I started reading Ben Lerner’s new novel “The Topeka School” last October during a business trip to Kansas City. I put it down on the first day — not because I didn’t like it, but because it was making me jealous. The book is about many things, but some of the most impressive set pieces are Lerner’s descriptions of high school debate in the pre-critical theory era of that activity. Lerner made this nerdy pastime come to life with such economy that I felt a part of my past being taken away as a potential writing source material.
If I had continued much longer, I would have recognized that Lerner was also writing about life as a Northeasterner transplanted to a prairie state and, because his parents were both psychologists at the Menniger Clinic, the novel is packed with chatter about psychology. I finally returned to the novel yesterday and finished it the same day — one of the book’s themes is the rapid processing of language, so I thought it only appropriate to crank up my Audible narration to 3X normal speed and follow along at breakneck speed.
My first impression of the book is that I am Lerner’s target audience. Will anyone else read the book and understand every reference Lerner makes to debate, extemporaneous speech and Lincoln-Douglas Debate? The snippets of debate jargon he throws in that are intended to throw readers into confusion are perfectly coherent to me. This, for example, I could explain to everyone if you’d like:
As time runs out, he sums up his arguments, although few of the uninitiated could understand him: Gregor evidence points to back-backlogged courts as result of increased child support enforcement judicial overload leads to civil collapse collapse leads to nuclear conflict China or North Korea nuclear strike in ensuing power vacuum out-out-outweighs whatever benefits affirmative plan offers and and and and Stevenson proves affirmative plan no solvency regardless because resistance from from internal agencies blocks imple-implementation must vote no on disadvantage impact alone but but even if you you consider plan as plan no solvency 1AC key source for Georgia courts not not applicable to fed program only state level so there is no way to vote but negative.
But I won’t, because it’s ultimately unimportant. It’s equally unimportant that Lerner brings lovely clarity to his description of the extemporaneous speaking event, which was my favorite speech and debate event as well:
Extemp was officially about developing such a command of current affairs that one could speak confidently on a range of topics, but it was of course as much about the opposite: how a teenager in an ill-fitting suit could speak as if he had a handle on the crisis in Kashmir, how polish could compensate for substance as one determined the viability of a two-state solution. One learned to stud a speech with sources the way a politician reaches for statistics—to provide the affect of authority more than to illuminate an issue or settle a point of fact. Much of the coaching and practice focused on how to use one’s body to lend a speech structure, when and where to step to mark transitions, when and how to gesture, opera without music. Unlike policy debate, in which the spread eclipsed all oratorical values, style and presentation remained primary in extemp, even if the goal was to project an image of erudition. One common defense of policy debaters’ addiction to the spread was that students interested in the niceties of speech could go and do extemp.
As someone who has spent a career writing speeches and training people to be better public speakers, the high school extemporaneous speaking event better prepared me for life than anything else I’ve learned in school or out. And I feel reasonably confident that, even more than 35 years since my last competition, I could draw 3 topics from a hat right now and with 30 minutes preparation could deliver a spot on extemporaneous speech. This stuff just sticks with you.
“The Topeka School” is packed with interesting set pieces that seem tailor made for me — psychological theories, dangerous therapist boundary crossings, and bits about religious fanatics in the heartland. Last week I was exclaiming my preference for “novels of ideas” and this is certainly one of those. Lerner places a special spotlight on “the spread” a debate tactic that goes back decades that he accurately describes this way:
She is attempting to “spread” their opponents, as her opponents will attempt to spread them in turn—that is, to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule among serious debaters being that a “dropped argument,” no matter its quality, its content, is conceded.
And then Lerner makes this fascinating connection between the spread and the way civil discourse has evolved in the United States over the past 60 years:
The spread was controversial; if it happened in front of lay judges, there was shock, complaints. More than one highly ranked team had misjudged its judges and been eliminated in early rounds for speaking drivel. Old-timer coaches longed for the days when debate was debate. The most common criticism of the spread was that it detached policy debate from the real world, that nobody used language the way that these debaters did, save perhaps for auctioneers. But even the adolescents knew this wasn’t true, that corporate persons deployed a version of the spread all the time: for they heard the spoken warnings at the end of the increasingly common television commercials for prescription drugs, when risk information was disclosed at a speed designed to make it difficult to comprehend; they heard the list of rules and caveats read rapid-fire at the end of promotions on the radio; they were at least vaguely familiar with the “fine print” one received from financial institutions and health-insurance companies; the last thing one was supposed to do with those thousands of words was comprehend them. These types of disclosure were designed to conceal; they exposed you to information that, should you challenge the institution in question, would be treated like a “dropped argument” in a fast round of debate—you have already conceded the validity of the point by failing to address it when it was presented. It’s no excuse that you didn’t have the time. Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting “spread” in their daily lives; meanwhile, their politicians went on speaking slowly, slowly about values utterly disconnected from their policies.
