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Johanna Leggatt reviews 'The Topeka School' by Ben Lerner

Johanna Leggatt
Monday, 16 December 2019

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.

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On the first page of her book Hope in the Dark (2004), Rebecca Solnit quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diary: ‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’ Such optimism is, Solnit acknowledges, surprising. But it’s a persistent theme in her work and it finds ...

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