How High School Debate In 1990s Kansas Explains The Present: A Novel Argument

Oct 8, 2019
Originally published on October 8, 2019 7:15 pm

Before he became a novelist and poet, and a professor and a MacArthur Fellow, Ben Lerner competed in debate.

He was a policy debater during high school in the 1990s in Topeka, Kan., and was also a national champion in extemporaneous speaking. Not coincidentally, the main character in his new novel, a high-school senior in Kansas named Adam Gordon, is very good at both of those disciplines.

In The Topeka School, Adam Gordon's parents' lives also revolve around speaking: They're psychologists who work in talk therapy and language research. (The author's own mother is the psychologist Harriet Lerner.) So the act of speech is central to Lerner's new, autobiographically informed book.

"The young Adam Gordon ... is kind of torn between these different regimes of talk," Lerner says in an interview. "On the one hand, he has these therapist parents who work at this international psychiatric clinic called The Foundation, and that's an institution that runs on talk, right? I mean, therapy depends upon the possibilities of expression. And then on the other hand, he's in a red-state masculinist culture where talking, unless you're talking trash, is often seen to be a sign of weakness.

"And then policy debate — the kind of weaponized eloquence of policy debate — and some other forms of speech become his way of trying to pass as a tough guy — to once be the verbal kid of these psychologists, but also to be tough enough not to be attacked for it."


Interview Highlights

On how Adam freestyle raps with his friends at night

Yeah, I mean, it's very embarrassing. I mean, the book both wants to ruthlessly mark these kinds of extreme speech, and the cultural appropriation of these white middle-class kids freestyling — and freestyling totally inapplicable cliches from the rap videos they're watching — but it also wants to be alive to the glimmer of possibility even in those busted forms of speech. ... Adam has these instances of transport where, whether it's speed in debate or it's freestyling, where he feels like he's no longer speaking the language, but the language is speaking him. He feels like he dissolves into prosody or rhythm or poetry or flow. And the book wants to argue that those are real moments of possibility, where we re-encounter the miracle of language as such and the possibility of building a new language out of the limits of this one.

On the prevalence of garbled language in the book

I think we live in a moment of total regression to fascistic unreason in our political speech. I mean, I don't know how to overstate it ... So I'm trying to think in part about the genealogy of the present ... where the seeds of that came from. And then also for the book to offer some counter-models, like Adam's mother's modes of listening, or some other voices in the book that are not speaking gibberish. But again, there's a funny way where those extremes of gibberish are both terrifying, and they're also kind of like an avant-garde poetry where you re-encounter the plasticity of language. The utopian and dystopian moments of the book are the same thing: They're when speech breaks down to such an extreme that you realize we have to build a new language together.

On the novel's use of "the spread," the debate tactic of rapid-fire, information-overload speaking

Lerner: I mean, I think to a certain degree that is a metaphor for the overload of the present. I mean, Donald Trump speaks very slowly — it's kind of agrammatical, halting, racist signaling.

Shapiro: Look, I was White House correspondent for five years, and Obama spoke painfully slowly too. It might have been a very different kind of speech, but it was so slow.

Lerner: That's true. I mean, there's the slowness of political speech on the one hand, and then there's the speed of nano-trading and the 24-hour news cycle on the other hand. And I think one of the things that the Trump White House has learned is that one scandal is really dangerous, right — if you have one Watergate, that outrages people. But if you have a thousand scandals a day, that each one that seems world-historical, it's totally incapacitating. So I wanted "the spread" also to be a metaphor for the way that we're overloaded in our daily lives with the language of information.

On how present-day political life relates to Topeka in the 1990s

Well, I was really interested, how in the '90s, there was this discourse circulating, at least amongst the pundit class, of the "end of history." ... And when Bill Clinton, the cool baby boomer, trounced Bob Dole, it was like: Now it's just the advent of liberal technocrats and ideology is over, etc. etc. And I wanted to remember — I mean, that was a white fantasy and it was always a fantasy — but I wanted to remember what it was like to be coming of age when that discourse was circulating. And not just amongst debaters, but remember it from the disaster and the possibilities of the present, where Adam Gordon is no longer a kid. He's a father of two young children, and he's trying to figure out how to how to speak honorably and how to transmit things to his own daughters that are not the doublespeak that's described elsewhere in the book.

