Lerner, Ben. The Topeka School. London: Granta Books, 2019. RRP: $29.99. 284pp, ISBN: 9781783785728.
The assembled, the community, demand that the speaker be at once individual (your speech must be original to be prized) and utterly social (your speech must be intelligible to the tribe). Through the individual mouth we must hear the public speaking. Or: you are not just speaking but ritually performing the human capacity for speech as such; to be victorious is to be a poet who refreshes the medium of sociality who is beside himself as language courses through him – like Glenn Gould humming along, nodding like me or my son; to fail in this endeavor is to lose your status as a social person—to regress to infancy (from the Latin infans, without speech) or, worse: to the status of a beast. (224-225)
The Topeka School opens with a young man called Darren considering breaking a mirror with a metal chair. In the next chapter, the teenaged Adam speaks for so long, and with so little engagement with the company around him, that his girlfriend sheds her clothes, drops off the side of a dinghy, swims to shore and goes home, without his noticing.
And so, we are plunged into a story about speaking, about learning how to speak, about ritualised speech and how we express ourselves in the absence of speech. Narrated by four different characters, the multivocality allows diverse lives and time frames to be expressed on the page and we see their evolution. Over the course of the novel knowing how, and when, to communicate comes to be understood in context; not just of the Gordon family, but also in society. And wrapped up within communication are the ideas we share, permit, dismiss and sideline. Have we lost the ability to disagree? And what should we truly not countenance? As our society is drenched in information and polemic, are we losing the ability to talk each other around, to find common ground and shared meaning?
The famous mother disarms abusive callers she calls ‘The Men’ by simply pretending she can’t hear them down the line. Her teenage son learns to ape spontaneity in public speaking, while the intolerant Phelps family stages protests on street corners and at the funerals of LGBTI people. Psychologist Jonathan discovers if you ask a person to ape a verbal text that slowly increases in speed their speech breaks down—their words become meaningless. Freedom of expression is rarely met with assessment on the effectiveness of expression, not as a marketing technique but as a means to connect, to share compassion, to grow communities that are healthy.
Our society drowns in content instead of connection, in the same way that Lerner’s fictional high school debate team wins not on coherent argument, but on the basis of bamboozling the opposition with the sheer number of policy details, delivered rapid fire and almost nonsensically, a technique called the spread.
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. (23-24)
Lurking behind these intelligent people with their many, many words, their therapy and analysis, is the outsider Darren, who cannot communicate the fears and loneliness he lives with. Unable to express himself and fearful of what might happen if he did, Darren connects to any male figure he can. He adopts a sense of identity, or solace, in physicality and the threat of violence. Because without speech, how else does our society teach us to assert power? And because communication is aligned with power, it is also aligned with other markers of power: Jane pretends she can’t hear her abusive callers, her abusive father is reduced to nothing in his unvocal Alzheimer’s. What is spoken and unspoken is only as much as the characters can cope with. The deeper traumas are left unsaid, unvocalised, right to the end, as the people who bear those memories grow old and die. It is the multiple voices that allows Lerner’s tale to gain its full force, the language of analysis, of debate, of poetry, rap, used as a means of belonging and establishing difference. It is the portrait of the United States as permanent adolescent: finding the words and using them poorly, to draw up boundaries like so many lines in the sand. The Topeka School has something to say about the importance of communication—as the pitch of political discussion rises and as the stakes grow higher, joining together to simply talk, learning how to disagree, to convince, to encourage and to amplify those voices that truly have something beneficial to share; these abilities mean nothing less than saving our societies and our civil discourse.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018. You can find her online at www.wattswrites.com or @watts_writes.