A completist’s dream, as well as a comprehensive overview of Purdy’s themes and—yes—obsessions.


The late (1914–2009) fiction writer, whose work sharply divided critical opinion from the start, receives his due with this vast but fast-moving collection of short stories.

Dip into the book, counsels fugitive filmmaker John Waters in his introduction, and you’ll find “a perfectly perverted Purdy story,” one that, he adds, will yield “hilarious moral damage and beautiful decay that will certainly follow in your dreams.” The description seems apt, though Purdy’s themes, sometimes homoerotic and sometimes obsessive, transcend the merely sexual: Waters’ word “perverted” might more closely track Purdy’s gloomy, angry, mistrustful sense of the world. His characters are often argumentative, bitter, unhappy, full of malign intent. In one particularly unpleasant example, a woman awakens as if from a dream to decide that after years of married life she cannot stand her husband’s name—and by extension, her husband. He repays the sentiment by hitting her “not too gently over the mouth,” making her bleed and drawing a crowd. In another, a young man murders a “young uncle” for what he considers good cause and then shoots himself: “his brains and pieces of skull rushed out from under his fair curly hair onto the glass behind the pillars, onto the screen door, the blood flew like a gentle summer shower.” In yet another, a less violent Chekhov pastiche, a swindle takes flight as a “whim of Fortune,” ruinous for some and a boon for others. You’ll either be enchanted or repelled, and Purdy seems to occupy no middle ground: Whereas Jonathan Franzen has championed him, Edmund White has professed to be “allergic” to Purdy’s work. A bonus: Several of the stories are previously unpublished, some by design.    

A completist’s dream, as well as a comprehensive overview of Purdy’s themes and—yes—obsessions.

Pub Date: July 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-87140-669-9

Page Count: 780

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

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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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