January 1, 1970
    The Topeka school by Ben Lerner is a modern day masterpiece, it’s an engaging important read. This book was not easy, and a lot of people will hate it ( fair warning) however, Lerner blends language in an artistic and intellectual way that challenged me as a reader and a thinker. This novel paints a portrait of the end of the twentieth century as seen from our disastrous present. It’s a timeless tale of everything that is wrong with this country today told in the past and how we seem to have The Topeka school by Ben Lerner is a modern day masterpiece, it’s an engaging important read. This book was not easy, and a lot of people will hate it ( fair warning) however, Lerner blends language in an artistic and intellectual way that challenged me as a reader and a thinker. This novel paints a portrait of the end of the twentieth century as seen from our disastrous present. It’s a timeless tale of everything that is wrong with this country today told in the past and how we seem to have gotten here. .The Topeka school follows Adam, a high school senior in 97’ who is the top of his class on the debate team and expected to win a national championship in the art, his mother Jane who is a famous feminist author who constantly experiences backlash from men harassing and calling her to tell her she is ruining their lives giving women so much thought and power, His father Jonathan who is a psychiatrist known for helping “lost boys” open up, who battles with his own infidelity and shortcomings as a father and husband, and finally the book weaves inbetween the story of Darren Eberheart, an outcast whose act of violence hovers above the entire book. A patient of Jonathan’s and a “friend” of Adams group, or more so the butt of all the jokes, a boy with a learning disability which enables him to be normal. Lerner touches mainly on toxic masculinity and the ultimate effects it has had on the political climate of today. There is hidden abuse from a father to a daughter, infidelity, and racial appropriation. .Reminiscent of David Foster Wallace and infinite jest minus the tennis and 700 pages, and adding a better story line, the writing is stunning, it shows a families struggle in middle America, a struggle that still seems to be raging today. I could go on for days about this book but I’d never run out of things to say. Again it’s a difficult read and The dense layers and writing will be hard to get through but when the bigger picture is imagined you can’t believe such a book has been written. Lerner’s magnum opus, his gift to the literary world, chalked full of praise from Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, and Ocean Vuong...
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  • Alyssia Cooke
    January 1, 1970
    Whilst there are some good moments in this, they are vastly outweighed by the sheer confusing tangle of webs and people and ideas all strung together with high brow language that makes the book a real drudge to try to plough through. The constant flipping of characters and between the past and the present is confusing, particularly when the language makes it so difficult to easily grasp what is going on. There were multiple moments where I found myself going back pages to try to figure out who, Whilst there are some good moments in this, they are vastly outweighed by the sheer confusing tangle of webs and people and ideas all strung together with high brow language that makes the book a real drudge to try to plough through. The constant flipping of characters and between the past and the present is confusing, particularly when the language makes it so difficult to easily grasp what is going on. There were multiple moments where I found myself going back pages to try to figure out who, what or where we were, which simply shouldn't happen if a book is well written.In honesty, this comes across as the author trying so hard to be clever, to be literary that he ends up losing sight of the things that actually make a good novel like a strong narrative voice, characters you can empathise with and writing you are drawn in by. The narrative voice here is all over the place as Lerner tries to do so many things with so many characters that it is just a mess of half formed ideas. You have Adam's story as he grows up, a champion debater trying to fit in as one of the lads. Then you have his parents stories - a psychologist and a famous feminist author - and, to a lesser degree, his grandparents. You have a whole load of psychology and psychoanalysis scattered through the book, along with a retelling and constant references Hesse's short story, A Man By the Name of Ziegler, which is used constantly to highlight characters actions throughout the book.On top of this you have a variety of themes scattered through the novel; politics and Trump and protesters, the psychology of debating and it's inclusion in the real world, toxic masculinity, the #metoo movement, the abuse of strong female figures and use of psychology to shut them up. Homosexuality gets a look in, as does adultery and the aspects of sexuality in growing up and in a completely different line, you get the story of Darren, a youngster with a significant development disorder, how he is treated by his peers and how it results in violence. On top of this, the time lines are all over the place, often shifting without any warning and you have to figure out what the hell is going on... which due to the writing style can sometimes take pages at a time. There is far too much going on here and due to the mass of ideas vomited across the pages, most aspects feel rushed and unfinished. Of the aspects that do get delved into deeply, you end up with a huge amount of psycho-babble and naval gazing, which feels self-indulgent rather than actually bringing anything useful to the plot.Bringing the focus back to the writing style and use of language, some aspects are highly poetic, but as a whole the entire novel is hugely over-written. There is a lot of repetition, obviously deliberate, as Lerner tries to bring aspects to the fore or link them to something that has previously occurred; the use of Ziegler is a key example of this. More than that though, the writing is so dense that it is a struggle to get through. There's huge swathes of description, psychology and introspection, which would slow the pace down anyway, and because the writing is so heavy and dense it amplifies this effect ten fold. When put together with the style involving so much flipping between present and past, it means the novel never seems to be going anywhere and the characters are floating in a sea of excessive vocabulary and complex sentences.All in all, this really wasn't for me. I got to the end because having been given an ARC copy, it only seemed fair. If I'd have bought it, I very much doubt I'd have got past about 20%. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.
