Self's celebrated perversity (My Idea of Fun, 1994, etc.) largely goes on holiday in this second collection (after The Quantity Theory of Insanity, 1995). This time, nine stories (four of them previously published) remain close in theme to earlier work while falling well short of Self's mastery of the blackly comic. The first piece, ""Between the Conceits""--in which one of the only eight real people in London describes the rules of a game involving incessant manipulations of his ""people"" to gain advantage over his competitors--most closely approximates Self's knack for imagining a freakish society with disturbing echoes of the real one. Similarly, ""Chest"" conjures up a nightmarish England whose inhabitants are sickened by a constant, choking smog that leaves them dependent on inhalers and at risk of death if they tarry outside. Otherwise, these tales range from complete misses to insubstantial set pieces clustered around a single riveting detail. In ""Incubus,"" an intricately carved, magnificently phallic screen from the 17th century adorns an otherwise nondescript house (and story), casting a lusty spell on an aging philosophy professor and his adoring graduate student; in ""Inclusion,"" a psychoactive drug prepared from the corpses and fecal matter of bee mites is given a clandestine trial by a pharmaceutical company, with results that are disastrous but unremarkable; and in ""The End of the Relationship,"" the volume's raw but lifeless finale, a woman's despair over a rift with her boyfriend propels her into a series of encounters with couples at odds with each other. Evidence of a savage talent still exists in this mâ€šlange, but the mesmerizing quality of Self's earlier sordid, in-your-face images is too often absent--while what remains is pedestrian, if not downright dull.