Better titled Where Three Roads Diverge—but do little more than divert.


Like the NBA-winning Chimera (1972), three linked novellas about sex, heroism and writing.

Having reworked his first novel, The Floating Opera (1956), in several books, Barth returns to his second, The End of the Road (1958), to play variations on the characters in its academic and tragicomic love triangle. “Tell Me” kills off that novel’s sophisticated teacher and panderer, rather than his girlfriend, when he learns she’s pregnant with his friend’s child. “I’ve Been Told: A Story’s Story” extends the life of the novel’s cuckolder, a naif and a would-be hero renamed Phil Blank, into bored middle age and eventual road-side paralysis outside of State College, Pa. “As I Was Saying” is narrated by three elderly sisters who worked their way through college as prostitutes, survived naïve and sophisticated men and inspired books, both a trilogy referred to in their story and Barth’s triptych. Although he mocks biographical criticism, these novellas nevertheless seem an attempt by the wizened and wiser male artist to reverse the conventional fates of fallen women, both his own and others, such as Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. The spirit is sweet, but Barth continues to test readers with his familiar impediments: extreme narrative self-consciousness, maze-like structures, scarce realistic detail and lots of “inside jokes and allusions.” Although the book is not “pedantical crapola,” as one of its character’s says, it will appeal mostly to Barthophiles who want still more after 16 volumes.

Better titled Where Three Roads Diverge—but do little more than divert.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2005

ISBN: 0-618-61016-2

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2005

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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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