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  • Brad
    January 1, 1970
    Being from Topeka, just slightly older than Ben Lerner, and going to Topeka West instead of Topeka High, this book feels like history and mythology blended together. I only know Ben and his family by reputation and shared acquaintances. How much of this narrative is his thinly veiled family? How much is fabricated? I don't know and it doesn't much matter. This book, for me, weirdly distills the same world I inhabited in the 1990s, yet saw from a completely different perspective. I knew no one at Being from Topeka, just slightly older than Ben Lerner, and going to Topeka West instead of Topeka High, this book feels like history and mythology blended together. I only know Ben and his family by reputation and shared acquaintances. How much of this narrative is his thinly veiled family? How much is fabricated? I don't know and it doesn't much matter. This book, for me, weirdly distills the same world I inhabited in the 1990s, yet saw from a completely different perspective. I knew no one at the "Foundation." Never debated or participated in forensics. But this is a tale I've heard spun all my life, stories of the debate and forensics badasses who went to Topeka High. People I knew of and felt inferior to as a competitive high school kid. To read this story of this place as a nationally published novel is surreal. I thank Ben Lerner for his skill at capturing the world of a thoughtful, brilliant kid growing up in Topeka. Highly recommended.
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  • Alex
    January 1, 1970
    Understanding the current political and cultural polarization is at the heart of much fiction today, although doing so in a sophisticated and subtle way is not often easy. In the world filled with self parodies like Trump how does one answer of how we got here without a heavy hand?In many ways, Ben Lerner has managed to do that in his acclaimed third novel, THE TOPEKA SCHOOL. Taking place mostly in the mid 1990s, in the middle of the Clinton years but also in the heart of red America Kansas, Understanding the current political and cultural polarization is at the heart of much fiction today, although doing so in a sophisticated and subtle way is not often easy. In the world filled with self parodies like Trump how does one answer of how we got here without a heavy hand?In many ways, Ben Lerner has managed to do that in his acclaimed third novel, THE TOPEKA SCHOOL. Taking place mostly in the mid 1990s, in the middle of the Clinton years but also in the heart of red America Kansas, surrounded by plotting libertarians or fanatic followers of Fred Phelps, Lerner reflects back onto his own experiences as a champion debater. He recounts his partly fictionalized past, an adolescence filled with conflicting feelings and ideas that would germinate (at least with others) into the toxic masculinity of hate and violence that are quickly becoming ubiquitous in the here and now. Switching back and forth between the naarative voices of Adam (himself), Jane (his mother) and Jonathan (his father), Lerner delves into the big ideas of relationships we have with our family, our friends and our colleagues, trying to figure how these most basic relationships in the past have shaped and poisoned the well of contemporary America. Lerner uses his skills as a poet to tell his story in a lyrical but blunt prose, a style that I would have liked less a few years ago but that I have grown to admire. At times direct, at other times surreal, jumping back and forth in time disorienting the reader. Lerner's writing (like a good poet) forces the reader to slow down, to read more deliberately and thoughtfully. It is the only way to appreciate what Lerner is doing here.In the end, Lerner may have produced the best American novel of the year, speaking to the cultural and political zeitgeist in an unexpected way, tackling the crisis from an unexpected angle. Brilliantly written, this is a book that will sit with me for a while.#bookstagram #booksofinstagram #igbooks #books #reader #benlerner #thetopekaschool #bookreviews #book #read #nytimesbooks #pulitzerprize #americanliterature #bookworm #indybookstores
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  • Jaclyn Crupi
    January 1, 1970
    Ben Lerner is one of the best (thought-provoking, form reinventing, intellectually insightful) writers of my generation and this might just be his best book yet. I’m so happy I am alive at the same time as Lerner so he can help me make sense of this moment. If you have any inclination towards psychological inquiry make this your next read.