On young Adam's desire to get to "the vaguely imagined East Coast city from which [his] Topeka experiences would be recounted with great irony"

So the young Adam has this fantasy. Like, the way he tries to be cool is: He has this belief that in the future he's going to look back as some kind of person on the [East] Coast and think, "Oh, everything in Topeka was just rehearsal for this more intense life" or whatever. But what the book actually does — I mean, the irony that's lost on the younger Adam is that the older Adam is looking back and taking those experiences quite seriously, not at all ironically: seeing them as formative, seeing them as complicated, realizing that there were all kinds of things happening in his family and the world around him that he wasn't sufficiently attuned to.

On the new form of language that the book seems to suggest

The book ends with a kind of experiment in collective speech ... and Adam Gordon finds it very awkward and very halting, but he finds it a kind of halting-ness that's about constructing ... a new mode of public speech that can be counter to the dominant racist and avaricious discourses of the day. So I mean, there are people doing incredible work obviously. I mean, Trump isn't total. And I think literature is one small effort to advance a counter-language to the languages of exploitation.

And so no, I don't know what the language would look like. But I think the good thing — maybe the only good thing — about the way the language is dying in Trump's mouth is that there's no going back to a neoliberal political discourse that puts a humane face on extreme capitalist exploitation, or whatever. So the book arrives at that point of not going back. And the book doesn't pretend to know how we should speak going forward, but it does try to model modes of listening and engagement that are other to the dominant discourses of the day.

Danny Hensel and Justine Kenin produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In high schools and colleges across the country, you can hear some version of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANNY HENSEL, BYLINE: (Unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: Debaters making their points at such a machine gun speed that the words become almost incomprehensible to the untrained ear. The author Ben Lerner is well-trained. He competed as a policy debater during high school in the 1990s in Topeka, Kan. He was also the national champion in extemporaneous speaking, and the main character in his new novel "The Topeka School" participates in both of those activities. Ben Lerner, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BEN LERNER: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Beyond debate, talking seems really central to everybody's life in this book. I mean, the main character is a debater. His parents are psychologists. They do talk therapy and language research. So why did you want to make that act of speech so central to this novel?

LERNER: The young Adam Gordon, who's, you know, a graduating senior when most of the book takes place, is kind of torn between these different regimes of talk. Like, on the one hand, he has these therapist parents who work at this international psychiatric clinic called The Foundation, and that's an institution that runs on talk, right? I mean, therapy depends upon the possibilities of expression. And then on the other hand, he's in a kind of red state masculinist culture, where talking, unless you're talking trash, is often seen to be a kind of sign of weakness.

SHAPIRO: Right.

LERNER: And then policy debate - that kind of weaponized eloquence of policy debate and some other forms of speech become his way of trying to kind of pass as a tough guy, to once be the verbal kid of these psychologists but also to be kind of, you know, tough enough not to be attacked for it.

SHAPIRO: And at night, he kind of freestyle raps with his friends, which is maybe a little embarrassing, but he's also really good at it.

LERNER: Yeah. I mean, it's very embarrassing. I mean, the book both wants to ruthlessly mock these kinds of extreme speech and, like, the cultural appropriation of these white, middle-class kids freestyling and freestyling totally inapplicable cliches from the rap videos they're watching, but it also wants to be alive to, like, the glimmer of possibility, even in those busted forms of speech. Like, the moments...

SHAPIRO: What do you mean, the glimmer of possibility?

LERNER: Well, I mean, Adam has these instances of kind of transport where - whether it's speed in debate or it's freestyling - where he feels like he's no longer speaking the language, but the language is speaking him. He feels like he kind of dissolves into prosody or rhythm or poetry or flow, and the book wants to argue that those are real moments of possibility where we re-encounter the miracle of language and the possibility of building a new language out of the limits of this one.

SHAPIRO: But whereas you mentioned the limits of this one, the book has so much garbled language. I mean, not only that, like, rapid-fire machine gun speech which sounds like gibberish to me, but there's a character who has a concussion. Another has dementia. A bad phone line plays a major point in the plot. Even a reference to somebody using sign language that is just nonsense gestures - so why is this theme of mangling, garbling language also so important?

LERNER: Well, because I think we live in a moment of a total regression to fascistic unreason in our political speech. I mean, I don't know how to overstate it.

SHAPIRO: I mean, not to put too fine a point on it...

LERNER: Exactly. So, I mean, it's - I'm trying to think in part about the genealogy of the present and...

