The Masters Review Blog

Jun 3

16 Books We’re Looking Forward to for The Second Half of 2020

There are so many incredible books coming out still this year, but we couldn’t let this list go on forever. We limited ourselves to sixteen of the most exciting debut novels and collections as well as a few from writers we already know so well. With so much pain in the country right now, we hope it helps to have a few books to look forward to.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Set in modern-day India, this debut novel from Majumdar, an editor at Catapult, has been called unforgettable. Told from multiple points of view, it is the story of Jivan, who witnesses something awful and then, unthinking, posts a comment on Facebook. Her comment leads to her arrest and the two people who could possibly help her, film-star hopeful Lovely and former gym teacher PT Sir, are preoccupied with their own desires.

Publication date: June 2nd

The Lightness by Emily Temple

Emily Temple, senior editor at Lit Hub, is out with her debut novel. Olivia leaves home and her overbearing mother to search for her father, who has gone missing from a meditation retreat. There, she falls in with a trio of girls who are determined to levitate at all costs. Chloe Benjamin says “The Lightness could be the love child of Donna Tartt and Tana French, but its savage, glittering magic is all Emily Temple’s own.” We’re in.

Publication date: June 16th

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

When Ruby’s mother is murdered, Ruby not only loses her, but also her best friend, Layla, who is told to keep away. Alternating between the present and the past, this debut novel explores secrets, loss, and the limits of friendship.

Publication date: June 16th


A Good Family by A.H. Kim

Kim’s alternating POV novel revolves around Beth who seems to have it all until she pleads guilty to a white-collar crime and ends up in prison. But, who in her idyllic world betrayed her? Who is keeping secrets? Who is telling lies?

Publication date: July 14th


Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes

This is R.L. Maizes follow up to her short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper.

Abandoned by her mother, La La becomes her father’s thieving accomplice. When he’s arrested in her fourth year of veterinary school, La La goes back to breaking into people’s homes in order to pay his lawyer fees. A quirky plot that examines the pull of the past.

     Publication date: July 14th

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

Moving between countries and continents (Uganda and London) and time (the 1960s and today), Zayyan explores loss, family, and home in her debut novel, which won the Merky Books New Writers’ Prize in 2019.

Publication date: July 23rd



Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Franny Stone arrives in Greenland to track the final migration of the world’s last flock of Artic terns. There, her own dark secrets begin to emerge. Emily St. John Mandel says, “Migrations is as beautiful and as wrenching as anything I’ve ever read. This is an extraordinary novel by a wildly talented writer.”

Publication date: August 4th


The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

In this debut novel by the former director of AWP, Lauren Cress is a grieving young adjunct professor. An intense friendship blooms with her student, Siri, and when Siri invites Lauren home to Sweden, Lauren accepts. There, things get much, much more troubling.

Publication date: August 4th


Why Visit America: Stories by Matthew Baker

The good people of Plainfield, Texas decide to secede from the United States and call themselves after America, for nostalgic reasons. These stories are speculative, satirical, and ultimately searching for the things that connect us.

Publication date: August 4th


Before You Go by Tommy Butler

Chance, like all of humankind, is born with a hole in his heart. At a support group in Manhattan, he finds two other lost souls and together they try to find happiness. Before You Go is a big-hearted (get it?) debut about the meaning of life.

Publication date: August 11th


A House is a Body by Shruti Swamy

Mixing reality with mythology, crossing cultures and continents, two-time O. Henry award winner Swamy’s debut collection of stories precisely reveals small moments of the beauty and pain that make up life.

Publication date: August 11th


The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

In this speculative fiction debut novel, Bea leaves the city to seek a better life for her daughter, Agnes. But, what she finds is a complicated place between a refuge and a science experiment and in trying to save her daughter, she may in fact lose her.

Publication date: August 11th


The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager

In this memoir, planetary astrophysicist Seager, who has spent her life peering into space looking for an exoplanet, is suddenly and terribly adrift. She loses her husband to colon cancer and becomes a single mother who, until now, has always managed her Asperger’s. And then, unexpectedly, Seager finds love again.

Publication date: August 18th


The Bestiary by K-Ming Chang

Subversive storytelling meets fabulism in this debut novel about three generations of Taiwanese American women. One mysterious event follows another until secrets are revealed.

