The Topeka School
Granta, $29.99 pb, 282 pp, 97817783785360
Modern US culture has a peculiar love of the extracurricular world of teenagers, valorising the spelling bees, debating competitions, and varsity-level football games of its youth. In Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, the interscholastic debating trophy is so sought after that tournaments resemble verbal combat, in which high-school competitors rely on sly technique rather than substance. Witness the use of what our teenage protagonist, Adam Gordon, aptly refers to as ‘the spread’: a rapid-fire, near-hysterical diatribe designed to deliver so many arguments in such a short amount of time that the opposing team will be unable to address each point. These verbal sprinters may be sweating under the strain of 340 words per minute, but they will take home the trophy regardless because of the opposing team’s inability to counter their gasping gibberish. As Lerner notes, a ghost wandering the high-school halls would perceive interscholastic debate as ‘less competitive speech than glossolalic ritual’.