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  • Ken
    January 1, 1970
    It's always a good feeling when you settle in for the beginning of a new book that has landed on everybody's "Top Tippity-Top" lists for damn good books. It's less a good feeling when you reach the century mark page-wise and find yourself still squinting through the binoculars to figure out who the guy on first is. And it's not a good feeling at all when you feel that you've paid your dues on the exposition as a reader and, spoiled as you are, expect some kind of reward. As in, the It's always a good feeling when you settle in for the beginning of a new book that has landed on everybody's "Top Tippity-Top" lists for damn good books. It's less a good feeling when you reach the century mark page-wise and find yourself still squinting through the binoculars to figure out who the guy on first is. And it's not a good feeling at all when you feel that you've paid your dues on the exposition as a reader and, spoiled as you are, expect some kind of reward. As in, the "Now-I-Get-It" package. Or the "At-Last-the-Plot-Arrives!" package.Nope. Not on either count, really. Instead, just more exposition. An exposition sandwich: Three slices of exposition between two pieces of exposition slathered with some Hellman's Exposition (hold the pickle).Some good writing though. And all manner of moving back and forth in time. Technical merit scores high, explaining the huzzahs. But good old-fashioned payoff? Not so much. At least for this perhaps too simple reader.So slog it was. Mind you, I won't even bother if the slogging has NO rewards, but at times I got caught up in the narrative. Little bursts. But that was all I was allowed before the author again yanked away a character in favor of another or a year in favor of another or a point of view in favor of another. Killjoy.But hey, I made it, and oh, what a feeling when you make it on this kind of book. The TBR books are catcalling you all the way, just begging you to come over to their places. And so finally, I will. thus leaving the Top Tippety-Top books for more sophisticated readers than myself, I guess.2.5 Topekas, rounded up for technical merit and Tippety-Tops.
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  • Brendan Monroe
    January 1, 1970
    Ever since watching "The Wizard of Oz" as a child, I've wanted to be a storm chaser. Not just a storm chaser, per se, but a tornado chaser, like those guys (and Helen Hunt) in "Twister", another movie that made storm chasing look oh so cool. I faced a few setbacks along the way, like living in a state that gets only the very occasional — and never very powerful — tornado, and regardless of how hard I pushed my parents to relocate the family to Kansas or somewhere else inside "Tornado Alley", I Ever since watching "The Wizard of Oz" as a child, I've wanted to be a storm chaser. Not just a storm chaser, per se, but a tornado chaser, like those guys (and Helen Hunt) in "Twister", another movie that made storm chasing look oh so cool. I faced a few setbacks along the way, like living in a state that gets only the very occasional — and never very powerful — tornado, and regardless of how hard I pushed my parents to relocate the family to Kansas or somewhere else inside "Tornado Alley", I was stuck to live a tornado free life in Arizona and, later, Florida. This wasn't the only setback. In 1998, enamored as I was with tornadoes, I insisted on visiting Universal Studios to "ride" their new "Twister" attraction. We waited for three hours in the June heat — I remember the beads of sweat rolling down my back to this day — and finally arrived inside to watch ... what, exactly? Some special effects that made it kind of, sort of look like you're mere meters away from a wispy column of steam meant to resemble a tornado? Googling it now, I'm happy to report that in 2017 "Twister" was closed, replaced by some Jimmy Fallon nonsense that has the advantage of replacing the worst ride ever.All of which brings us to the third paragraph, the one in which I finally mention "The Topeka School", the cover of which caused that old fascination of mine to flare up once again. A book about the life I COULD have had if we had lived in "Tornado Alley" and I'd grown up chasing tornadoes!Except it's not. I'm sorry to say that "The Topeka School" is about as much of a letdown as that "Twister" ride at Universal Studios. There aren't even any tornadoes featured! Only a passing reference to one. "Don't judge a book by its cover" indeed!But I get it ... the tornado featured on the cover of Ben Lerner's book is meant to serve as a metaphor for the storm that our characters can see gathering over America from the front porch in their 1997 setting. Riiiight. Clever clever. It doesn't work. Lerner is trying to write a big, beautiful book on Trumpism, toxic masculinity, free speech, #MeToo, etc etc etc. All the things that make up modern American life. He swings wildly, shoots for the stars, throws a hail mary pass — choose whichever sports metaphor you like best — and misses. He tries to take on too much here, and what we're left with is an overwritten, overwrought, overbaked novel that feels autobiographical but is too plodding and predictable to be real. I wanted this to be good, I really did, and there are moments where you recognize in the writing that this could have been something special, the Great (Modern) American Novel, perhaps, but it never comes close. The writing is too dense, what little story there is too hard to follow, the characters blending together, all leaving me feeling I haven't been paying enough attention. I appreciate the fact that Lerner here is attempting a Michael Haneke, who in his film "The White Ribbon" shows us the Nazis as children, a "how did they/things get that way?" kind of novel, but despite a genuinely intriguing setting (and an excellent cover) it just doesn't work. These times require a better novel. Preferably one with real, not just metaphorical, tornadoes.
