Elegant, impactful writing in a deliciously unnerving collection.

THE STORY OF MY UNIVERSE AND OTHER STORIES

This volume of short stories teeters on the edge of plausibility, exploring everything from sinister cults to the coteries of academia.

Seventeen tales are offered in this collection of extremes written by an author who is equally comfortable examining the grisly as he is the demure. The opening story, “Shoot Me,” is one of strange coincidence—a young man accidentally shoots a fellow hunter in the forest only to learn that chance brought them together before. The following story, “Ball,” is a bizarrely intriguing tale about a man who inherits a mysterious sphere from an aging colleague and discovers that it holds wildly entertaining and destructive powers. Meanwhile, “Poet to Poet” is a cautionary tale about the predatory nature of academia. “The Metametamorphosis,” in which a fashion designer awakes to find he has transformed into a beetle, is a thought-provoking rewrite of Kafka’s masterpiece. The collection closes with the title story, which tells of a seemingly ordinary man who comes to the realization that “I murdered someone I didn’t even know.” When approaching Guerin’s writing, it is important for readers to expect the unexpected. Even then, nothing can prepare them for the knockout final sentence the author delivers in “Red,” the tale of a man who stumbles on a cult performing a ritual on a beach. Full of surprises, Guerin’s descriptive approach is refreshingly unconventional: “From this grassy bank wishbone-shaped twigs stuck up like fetishes.” Yet he also has the power to suddenly flip to the remorselessly brutal: “There didn’t seem to be any blood, though my fingers sank in slightly as if the skull had shattered.” The author’s stories are founded on a breadth of literary knowledge. In addition to Kafka, Gogol is a clear influence, even making an appearance as a supposed thief in “Gogol in Paris.” A naïvely pretentious conversation between two students in “Philosophy 000,” the weakest tale here, fails to bestow each character with a satisfyingly unique voice; on occasion, it is difficult to discern who is saying what. But this is a minor distraction in a strong and compelling assemblage that is sure to perturb and astonish in equal measure.

Elegant, impactful writing in a deliciously unnerving collection.

Pub Date: July 26, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-937484-81-1

Page Count: 263

Publisher: Amika Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2021

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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Taylor tackles a variety of taboos and articulates the comfortless sides of the soul, and it's thrilling to watch.

FILTHY ANIMALS

A story collection full of vital insight into murky human interactions.

Lionel, who animates several of the linked stories in this high-wire act of a collection, is a Black, queer graduate student at an unnamed Midwestern university—much like Wallace, the protagonist of Taylor’s Booker Prize–shortlisted debut novel, Real Life (2020). He studies pure math and is recovering from a suicide attempt. At a party, he mimics other grad students’ laughter because he doesn’t innately feel the social cues most people would. But Lionel isn’t devoid of emotion. In fact, the “feeling of falseness vibrating in his sinuses” from pretending to enjoy social events utterly wears him out. So when Lionel becomes involved with bisexual Charles and his girlfriend, Sophie, both of whom are studying dance, the frisson may be too much for him: “Some lives, Lionel thought, had to be ordinary or ugly or painful. Ending your life had to be on the table.” Other stories share this rueful, sepulchral cast of mind. In “Little Beast,” babysitter and private chef Sylvia knows that “the world can’t abide a raw woman.” In the title story, one character’s “favorite act of violence is to burn holes into people’s clothes when they aren’t looking.” The settings here are bleak—alienated suburbs; petty college campuses—and the mood unsparing. But the daring in these stories is bracing. Despite its accolades, Taylor’s debut novel could feel listless; this collection is a deeper achievement.

Taylor tackles a variety of taboos and articulates the comfortless sides of the soul, and it's thrilling to watch.

Pub Date: June 22, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-525-53891-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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