Not only what Lerner says here, but the spread was deployed in another interesting way in the 20th century, in the form of the maximalist (almost exclusively male) novel. The evolution of the novel in the 20th century was towards massive, unrelenting storms of fiction sometimes inflicted on readers, daring them to keep up. From James Joyce to David Foster Wallace, the maximalist novel was intended to separate the boys from the men among the literati. Perhaps the end result, however, was a complete alienation of men from fiction reading at all.
Lerner now composes novels in a marketplace that is nearly entirely female. So even if he wishes to write a novel written for people just like me (or in the case of this imaginary maximalist version of “The Topeka School,” perhaps just me), he cannot deploy the spread. He needs to make peace with the way fiction has evolved in recent decades.
This had a curious effect on me, because I read “The Topeka School” wanting more from Lerner at every turn. I wanted more debate anecdotes, deeper dives into psychology, more observations about what an odd place Topeka, Kansas is for a blue state American. I also wanted the drama to play out more, well, dramatically. Explosive affairs break out in the book that just seem to fizzle away off the page. A key character remembers, sort of, being abused as a child, but the details are lacking. We don’t know whether to believe it or not. There’s a major “Ice Storm” like tragedy building throughout the book, but Lerner doesn’t go for a big emotional payoff with it. The event just kind of happens. Or maybe it doesn’t.
I am going to put on my amateur Jungian psychology hat now and try to explain why Lerner made these choices. The book starts with a dreamy anecdote about the main character losing sight of his girlfriend as she goes swimming off a boat and he makes a series of strange efforts to find her. I’ve read this section twice and I’m still surprised that this section isn’t describing a dream. I do believe it’s Lerner’s unconscious speaking. His main character — a lightly concealed Lerner — is looking for his audience in this reverie. He cannot find her in the usual places. Everything looks too much the same to him. But he eventually does find her and immediately turns the story telling over to her. This is Lerner’s fear of cultivating a too-male audience speaking aloud.
One of the tropes of extemporaneous speaking is that the introduction to every speech must be tied back into the conclusion. And I find it fascinating that Lerner does that, but in a surprising way. The final two scenes of the novel, which I will not spoil, divert from the main action of the story and involve vignettes about the main character protecting his little girls from harm in different ways. I believe, once again, that Lerner is protecting his readers, the girls, from the masculine beast within himself who wants to set loose a monstrous 1000 page, I will grind you into intellectual submission with my mastery of these subjects version of “The Topeka School.”
This would be the novel to compete with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and William Gaddis, Lerner’s attempt to grasp the mantel of greatest living (male, American) writer. Lerner is telegraphing his audience in the opening scene that he will not inflict that on them, he will keep his musing concise and Brooklyn-friendly and clock it all in under 300 pages. He wants to avoid what he sees as the toxic masculinity inherent in the spread, or as he says it:
Every opponent must be spread; every offense, however minor, leads to holocaust.
Holocaust for the well-intended reader is starting a novel filled with bawdy jokes about missiles that land in London at the places where a character gets an erection, and then dissolves into a phantasm of characters and plots so confusing that the author (Thomas Pynchon) admits a couple decades later that he was so high while writing much of the second half of “Gravity’s Rainbow” that he has no idea what was happening. And, yes, that is my favorite novel.
But while over-intellectualized masculinity may be one for of The Spread, it has metastasized into nastier 2020 forms. The face of this culture has become Karen, the omnipresent angry white woman eager to talk to your manager who refuses to wear a mask and who will not back down from a fight with anyone, even those holding camera phones. We’ve lost all ability to debate with one another, either through information overload, appeals to values or even standard show-biz schmaltz. Now we just yell performatively.
I give Lerner credit for making this the subject of his novel and avoiding the trap of creating his own spread in “The Topeka School.” There’s something to be said in this era to reaching out to the broadest possible audience with ideas, to not falling into the easy lure of segmentation and fantasy showdowns with dead writers. It doesn’t make it a worse book that he doesn’t aspire to join the pantheon of Great Writers in this one. And it also lets me off the hook a bit.
Because, after finishing this novel, I was no longer jealous of Lerner. I see a path for me to write about Tulsa in the 70s and 80s that includes debate … and perhaps about the times we are in now that includes psychology. And, like Kundera’s books, it makes me feel that a meaningful, thoughtful book doesn’t have to aspire to compete with the literary giants. It just has to be true to its nature, tell its main points coherently, and make everyone feel in the end that it all came together as a thing that made sense.
Just like a good extemp speech.