Listening Closely: Narrative Sensitivity and Thematic Apperception in Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School


  • Teresa Teklić University of Erfurt



Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (2019), narrative voice, masculinity, Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), New Criticism, New Formalism, close reading


This article offers Ben Lerner’s 2019 novel The Topeka School “as a case study to argue that even literary texts that are steeped in Theory or feature “diagnostic” narrators (Dames) do not interpret themselves but require active readers to do so. By modeling the novel’s narrative structure on the psychological Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), the narrator obliges the reader to listen to his stories as if she were a psychologist interpreting a patient’s test results. I suggest that, for The Topeka School“, adopting the same attitude of “narrative sensitivity” that psychologists bring to the evaluation of the TAT proves a productive reading strategy (Cramer 28). Especially the idea of listening closely to the text yields profound insights into its form and politics due to its central interest in the nexus of voice and masculinity. Careful attention to narrative perspective, voice, and style reveals that the novel makes powerful political claims through its form alone. It figures male violence as a structural, not an individual problem and links it to the existence of a form of collective voice of white male US-America that can speak through a liberal-minded writer just as well as through a Trump-voter or even Donald Trump himself.

Author Biography

Teresa Teklić, University of Erfurt

Teresa Teklić studied English and Philosophy in Bonn, Sheffield, Freiburg, and Basel. She is currently an associate lecturer and doctoral candidate in American Literary Studies and a member of the Graduate Center “Texts. Signs. Media.” at the University of Erfurt. In her doctoral thesis, she engages with the poetics of Ben Lerner’s novels. General research interests include postmodern and contemporary fiction, autofiction, psychoanalytic theory, sincerity/authenticity, and Shakespeare studies.




How to Cite

Teklić, Teresa. “Listening Closely: Narrative Sensitivity and Thematic Apperception in Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School”. Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, Apr. 2023, pp. 43-63, doi:10.5283/copas.371.