Not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but a pleasing foray in short-short fiction.

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FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE

Centrifugal stories, supershort and superpithy, by avant-gardist Williams.

In Williams' stories, a non sequitur has the same weight as an ordinary logical proposition, as if to suggest that either we are very illogical creatures indeed or that no one is really listening to anyone else anyway. So it is that in the opening tale, the narrator, poolside at an Illinois Marriott, implores the lifeguard to notice that swimmers are drowning, to which he replies, “I don’t speak Chinese.” Is it that the swimmers are Mandarin or that the characters are swimming their way through a dream? In the next story, a woman, clad in a “boiled woolen cloak,” dies on a roadway, occasioning the observation on the part of our narrator that “her facial features are remarkably symmetrical, expressing vigor and vulnerability.” Even when Williams’ characters are engaged in more or less quotidian acts, from washing the dishes to pleasuring a partner, there is an element of jerky oddness to their behavior, as if they were imperfectly programmed robots or ghosts—in short, ordinary humans, clumsily self-absorbed. Williams writes precise, elegant, and usually very short sentences, building a story piece by piece and conveying a great deal with just a few details; in the shortest of the pieces, weighing in at just 48 words, a woman on the way to drowning—and not a Chinese speaker this time—marvels that the water of the ocean “tasted like a cold, salty variety of her favorite payang congou tea.” The most perfect non sequitur? “My fault. Go fuck herself.” A little goes a long way: this is a book to sip from, not to devour whole. Charged with meaning, every word carrying more than its weight, this is a series of provocations inviting us to look at the world a little differently from before.

Not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but a pleasing foray in short-short fiction.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-940450-84-1

Page Count: 136

Publisher: McSweeney’s

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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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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Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

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THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

STORIES

A gathering of short stories by an ascended master of the form.

Best known for mega-bestselling horror yarns, King (Finders Keepers, 2015, etc.) has been writing short stories for a very long time, moving among genres and honing his craft. This gathering of 20 stories, about half previously published and half new, speaks to King’s considerable abilities as a writer of genre fiction who manages to expand and improve the genre as he works; certainly no one has invested ordinary reality and ordinary objects with as much creepiness as King, mostly things that move (cars, kid’s scooters, Ferris wheels). Some stories would not have been out of place in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s, with allowances for modern references (“Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes”). Pulpy though some stories are, the published pieces have noble pedigrees, having appeared in places such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many inhabit the same literary universe as Raymond Carver, whom King even name-checks in an extraordinarily clever tale of the multiple realities hidden in a simple Kindle device: “What else is there by Raymond Carver in the worlds of Ur? Is there one—or a dozen, or a thousand—where he quit smoking, lived to be 70, and wrote another half a dozen books?” Like Carver, King often populates his stories with blue-collar people who drink too much, worry about money, and mistrust everything and everyone: “Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.” Best of all, lifting the curtain, King prefaces the stories with notes about how they came about (“This one had to be told, because I knew exactly what kind of language I wanted to use”). Those notes alone make this a must for aspiring writers.

Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1167-9

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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