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Two unnerving, challenging stories about identity sparked by subtle delights and surprising ends.

A pair of eerie, minimalist novellas by the gifted Argentinean writer Aira (Ema the Captive, 2016, etc.).

Shades of The Twilight Zone and Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic blood baths linger over these two unnerving novellas, neither of which is anything like the other. In The Little Buddhist Monk, Aira introduces us to a diminutive but endlessly curious Korean monk who dreams of going to Europe or America. If there is a central motif to the work, it is a meditation on the nature of dreams. “Practical people say that dreams serve no purpose; but they can’t deny that at least they allow one to dream,” the monk muses, later remembering, “It costs nothing to dream.” In due course, the monk meets French photographer Napoleon Chirac and his cartoonist wife, Jacqueline Bloodymary, becoming their guide to the country’s shrines. It should come as no surprise to Aira’s readers that the monk, his dreams, and indeed his very reality turn out to be not what they appear. The follow-up novella, The Proof, finds Aira back in more familiar territory with a story set in Buenos Aires, but its conclusion is no less shocking. The story seems designed to shock, as two punk-rock lesbians brace timid Marcia in the street with a startling query, “Wannafuck?” In trying to figure out “Mao” and “Lenin,” Marcia finds herself enraptured in a dangerous game, as the two challenge and taunt her bourgeois assumptions about the world. “You are the nihilist,” Mao tells Marcia. “Could you really spend your time talking crap, worried about the kind of things that happen here, in this hamburger microcosm? All of this is accidental, nothing more than the springboard to launch us back to what is important.” By the time Marcia joins Mao and Lenin in launching a violent attack on a supermarket, she may or may not be experiencing Stockholm syndrome, but there’s no doubt she is fundamentally changed.

Two unnerving, challenging stories about identity sparked by subtle delights and surprising ends.

Pub Date: May 30, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2112-2

Page Count: 178

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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