Publication date: September 8th


The Ghost Variations by Kevin Brockmeier

The Masters Review Judge is out with his third story collection—this one, one hundred ghost stories. If they are anything like his other stories, they will be witty, poignant gems that illuminate the human condition like never before. We can’t wait.

Publication date: October 6th


The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

Kelly Link says, “Contemporary life in Danielle Evans’s stories has a kind of incandescent and dangerous energy: even in moments of somberness or isolation, her characters crackle with heat, light, and self-awareness.” Evans talks about race with a razor-sharp voice and though-provoking details, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, too.

Publication date: November 10th

by Jennifer Dupree

Jun 1

New Voices: “The Monster in Back Bruly” by Kailyn McCord

You can’t make anything in Back Bruly, or at least that’s what the narrator of Kailyn McCord’s “The Monster in Back Bruly” tells us. We are proud to share this newest entry to our New Voices catalog with you today, about a group who makes as much out of nothing as anyone can, especially deep in the bayou, with a little help from their friend, Blue. Read on:

The fact that she was a gator was the only reason why we pulled off what we did. If she’d been a goat, or a pig, no one would have believed it. I doubt we’d have tried it in the first place.

You can’t make anything in Bruly, and not especially in Back Bruly. Not money, nothing that lasts, nothing of yourself. That sounds like a pity party of shit, sure, but it’s true, and besides, it’s how all this come about. None of us are bad folks, not Trudy and not Eli and not me, but this place’ll put you in spots you never thought you’d get to.

It started with Snow White. That was her real name, on all the ads in the pamphlets and on the sign at the bend in the highway, but we always called her Blue. Eli nicknamed her, when he was a boy. He had a way of doing that, seeing things different than other people, taking what he saw and making it real somehow. He’d look at whatever piece of shit was front of him–a broken boat, or the rusted sign out front Swanson’s Market, or a stretch of swamp in winter–and instead of what it was really, he’d talk about a whole world opening up, how we could take the boat and paint it up pretty, or how Swanson’s had been going in Bruly for almost a hundred years, and wasn’t that something? Or how that winter swamp was really two swamps, if you looked at the cypress right, at where the dark started on each one, a waterline, and the first swamp was what we could see, and the second swamp was underneath, a whole other plane for the things that lived below. And he’d tell it like that, just telling, like what he saw was obvious, like all of us could see. It made him a little crazy, but it was also good, like it scratched an itch, when he was humming like that. Like it got at something we all needed getting at.

So he called her that one day–Blue–and that was it. The name came from her eyes, pale blue and poking out of her head. Now I know albinos usually have red eyes. I don’t know what that means about Blue.

Since I was a boy she was our sight, our draw, our little bit of something special that brought people down the side highway that looped past Back Bruly. Every summer the freshman would re-paint the billboard, fix up the letters. That sign was the best kept thing in town for a while. “Snow White, The Eighth Wonder of Louisiana!” it said, and then there was a picture of her. I never did find out what the first seven wonders were. When they repainted, she always changed a little, teeth getting longer or the spikes on her tail getting taller, and once every few years or so Eli’s dad would have to tell that year’s freshman to reign her in, that she had to stay believable, so folks could tell she was a gator, and not something make-believe, otherwise they might not stop. Eli would wave every time he went by that sign, a flat hand out the window of his truck, like he was saluting her, all twelve feet a clean, pure white from snout to tail.

To continue reading “The Monster in Back Bruly” click here.

May 31

FINAL HOURS: The 2020 Flash Fiction Contest Ends Tonight! $3000 Prize!

The final grains of sand are falling in the hourglass: Submissions to this year’s Flash Fiction Contest, with finalists selected by Sherrie Flick, close tonight at midnight PT! Don’t miss your chance at our $3000 prize, awarded to the best fiction under 1,000 words. Submit before it’s too late!

Deadline tonight!



Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness and two short story collections, Whiskey, Etc. and Thank Your Lucky Stars. Her fiction has appeared in many anthologies and journals, including Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, and New Micro, as well as Ploughshares, New World Writing, and Wigleaf. Her awards include fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. She served as series editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018 and is co-editor for Flash Fiction America, an anthology forthcoming from W.W. Norton. (Photo credit: Richard Kelly)


