One of our best young writers just keeps getting better.




Media overkill and other forms of contemporary paranoia and mendacity take their lumps in this third collection from the brainy postmodernist author (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 1999, etc.).

The most conventional of its eight impressively varied stories is “The Surfing Channel,” the raffish satirical account of trendy Style magazine’s research into the personal history of a popular sculptor who works in the medium of human excrement. How he produces his art is about what you’d expect (“Maybe his colon somehow knows things his conscious mind doesn’t”), and Wallace’s deadpan depiction of his manufactured celebrity is both hilarious and, uh, fundamentally silly. Elsewhere, we encounter an ad agency manipulating public hunger for a cholesterol-laden product (“Mr. Squishy”), a possibly suicidal yuppie devoted to obsessive analysis of his own “fraudulence” (“Good Old Neon”), and the story (told in conversations overheard during a business flight) of an “omniscient child” born in a Third World rain forest and commercially exploited by his fellow villagers (“Another Pioneer”). But Wallace is as versatile as he is facile, capable of such contrasting stunners as a blistering vignette that describes in headlong charged prose the accidental severe burning of a toddler and his parents’ panicked efforts to save his life (“Incarnations of Burned Children”) and the volume’s two standout pieces. In “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” a depressed, lonely father sorrowfully recalls a violent episode at his son’s elementary school, an episode that the distracted boy survived almost without noticing it: a terrific story, in which the generation gap yawns unbridgeably. Then there’s “Oblivion,” the narrative of a 40-ish husband whose wife objects to his nonexistent snoring, leading him to an Orwellian Sleep Clinic, and to question everything he thinks he knows about himself. This ingenious anatomy of incompatibility perfectly illustrates Wallace’s genius for combining intellectual high seriousness and tomfoolery with compassionate insight into distinctively contemporary fears and neuroses.

One of our best young writers just keeps getting better.

Pub Date: June 8, 2004

ISBN: 0-316-91981-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2004

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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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