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  • Kasa Cotugno
    January 1, 1970
    When so many plot points converge with the reality of the author's life, it is hard to differentiate where fiction and confession converge and separate. Like protagonist Adam, Ben Lerner grows up in Topeka Kansas with his parents who are both psychologists (his mother a published author with a fine reputation in women's issues), graduates in 1997, currently lives in Brooklyn, and is a professor of literature as well as a poet. But there is a cracking good story here, told from the viewpoints of When so many plot points converge with the reality of the author's life, it is hard to differentiate where fiction and confession converge and separate. Like protagonist Adam, Ben Lerner grows up in Topeka Kansas with his parents who are both psychologists (his mother a published author with a fine reputation in women's issues), graduates in 1997, currently lives in Brooklyn, and is a professor of literature as well as a poet. But there is a cracking good story here, told from the viewpoints of Adam and his parents, spanning several time periods, culminating with a heartbreaking event, and ending in the current day, in which Lerner makes his feelings about the current administration and its immigration policies abundantly clear. Kudos.
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  • lucky little cat
    January 1, 1970
    I thoroughly enjoyed 10:04, Lerner's last novel just before Topeka School. I recommend reading that one instead.Topeka School is hard to love. The multiple narrators are supposed to sound profoundly thoughtful, but the men all come across as self-absorbed twirps. And the sole woman sounds like a slightly nicer self-absorbed man.And if you read this, you will learn much more than you ever wanted to know about a) high school debate meets and b) privileged white male neuroses and rage.
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  • Sarah
    January 1, 1970
    DNF @ 14%What I read of this wasn't bad, I just struggled with the writing style and the heavy themes. It was definitely more of an issue with the reader than the book itself, and one of those I'd probably have enjoyed if I’d tried to read it at a different time. Ah well.
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  • Maureen
    January 1, 1970
    What did I just read? I have no freaking idea. Stream of consciousness and changing points of view are great but this book made me feel like the ball in a Pong game. Meaninglessly bouncing back and forth. Told from the different perspectives of three family members who are not only one-dimensional but incredibly unlikeable. There is no connection between the three so I frankly didn't care. The book description states that the son (Adam) will bring a young man into the group who will do something What did I just read? I have no freaking idea. Stream of consciousness and changing points of view are great but this book made me feel like the ball in a Pong game. Meaninglessly bouncing back and forth. Told from the different perspectives of three family members who are not only one-dimensional but incredibly unlikeable. There is no connection between the three so I frankly didn't care. The book description states that the son (Adam) will bring a young man into the group who will do something so heinous as to shake the foundation of everyone. Yes, what he did was heinous, but it is a sum total of 7 sentences in the book, all of which happen in the final 40 pages in the book; it is not like the remainder of the book is a build up to this penultimate event. The remainder of the book is a fever dream of words strung together. How do I keep landing on these ridiculous vanity projects?!? Makes me want to read James Patterson; at least I would know what to expect. This book was a most anticipated of numerous publications. Did they read this book? I would say not because it blew. Hated it.