  • Winner receives $3000 and publication
  • Second and third place prizes are $300 and $200 respectively and publication
  • Stories under 1000 words
  • $20 entry fee allows up to two stories (each under 1000 words) – if submitting two stories, please put them both in a SINGLE document
  • Previously unpublished stories only
  • Simultaneous and multiple submissions allowed
  • Emerging writers only (We are interested in offering a larger platform to new writers. Self-published writers and writers with story collections and novels with a small circulation are welcome to submit.)
  • International submissions allowed
  • Deadline: May 31st, 2020
  • Please no identifying information on your story
  • All stories are considered for publication
  • Dazzle us
  • To view a list of our most commonly asked questions regarding submitting to The Masters Review, please see our FAQ page


May 29

New Writing on the Net: Flash Fiction Edition

In honor of our Flash Fiction Contest, which closes on Sunday, we are dedicating this month’s New Writing on the Net post to the excellent flash and micro fiction that has been published online this month! Take inspiration from these powerful beauties and get your own in before time runs out on our contest!

“How to Survive a Nuclear Meltdown” by Michele Finn Johnson | Third Point Press, May 11

The exorcist I hire off of Craigslist says the best chance for success is on the eve of a solstice. Is it smart to wait three months?  I answer the exorcist’s emailed questions—No, Edith isn’t causing anyone harm; No, Edith isn’t creating any physical property damage; Yes, Edith’s staying put in the powder room. Sounds like the perfect houseguest, the exorcist replies. We set a date in June.

“5 Greek Refusals: a micro series” by Matt Bell | Fractured, May 18

Because after the virgin prince firmly explained his refusal to sleep with the younger, he expected her to die of lust and longing, as all others had—but instead she simply took no further notice of him, spending her days as she always had: at her loom or upon her harp, or else smashing her mallet against loud-clacking croquet balls, her blows sending the bright orbs spinning across the prince’s father’s vast palace lawns. How angry the prince was at her refusal to be affected by him, how in his anger he followed her everywhere, begging her to die, whining out his reasons!

“Our Vices” by Dominica Phetteplace | wigleaf, May 24

I’m not sure how, but fan fiction began to creep into our re-enactments. Blame it on the perniciousness of pop-culture. We fought the Civil War again, but this time the Union was led by Hermione Granger. The Confederacy was commanded by a Hitler-Voldermort hybrid we started calling Hitlermort to save time.

I continued to participate, even though it was stupid. Thor won the Iowa Caucuses, with the remaining Avengers in a nine-way tie for second and this time Joe Biden, aka me, came in eleventh place.

I told the class I didn’t want to be Joe Biden anymore.

“Dowsed” by Michael Credico | The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, May 27

My mother was upset there was no word for parents who had lost a child, no equivalent to widow, widower, and orphan. “Bereaved,” she said. “Imagine living the rest of your life modified like that.”

“This Song” by Tara Isabel Zambrano | Trampset, May 29

Don’t ask why I notice but I do, that I am wearing his socks and he’s wearing my favorite white t-shirt, and I’m seeing the sky behind him, a plane several thousands of feet above, crossing over a silent millisecond between us.

Curated by Cole Meyer

May 28

June Deadlines: 11 Contests Ending This Month

Summer has managed to sneak up on most of us, but don’t let yourself be caught unaware by these amazing contests! There’s still time to find the perfect home for your writing, so give this list a look!

Salamander 2020 Fiction Prize

Offered through Suffolk University, Salamander is working with Elliot Ackerman to discover amazing new fiction! Each submission must be less than 30 pages, include a two-page cover sheet, and be entirely unpublished. First prize is $1000, second prize is $500, and all entries are considered for publication Learn more here.

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: June 1

Halifax Ranch Fiction Prize

American Short Fiction and brilliant judge Manuel Gonzales are looking for writers who are confident, concise, and creative – could that be you? Stories must be between 2000 and 6500 words, but multiple entries are allowed. First place receives $2500 and guaranteed publication in an upcoming issue! Details here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: June 2

Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction

This annual short fiction contest is made possible through the generous support of the McGlinn and Hansma families, and they are looking for superbly crafted short stories! The winner will receive $2000 and an award dinner on the campus of Rosemont College, second place receives $500, and third place receives $250. Entries should be 8000 words or less, and simultaneous submissions are allowed. Learn more here!

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: June 15

New American Fiction Prize

If you have an unpublished fiction manuscript, this is opportunity knocking! New American Press and Nick White are currently accepting submissions for this prize. A full-length fiction work of outstanding merit will be selected, and the winner will receive a publication contract, including a $1500 advance, 25 author’s copies, and promotional support. Do it!

