Uneven tales with moments of brilliance and surprise.



A linked collection of literary short stories investigates the tales hidden behind the walls of the nondescript houses lining a suburban neighborhood.

There is a strange anonymity to residential streets. Houses may be tidy or in need of repair, but other than these surface clues, there is little to give away the sorts of tragedies that might be unfolding inside of them. The college-age children of the immigrant family in the yellow two-bedroom spend their evenings cleaning the house to perfection while their mother compulsively watches stories about a refugee crisis on the news. The white three-bedroom serves as a makeshift motel where addicts can exchange drugs and sex after paying $8 for two hours. In the four-bedroom, a husband and wife dance around the old, terrible secret at the center of their marriage: “Every morning I wake up and it seems as if Jordan has forgiven me for what I did, though I cannot find the words to ask him directly. I spend all day in a quiet house wondering if it could ever be true that he would forgive me.” Each of the nine vignettes offers a new perspective on the varied and proximate lives lived in contemporary America. Prioleau’s prose is sharp and often lyrical, constructing complex psychological portraits for his narrators and their family members: “To a betrayer, an act of betrayal is typically an extended series of actions, like building a flimsy house. But this opportunity came in a single moment. Not a long, turgid series of couplets, an untranslatable epic poem. Just a moment.” Sometimes the book can feel a bit overwritten, particularly when it presents two or three of these bedroom philosophers in a row, but it also allows the author to craft passages of specificity and insight. This is a short collection at just over 100 pages, and only about half the stories really work—some feel exploitative; some simply don’t have enough of a narrative arc—but the ones where everything comes together are quite powerful. This won’t be a book for everyone, but it fits well into the long American tradition of myopic perspectives on the claustrophobia and hypocrisy of the suburbs.

Uneven tales with moments of brilliance and surprise.

Pub Date: N/A


Page Count: -

Publisher: manuscript

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2020

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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