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  • Neil
    January 1, 1970
    The main protagonist of Lerner’s first book was a young poet named Adam Gordon. Here, in The Topeka School, the centre of the story is also Adam Gordon only this time we straddle the period of Leaving the Atocha Station with views from the late-twentieth century and from now (2019). The Topeka School is, partly, a family history examining the early years of the Gordon family - Jane, a psychologist and then famous feminist author, Jonathan, also a psychologist with a knack for treating wayward The main protagonist of Lerner’s first book was a young poet named Adam Gordon. Here, in The Topeka School, the centre of the story is also Adam Gordon only this time we straddle the period of Leaving the Atocha Station with views from the late-twentieth century and from now (2019). The Topeka School is, partly, a family history examining the early years of the Gordon family - Jane, a psychologist and then famous feminist author, Jonathan, also a psychologist with a knack for treating wayward boys, and Adam their son, a brilliant debater. But it also includes now and shows us Adam as a grown up, family man.As with Lerner’s first two novels, there is a large autobiographical, auto-fiction element to this third novel. Lerner himself grew up in Topeka, the child of psychologist parents, and with a keen interest in debating.The story here unfolds in non-chronological, multi-narrator fashion as each of Jane, Jonathan and Adam take turns to give their perspective. Each of them looks back to formative events in their family history, centred around Adam, but also covering the time before Adam was born. Between these cycles of narrative, we read of Darren, a mentally disturbed teenager who, as we learn on the very first page, has committed an act of violence that we will learn the relevance of as we progress through the book.In essence, this is a family story as told by family members looking back. At the same time it is an exploration of some of the forces that have led us to Donald Trump being president of the United States. At times, the cleverness of the structure threatens to overwhelm the story. There is a lot about reflections/reflecting (I guess you would expect that in a novel about a family where both parents are psychologists), there are multiple references to confusion between first and third person, multiple references to speech disintegrating when under pressure, multiple phrases that recur and echo through the book. It is often funny, but it is sometimes funny only because the alternative is to cry. I’ll leave you to discover the Phelps for yourselves - they provide some laugh out loud moments but also represent so much that is wrong in society.Only a very short time before I read this, I read Lucy Ellmann’s “Ducks, Newburyport”. And in many ways, I think these two books make an interesting pairing. Both are concerned with the state of the nation (USA) and, even though they take very different approaches to telling their story, both provide an interesting structure that takes you into the minds and thoughts of their protagonists. Ducks, Newburyport literally inhabits the thoughts of one person (for over 1000 pages) in incomplete sentences that often last for over 100 pages, whereas The Topeka School is a bit more conventional in its grammar and takes us into the minds of three/four people in more of a narrative form than Ducks…’ stream-of-consciousness.curtisbrown.co.uk says: Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the new right, the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.I think that’s a fair summary.
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  • Robert Sheard
    January 1, 1970
    This novel is very well written, but ultimately I didn't enjoy it very much. The story follows a family where both parents are psychology academics at a famous Foundation in Topeka, and their son, Adam, is a senior in high school. This is in 1997, although the book ranges into the past and into the future–into the Trump years. Adam is the favorite to win a national championship in speech/debate that year at the National Forensic League's national championships. (That NFL has since changed its This novel is very well written, but ultimately I didn't enjoy it very much. The story follows a family where both parents are psychology academics at a famous Foundation in Topeka, and their son, Adam, is a senior in high school. This is in 1997, although the book ranges into the past and into the future–into the Trump years. Adam is the favorite to win a national championship in speech/debate that year at the National Forensic League's national championships. (That NFL has since changed its name to the National Speech and Debate Association. We got tired of hearing the stupid jokes about having to wear helmets to rounds, even though the National Forensic League was around long before the National Football League.)As a retired speech/debate coach, I found that aspect of Adam's story interesting, but the book is about so much more than that, and it's everything else I just didn't connect with. Academic jargon, extensive navel-gazing by both parents and son, etc. I've read a lot of books about self-involved academics who can't keep their pants on, who then go on to try to analyze the dynamics and "process the information," rather than dealing with their nonsense. And having spent a couple of decades in higher education, I saw my share of those shenanigans, too. It was the navel-gazing, however, that really turned me off. Not everything that happens in every life at every moment is profound and needs to foster, as one character put it, "analytical spirals."Still, I think my opinion here is in the minority because I know of several readers whose judgment I value who thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe it's my peculiar background of higher education, followed by a decade coaching high school speech and debate at the national level, that blocked me from being able to enjoy this one. It does make me want to write my own novel about speech and debate, though...