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: June 15

Spokane Prize for Short Fiction

Willow Springs Books could be the perfect home for your newest manuscript of short stories, if you have enough nerve to try! Each submission needs to contain at least three distinct stories, totalling at least 98 pages, as well as a cover letter. First place wins $2000 and publication, under the direction of poet Christopher Howell. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $27.50 Deadline: June 15

Autumn House Press Contests

In this threefold contest offered by Autumn House Press, contestants can submit manuscript entries for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The categories are judged by Dan Chaon, Jaquira Díaz, and Ilya Kaminksy, respectively. Not only do the winners in each contest receive $2500 in prizes and publication, but promotional help as well! Make sure to choose the correct category when you submit, and good luck! Find more details here.

Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: June 30

Barrow Street Press Book Contest

If you have been hoping for a chance to show the world your talent for poetry, your wait is definitely over with this competition! Judged by the incomparable Dorianne Laux, the best previously unpublished manuscript of poetry in English will receive $1500 and publication. Each collection should be between 50-80 pages, but you are allowed multiple submissions. Don’t wait!

Entry Fee: $28 Deadline: June 30

Drue Heinz Literature Prize

This contest has some very stringent requirements, but the prize is almost beyond belief! In order to be eligible for the University of Pittsburgh Press’ award, you must have been published by a reputable journal, magazine, or publisher, before you can submit your collection of short fiction for consideration. The winner of this award, however, will have that manuscript published, and then receive $15,000! Details here.

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: June 30

Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction

The University of North Texas Press offers this prize every year, and this could be the year for you! Entries can be a combination of short-shorts, short stories, and novellas, from 100 to 200 book pages in length. Authors may submit multiple applications, and simultaneous submissions are allowed. The winner receives $1000 and publication by UNT Press! Submit here.

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: June 30

Lascaux Prize in Flash Fiction

If you think you’re ready to medal in writing flash fiction, then this is the contest for you! The Lascaux Review is accepting three stories per submission, less than 1000 words each. All finalists in this contest will be published, but the winner also receives $1000 and a bronze medallion for their efforts. Check it out!

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: June 30

2020 Short Story Prize

The Moth is looking for short stories, less than 5000 words, with little constraints beyond that! Only unpublished short stories are eligible, but authors may submit multiple times. The winner receives €3000 and publication in the autumn issue, second place receives a week-long writing retreat, and third place receives €1000. Judged by Mark Haddon. Learn more here!

Entry Fee: €15 Deadline: June 30


by Kimberly Guerin

May 27

New Voices Revisited: “New Shadows” by Kaj Tanaka

Looking for last second flash inspiration? Look no further! In today’s New Voices, Revisited, we look back on Kaj Tanaka’s “New Shadows”, originally published in November 2016. Prepare your minds and bodies for a time when, “…once again, darkness has become our principal currency” with this beautiful and haunting piece of flash. And once you’ve finished, get your own submissions in to this year’s Flash Fiction Contest, which closes on May 31!

At night, while you are waiting for the train, you might see the new shadows milling about. Eating up the floor of the train platform. If you do not look directly at them you will notice them moving, shifting from leg to leg, checking their phones, hefting their overnight bags. Watch them as they board the train. Watch the shadow train depart alongside your train.

Several of us have noticed that the shadows, of late, seem somehow greater—seem to be multiplying in size, quantity and level of darkness. Have you noticed the generally increasing darkness? We attribute that to the shadows. It has been a difficult conversation to broach for those of us who have noticed because we do not want to seem like alarmists. There are, no doubt, other, more scientific, explanations, although we are not exactly sure what those might be. We are aware, for example, that it is winter here in the northern hemisphere, and, once again, darkness has become our principal currency. That is not so surprising. That is not what we are talking about here.

Look outside, if you want an example. Do you see the trees? Do you see the shadows beneath trees? Notice how dark they are. Notice how long and improbably wide they are. Notice the way they seem to swallow up the earth itself. I’m not asking you to do any math right now, but there is no way those shadows could be so long as deep as they appear to be—not with our artificial light situation being as impoverished as it has been of late. Have you noticed, for example, that the streetlights are not as bright as they used to be? That your car’s headlights are not as bright as they used to be? For a long time, we thought we were gradually going blind. We visited our doctor and found that our eyes were completely normal. In fact, our doctor assures us, according to scientists the world is gradually becoming lighter. He assures us that our fears are completely unfounded, and we should maybe just try to get some sleep. We are not convinced, so we have opened ourselves up to alternative explanations.