SHAPIRO: Like where the seeds of that came from.

LERNER: Where the seeds of that came from - and yeah, and then also for the book to offer some counter models, like Adam's mother's modes of listening or some other voices in the book that are not speaking gibberish.

SHAPIRO: But I'm curious about your application of the gibberish in the book to our present-day political discourse. Are you saying that our political failure is a failure of speech?

LERNER: Well, in part, absolutely. I mean, I guess, you know, like, the spread, that speed in debate that you played that clip of to me...

SHAPIRO: The spread is a debate term for, like...

LERNER: That's right.

SHAPIRO: ...Trying to get as many points as you can into a certain amount of time. Yeah.

LERNER: Exactly. I mean, I think to a certain degree, that is a metaphor for the overload of the present. I mean, Donald Trump speaks very slowly. It's kind of agrammatical (ph), halting, racist signaling.

SHAPIRO: Look. I was White House correspondent for five years, and Obama spoke painfully slowly, too.

LERNER: That's true.

SHAPIRO: It might have been a very different kind of speech, but it was so slow.

LERNER: That's true. I mean, there's the slowness of political speech on the one hand, and then there's the speed of nano-trading and the 24-hour news cycle on the other hand. And I think one of the things that the Trump White House has learned is that one scandal is really dangerous, right? If you have, like, one Watergate, that outrages people, but if you have a thousand scandals a day that - each one that seems, like, world historical, it's totally incapacitating. So I wanted the spread also to be a metaphor for the way that we're kind of - yeah - overloaded in our daily lives with the language of information.

SHAPIRO: So tell me about the moment you realized that the best way to write about our present-day political life was to write about Topeka in the 1990s, a world that you grew up in.

LERNER: Well, I was really interested how, in the '90s, there was this discourse circulating, at least amongst the pundit class, of the end of history.

SHAPIRO: Oh, like, we solved everything.

LERNER: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: The Berlin Wall is down.

LERNER: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: The Soviet Union has crumbled. Everything's going to be great.

LERNER: Right. And when Bill Clinton, the kind of, like, cool baby boomer, trounced Bob Dole, it was like, you know, now it's just the advent of liberal technocrats, and that ideology is over, et cetera. And I wanted to remember - I mean, that was a white fantasy, and it was always a fantasy. But I wanted to remember kind of what it was like to be coming of age when that discourse was circulating - and not just amongst debaters, but remember it from, you know, the disaster and the possibilities of the present, where Adam Gordon is no longer a kid. He's a father of two young children, and he's trying to figure out how to speak honorably and how to transmit things to his own daughters that are not the double-speak that's described elsewhere in the book.

SHAPIRO: At one point, the book refers to the vaguely imagined east coast city from which your Topeka experiences would be recounted with great irony. Is that what you're doing here?

LERNER: No. It's the opposite. I mean, right - so the young Adam has this fantasy. Like, the way he tries to be cool is he has this belief that in the future, he's going to look back as some kind of, like, person on the coast and think, oh, everything in Topeka was just rehearsal for this more intense life or whatever. But what the book actually does - I mean, the irony that's lost on the younger Adam is that the older Adam is looking back and taking those experiences quite seriously, not at all ironically, seeing them as formative, seeing them as complicated, realizing that there were all kinds of things happening in his family and the world around him that he wasn't sufficiently attuned to.

SHAPIRO: So if part of your exploration of talking and its limitations is to expose the need for, as you put it, a new language, can you describe what that new language is, what it looks and sounds like, what you're hoping for?

LERNER: No, not really.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LERNER: Like, that is to say, I mean, I think - I mean, there are people doing incredible work, obviously. I mean, Trumpism isn't total, and I think, you know, literature is one small effort to advance a counter language to the languages of exploitation. And so no, I don't know what the language would look like, but I think the good thing - maybe the only good thing - about the way the language is dying in Trump's mouth is that there's no going back to a kind of neoliberal political discourse that puts a humane face on extreme capitalist exploitation or whatever.

So the book arrives at that point of not going back, and the book doesn't pretend to know how we should speak going forward, but it does try to model modes of listening and engagement that are other to the dominant discourses of the day.

SHAPIRO: Ben Lerner, thanks for talking with us.

LERNER: Thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: His new novel is called "The Topeka School." And we should note that debater you heard at the beginning of the segment - that was our producer Danny Hensel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.