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  • Fatma
    January 1, 1970
    i feel like i understood maybe 60% of this book at most, and that's a generous estimateYou know those books you read that feel like they were written so you can analyze them in an essay for English class? Yeah, The Topeka School is one of those books. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up to you.I tend to vacillate between hating and being engaged by books like The Topeka School. On the one hand, I like to be intellectually challenged. I like a novel that evades my attempts to pin it down, i feel like i understood maybe 60% of this book at most, and that's a generous estimateYou know those books you read that feel like they were written so you can analyze them in an essay for English class? Yeah, The Topeka School is one of those books. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up to you.I tend to vacillate between hating and being engaged by books like The Topeka School. On the one hand, I like to be intellectually challenged. I like a novel that evades my attempts to pin it down, that makes me work to understand it. On the other hand, I don't like pretentious novels, novels that are purposely difficult for no other reason than to be difficult. As if difficulty means quality. In the case of this particular novel, I fall somewhere in between. The Topeka School is like a delicate piece of French pastry: it's multi-layered, but the moment you try to get a hold of any of those layers to try to understand them, they crumble in your hands. It's interesting enough to draw you to its story, but impenetrable enough to reject any of your attempts to get beyond its surface, to emotionally connect to it on any level. I read this 280-page novel in 3 days and it absolutely exhausted me. When the book you're reading feels like it's just labyrinths within more labyrinths, the reading experience becomes taxing, and not in a rewarding way.Reading The Topeka School felt a lot like reading Don DeLillo's White Noise, actually. It reminded me of that feeling you get when you're reading a book that is very explicitly Trying to Do Something. Which is kind of a ridiculous thing to say—all books are obviously trying to do something—but in this case it feels like the point of the book is to get that Thing done—comment on American masculinity, rhetoric and its relation to politics, etc.—rather than to actually tell a story. To each their own I guess. I didn't hate this book, and I'm sure I would've gotten a lot more out of it had I read it for an English class, but I didn't so all I really feel about it right now is: it was fine.
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  • Janet
    January 1, 1970
    This is my second Ben Lerner, my first having been the prize-winning 10:04, and I think my last. I recognize that Lerner is an intellectual but for me, he borders on the pedantic. I counted three times where he used the word “prosody”. I’m sorry, that’s not a word that is known by the vast majority of the reading public. In The Topeka School, Lerner’s protagonist is a teenager named Adam whose parents are psychologists at The Foundation. He obviously lives a white, privileged male existence and This is my second Ben Lerner, my first having been the prize-winning 10:04, and I think my last. I recognize that Lerner is an intellectual but for me, he borders on the pedantic. I counted three times where he used the word “prosody”. I’m sorry, that’s not a word that is known by the vast majority of the reading public. In The Topeka School, Lerner’s protagonist is a teenager named Adam whose parents are psychologists at The Foundation. He obviously lives a white, privileged male existence and yet for most of the novel we hear about his angst. He’s a debater and a good one apparently but the competitions are high anxiety producing and he places too much importance on them. His romantic life is drama, drama, drama too. As an adult, he becomes a poet.Lerner makes you think about how words can be a weapon especially among societal groups who disdain physical violence. But for the most part I found Adam’s concerns tedious and boring. You know how people say “first world problems”? That’s what Adam has in abundance. My ex-husband used to say about our oldest son….”his problem is, we gave him the perfect childhood”. That is Adam’s problem and I suspect it is Lerner’s problem too.Adam’s mother Jane is an interesting character….a very accomplished woman who constantly has to tiptoe around men and whose success brings her everything from being called names to being cheated on to being physically threatened. It’s a credit to Lerner that he understands these feminist problems. Fast forward to near the end of the book and we have another example where a young boy is being a misogynist on the playground and the dads have to duke it out. Again we have the counterpoints of words vs. physical violence.There’s some thought provoking first amendment stuff in here and some commentary on the degradation of civility in the Trump era.I’m glad I read this novel because I think it will be in the Tournament of Books this year and that’s one less book I’ll have to read. But overall I’d have to say it reminded me too much of Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash, another coming of age story that I didn’t get along with. I guess raising two sons to adulthood made me find their adolescent inner lives thoroughly uninteresting. Thankfully they are much more fascinating as adults.