To continue reading “New Shadows” click here.

May 26

Call for Readers: Summer 2020

The Masters Review is looking to add a few new, talented readers to our team this summer. If you love literary fiction and nonfiction, and three to four hours of reading submissions a week sounds like fun, we encourage you to apply. Our readers work remotely and can set their own schedules. This position begins in June and involves a commitment through January. PLEASE NOTE: readerships are unpaid and on a strictly volunteer basis.


If interested, please send cover letter, resume, and at least one writing sample by Friday June 5th. We look forward to hearing from you!

May 25

New Voices: “Taking Mr. Itopa” by Caleb Ozovehe Ajinomoh

Annevoi’s husband is missing—that’s where we find ourselves at the beginning of Caleb Ozovehe Ajinomoh’s tender yet surprising new fiction, “Taking Mr. Itopa,” today’s entry into our New Voices catalog. Dive in below to this phenomenal tale of a woman who takes her life into her own hands:

At the clinic, everyone smiled at her. A real shitty position to be in, she thought, when patients have to rise above personal discomfort to comfort the doctor. She dreaded their sympathy for the same reason she had evaded her neighbors’ queries about Joshua’s absence. They all talked her into blamableness, as if she had chased him away from home. Where has your husband gone to, Fatima’s mother had asked, a question of abandonment, instead of, when is your husband coming back, a question of adventure.

Even though Joshua was not dead, she missed him. She forgot the children; the two boys she had adopted to please him, and Vick, the girl she had had at first, unluckily, who had then extended their bad luck by having a child of her own, a grandson nobody had asked for. She was thinking about how much she missed him, hoping all was well–being herself, her forty-eight-year-old illusion-hamstrung self–when the kids shrieked, jolting Annevoi out of her daydreams. If Joshua were here, if he had returned from his mysterious Lagos trip, she would not be the children’s first shout. This was what she was thinking when she burst into the children’s room.

The children had looked at her for a full minute before she realized her buba was not tied high enough to cover her breasts. The children, especially the older boys, Mac and Darwin, seemed more interested in their mother’s chest than the mamba splayed as pathetic and lifeless as a belt on the shoe rack behind them. Annevoi shoved the boys aside, grabbed a mop stick and approached the serpent, whose haggard eyes thrummed with the terror of blows not yet suffered. It slinked away when she attacked, vanishing down the shoe rack, displacing a fair number of Vick’s shoes. Annevoi chased it around the room for a few minutes, losing her buba’s grip on her chest twice before striking a fortunate blow with the mop stick.

In the morning, an engineer investigated all the plumbing channels and inlets and concluded the snake may have crept in from Annevoi’s clinic, a sturdy structure which was attached to the back of the house. He had found a slit inside a ward ceiling which, in the building plan, led to Vick’s room. A slit resulting from a badly cracked tile, which he blamed on harmattan. He’d return with a workman to fix it the next day. But first, the engineer told her, he would call her husband to discuss it. Annevoi wagged a warning finger in his face, threatening to give the job to someone else. The engineer made his apologies and sprinted away.

To continue reading “Taking Mr. Itopa” click here.

May 24

Final Week: 2020 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Sherrie Flick, Closes May 31

Seven days left to get your lovely, powerful flash polished and submitted for this year’s contest! The winning story receives a prize of $3000, in addition to publication on The Masters Review. This year’s contest is judged by the spectacular Sherrie Flick, who will be selecting the finalists from a shortlist chosen by our editors. If you’re still in need of some inspiration, be sure to check out Sherrie’s newest flash, published last week, right here on TMR. The clock is ticking!

$3000 prize! Don’t miss out!


Add to Calendar


Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness and two short story collections, Whiskey, Etc. and Thank Your Lucky Stars. Her fiction has appeared in many anthologies and journals, including Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, and New Micro, as well as Ploughshares, New World Writing, and Wigleaf. Her awards include fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. She served as series editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018 and is co-editor for Flash Fiction America, an anthology forthcoming from W.W. Norton. (Photo credit: Richard Kelly)


  • Winner receives $3000 and publication
  • Second and third place prizes are $300 and $200 respectively and publication
  • Stories under 1000 words
  • $20 entry fee allows up to two stories (each under 1000 words) – if submitting two stories, please put them both in a SINGLE document
  • Previously unpublished stories only
  • Simultaneous and multiple submissions allowed
  • Emerging writers only (We are interested in offering a larger platform to new writers. Self-published writers and writers with story collections and novels with a small circulation are welcome to submit.)
  • International submissions allowed
  • Deadline: May 31st, 2020
  • Please no identifying information on your story
  • All stories are considered for publication
  • Dazzle us
  • To view a list of our most commonly asked questions regarding submitting to The Masters Review, please see our FAQ page


May 23

May Book Review: Fade by Russell Helms

Dan Mazzacane’s review of former The Masters Review reader Russell Helms’ novel, Fade, is our second book review in May! “This is what Helms does best,” Mazzacane writes: “illustrating how depression seeps into a person’s bones, slowly, without breaking them.”

There is a careful subtlety to the emotional stakes in Fade. Depression lurks in every facet of the novel. Michael, a divorced father of two, struggles to find meaning in a life surrounded by unwashed clothes, regimented pills, and constant drinking. After Anna commits suicide, her mother, Mandy, haunts her daughter’s bedroom, keeping Anna’s phone in hopes of talking to her old friends. When Michael proposes the impossible, that he will bring Anna back to life, he threatens to upend what little closure Mandy has found. She cannot see Anna’s ghost, and the devastation at hand should Michael fail, builds each time they interact, until it’s almost impossible to ignore. Mandy is volatile, her speech cautious, a moment away from tears, spiraling further each time Anna is mentioned. This is what Helms does best: illustrating how depression seeps into a person’s bones, slowly, without breaking them.

Read on.

May 22

2019-2020 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers: Finalists!

Winner winner, chicken dinner! The finalists for our 2019-2020 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers have been selected by guest judge Kimberly King Parsons. In what was certainly an agonizingly difficult decision, she has narrowed down the shortlist to these final 4 stories. Congratulations to the authors, and thank you so much to all of our submitters. We couldn’t do this without you! Be on the lookout for these excellent finalists upcoming on The Masters Review.


The Driver, Samantha Xiao Cody

Second Place

Joe Blake, Raeden Richardson

Third Place

The Easiest Thing in the World, Taylor Grieshober

Honorable Mention

Rapture, Chloe Seim

May 21

Reading Through the Awards: The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, recently awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award for best fiction and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity.”

Ben Lerner’s third and already highly celebrated novel, The Topeka School, is, like Lerner’s previous works of fiction, both heavily autobiographical and heavily concerned with language itself, how language functions and how it breaks down, how it stands in for other modes of expression and how we express ourselves with and without it. The book follows Adam Gordon—who also narrates Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station—as a high school senior and national debate whiz, plus his mother and father, both researchers at a psychoanalysis clinic called the Foundation, as the three of them navigate Adam’s transition into a particularly American kind of adulthood, or, as Lerner might argue, “adolescence without end.”

There’s a ton to admire here. Lerner’s characters, for one, constantly observe others in a way that displays the uniqueness of both observer and observee—Klaus, a sort of grandfather figure to Adam, for instance, speaks in a voice “like an imitation of itself; Klaus was an actor bemused to be playing Klaus.” Adam sees Peter Evanson, his private debate tutor, both as “an accomplished elder” and as “a species of man-child.” Lerner’s intimate knowledge of the debate world is riveting, from observations about each debater’s flaws and styles to the explanation of “the spread,” in which a debater packs as many arguments as possible into a given timeframe. Even the smallest bit characters and interstitial vignettes come alive on the page, and Lerner, a poet’s poet, can’t help but sketch them in breathtaking language. The most striking passage in the novel lands in the penultimate chapter, when, after Adam performs oral sex on his girlfriend, she explains her desire to be with him and gradually slips into a surreal, associative monologue in which the distinction between speech and narration breaks down. Somehow the effect draws the reader in rather than dragging them out. It’s beautiful to see that kind of craft at work.

The overriding sensation here, however, is that this is an Important Book about Important Things. When we read about the way Adam displaces his adolescent male aggression into the act of debate—“the verbal equivalent of forearms and elbows”—we’re to understand this isn’t just about Adam’s aggression, but the adolescent male aggression of America itself, an aggression that seeps into nearly every interaction in the novel. While Lerner draws these confrontations with a clear and insightful eye, the weight of his language never lets you forget that although he may be writing about people—even himself—what matters in the end is the language itself, the argument, the spread.