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  • Alison Hardtmann
    January 1, 1970
    When Jane and Jonathan each go to work at the Topeka School, a innovative psychiatric clinic, they never mean to make it permanent, but after finding each other and a nice Victorian they could never have afforded to buy in New York, they have a son, Adam, and settle in. The book moves back and forth between these three characters, and a fourth; a patient at the clinic. The novel is about the three members of the Gordon family, but it's also about the overly close relationships that formed When Jane and Jonathan each go to work at the Topeka School, a innovative psychiatric clinic, they never mean to make it permanent, but after finding each other and a nice Victorian they could never have afforded to buy in New York, they have a son, Adam, and settle in. The book moves back and forth between these three characters, and a fourth; a patient at the clinic. The novel is about the three members of the Gordon family, but it's also about the overly close relationships that formed between the therapists working at the clinic, a film project run by Jonathan, the city of Topeka, Kansas in the nineties, Jane's battle with The Men, and a great deal about high school debate tournaments. Ben Lerner has an easy writing style and and this novel went down easy, despite the broad range of ideas and numerous plot threads. And disjointed as it all felt after a while, he does pull all the seemingly disparate elements mostly together at the end. Given the quantity of different topics introduced, there were some I was less interested in (debate team - although it did give me insight into Ben Shapiro's whole deal) than others (all of Jane's chapters), but I was never tempted to skip any of it.
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  • Jimmy
    January 1, 1970
    You can say that Ben Lerner's subtlety is what makes this book so uniquely enjoyable yet always slightly out of reach. Or you can say it's the same subtlety that makes the book less than satisfying. I personally really enjoyed it. It is like he is showing you all the dots and it is up to you to connect them into something that resembles a portrait of the world we suddenly find in front of us.
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  • Samuel
    January 1, 1970
    It's a credit to Lerner that even when he writes a novel that isn't good (structurally oblique, narratively deficient, yet didactic to a fault) he still manages to produce some incredible miniatures--scenes that captivate, sentences that spin out of control and still glide to taut conclusion, phrases that delight despite weary repetition. He's a wonderful writer. Is he a great novelist?
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  • TXGAL1
    January 1, 1970
    Set in Topeka, Kansas this story follows the lives of the Gordon family. Jonathan and Jane Gordon are psychologists on staff at the world-renowned The Foundation, a psychiatric clinic that attracts a varied and talented staff as well as patients. The Gordons include son Adam who is a popular senior at Topeka High School, class of 1997, a national debater and orator, and a good son. Jonathan is well-known for his work with "lost boys" while Jane, in addition to her work at The Foundation, is a Set in Topeka, Kansas this story follows the lives of the Gordon family. Jonathan and Jane Gordon are psychologists on staff at the world-renowned The Foundation, a psychiatric clinic that attracts a varied and talented staff as well as patients. The Gordons include son Adam who is a popular senior at Topeka High School, class of 1997, a national debater and orator, and a good son. Jonathan is well-known for his work with "lost boys" while Jane, in addition to her work at The Foundation, is a feminist author. Told in the third-person, readers are taken on a journey through alternating time periods and frames of reference from each family member. One more speaker gives us his perspective of his life in Topeka--Darren Eberheart, a troubled "man-child" who is always on the fringes, not quite fitting in with the other kids he's grown up around. Adam tries to include Darren in the group of high school seniors as graduation approaches. But, unknown to Adam, Darren is a patient of Dr. J at The Foundation--Adam's father.Lerner's narrative gives us a front-row view to the Gordon family's marriage and their journey to raise a smart, thoughtful son during the blossoming internet and social media wave. They are challenged by the breakdown of common decency, respect for the right to speak, and a culture of noxious male chest-thumping.After reading THE TOPEKA SCHOOL I was left reflecting how the shadows of a parent's life can touch a child and imprint the child with the consequences of choices made by the parent. But, more so, I was confused about the presentation of the book. For me, it was difficult to follow and confusing with the book's continuous stream of speaker-changing thought. Many times I had to reread passages (more than once) or take notes on the characters in order to fully grasp where the author was going.I understand that there are many of my Goodreads community that find THE TOPEKA SCHOOL to be 4 & 5 stars. Unfortunately, for me, it is 3 stars.Many thanks to FSG for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.
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  • Chris Haak
    January 1, 1970
    3,5Interesting but too much of everything. I feel Lerner wanted to include too much stuff in this book: toxic masculinity, feminism, psychiatry, bullying, abuse, identity, debating etc etc. It would have been a better book if he had focussed on less and was less elaborate.Thank you Macmillan and Edelweiss for the ARC.