Benjamin Van Voorhis

Ben Lerner’s newest novel, The Topeka School addresses just how far men have come fucking up society. At the core of this novel is this question of how did we get here? Set in the late nineties in the suburbs of Topeka, Kansas we follow Adam, a pretentious debate prodigy whose parents work at a cultish psychiatric hospital called The Foundation. His father  a psychiatrist who caters to “lost boys.” His mother a famous feminist author.

The story is told through intersecting points of view: Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane. And while at times his father’s narrative feels like a phantom appendage to the story, meandering in the way so many of our own fathers do when they attempt a story, we are grounded in the relationship between mother and son. In a letter written to Adam, detailing his parent’s unraveling relationship, we learn about The Men who call her at all hours for writing a book that has destroyed their own marriages. And like so many men in this novel, the blame falls on anyone but themselves.

And in a way, this novel is structured very much like The Men: unsolicited calls ringing abruptly at all hours of the night. We do not know whose perspective or time or space we will get with the next chapter, but we pick up the call anyways. Is it because we are lonely? Because we want to be told everything will be okay from the other end? This novel is a historical party line, or in this day and age a group text, a Zoom meeting, Facetime; a collection of narratives that blend together to tell Adam Gordon’s bildungsroman, straddling the line between hyper intellectual and hyper masculine. It is this balancing act that holds the novel together and keeps one reading until the final page. Will Adam answer the call or will he be alone, late in the night breathing heavily into the speaker?

Sean Frede

My initial thoughts were about the overall flow, which is extremely stagnated in the beginning. It was like I wanted a shorter sentence—or sometimes the opposite, with a longer one. Also, using “had had” has never looked good in a written form, which is why most people avoid it. These are more technical and nitpicky things. I was surprised to be fussing over them as much as I did, and this likely stems from the fact that the writing itself isn’t nearly as intriguing and clever as it wants to be. It is, overall, horrendously boring.

I began to wonder if I wasn’t listening to one of my own uncles droning on as much the stepfather in Adam’s section, and in that first chapter alone, I had to re-read passages. Then I slogged through the mock trials segment, became intrigued by the use of first-person in Jonathan’s section (I did like Klaus), and it doesn’t pick up again until Jonathan makes another entry. Jane’s sections do not hold the intrigue of her husband’s narration, and her opening thoughts seem very pandering to me (and it likely wouldn’t have read that way if it was written well).

After finishing the novel, I realized that Lerner is excellent at composing a male voice, but his female utterances need practice. Also, how does us knowing what gross thing Adam (Jane and Jonathan’s son) did to his penis as a child at all relevant to the story? Sure, Jane says it was funny and then upsetting, and that’s it. Another one of the those deeply personal anecdotes that should be reserved between close comrades, rather than a wide audience, because that’s what we as the readers are. We are an audience watching a mundane display of characters float around in a pool of medical and psychological rhetoric. By the end, I cared very little for any of them, and it takes over a hundred pages for Darren’s relevancy to actually unfold. This novel is messy and monotonous, even if it is technically proficient.

S.N. Valadez

Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, much like the novels of Rachel Cusk, often introduces the reader to characters and situations solely so the protagonist can respond in page-and-a-half paragraphs of thought that deepen the book’s themes in a writing style that feels not unlike a fictionalized essay. Still, Lerner does lean into story here, shifting perspective and time period until the characters and their relationships, by maybe halfway through the novel, start to feel like they sort of matter. Which isn’t to say that the book fails. In fact, it manages to take on a myriad of complicated ideas surrounding the use and manipulation of language, politics, family, memory, and the severely divided ethos and background of right and left-leaning America. One of the book’s largest successes lies in its sensitive (albeit somewhat flat) portrayal of Darren, the bullied kid turned violent teenager turned MAGA protester.

With so much thematic depth, it becomes tempting to assign this novel the hackneyed workshop phrase: it’s trying to do too much. The thing is, though, that Lerner accomplishes a hell of a lot in under three hundred pages; my head was spinning in a hundred different directions each time I flipped the page and is spinning still after closing the book. The novel is nothing if not intellectually stimulating, and it succeeds and excels on those terms. Lerner may not allow for a reading experience that feels entirely inviting or immersive or character driven (though it is certainly all of these things in flashes), but he’s written a book that pushes the boundaries of what a novel can accomplish and how.

Josh Olivier

Curated by Brandon Williams