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  • Jack Horan
    January 1, 1970
    Fantastic portrayal of how toxic masculinity can be inculcated in young men. Big Sally Rooney Energy.
  • Ellie
    January 1, 1970
    Ben Lerner is a favorite writer of mine, both his novels (Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04) and poetry (so far, all I've read is Angle of Yaw but I greatly admired and enjoyed it). I was excited to read his new novel and was not disappointed.The Topeka School is different than Lerner's other writing. It is a more traditional narrative than his other novels. It appears to be somewhat loosely based on his own life (I had not realized that Lerner's mother is Harriet Lerner, the feminist Ben Lerner is a favorite writer of mine, both his novels (Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04) and poetry (so far, all I've read is Angle of Yaw but I greatly admired and enjoyed it). I was excited to read his new novel and was not disappointed.The Topeka School is different than Lerner's other writing. It is a more traditional narrative than his other novels. It appears to be somewhat loosely based on his own life (I had not realized that Lerner's mother is Harriet Lerner, the feminist psychologist writer who wrote, among other works, The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman's Guide Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships and many other "Dance of" books). Here, she is the mother of Adam, the teenage protagonist of the book. But the story is a family narrative, the relationships amongst the three family members, the people they interact with, and a strange young man whose voice begins the novel.The story is told from rotating points of view (including that of the strange young man whose role in the story is hidden from us until near the end of the work). The story is a mystery of sorts: who is this man and what exactly has he done, and we struggle to put together the hints given to us in his story and what is his relationship to the other characters. But it is also the mystery of how families function, how do we know who we are and what are out relationships with others.Adam is a high school student (although parts of the story are told from the point of view of his future self). Pivotal to his character are the concussion he suffered as a child which permanently affected his sense of self and feeling of security in the world, even within his own body. Also important is his high school career as a champion debater. Much is made of the art of debating, its tricks and its disconnection to ethics (it confirmed my own high school decision not to join the debate team for that very reason). Although he may struggle to express himself in his life, on stage he is expert in using language to extemporaneously defend any point of view he is given and demolish the competition. Although this skill is clearly important to the novel, I was not altogether sure why. This among many other reasons makes me want to reread this novel, a sign, I think, of a work that is important. It is too rich to fully understand in a first reading.The book begins with Adam on a lake with his girlfriend, who slips away from him. In a nightmarish search, Adam finds himself lost in a landscape of nearly identical mansions, large, luxurious but ultimately indistinguishable from one another. This wandering is echoed in a later scene when the young man whose existence appears tangential to the main characters is lost on a long trek to his home. The book is filled with a variety of journeys that lead the characters along unexpected routes, to discover themselves as different from their previous conceptions of self.The Topeka School is a psychiatric foundation in Topeka, Kansas (where Lerner is from). The relationships amongst staff are infinitely complicated (like a hallway of mirrors) by their being in analysis with each other. The Topeka School has a subtle humor that is most clearly evident in the foundation, which both deepens and lightens the rest of the story.The Topeka School is a like a fascinating three-dimensional puzzle with many dimensions. I enjoyed the surface level, the family story as well as their relationship with the foundation, the somewhat ominous, somewhat absurdist institution that this story weaves itself around.As always, Lerner's writing is easy to follow and beautifully constructed. This is a book to be both enjoyed and explored and I am grateful to Goodreads for providing me with a free copy.
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  • Roman Clodia
    January 1, 1970
    I would say I found this novel more clever and ambitious than enjoyable. In tracing back our present to the past, Lerner takes on issues of toxic masculinity and the sort of crisis of white manhood that Trump exploits so well. It also deals with issues of democratic speech and huge shifts in media, while trying to tie it all in to a family's tribulations. Add in shifting focalisations and fragmented narratives, repeated events seen through different eyes, and some rather clumsy imagery of I would say I found this novel more clever and ambitious than enjoyable. In tracing back our present to the past, Lerner takes on issues of toxic masculinity and the sort of crisis of white manhood that Trump exploits so well. It also deals with issues of democratic speech and huge shifts in media, while trying to tie it all in to a family's tribulations. Add in shifting focalisations and fragmented narratives, repeated events seen through different eyes, and some rather clumsy imagery of reflections and mirrors, and this started to feel in need of some serious untangling to me. I'm not sure there's anything fundamentally new being said here but the liberal consciousness should have spoken to me more than it did - the busy structure and form took away from the points being made in places.
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