THE EBONY TOWER

Maugham once said "The artist's egoism is outrageous; it must be; he is by nature a solipsist and the world exists only for him to exercise upon it his powers of creation." This is concretely the intent and exemplification thereof in the title story of Fowles' collection of five longer short ones — two of which will pick up this theme where the artist must cold-shoulder the world and human values to swaddle his creativity. Thus he introduces also outrageous, also impossibly egoistic Breasley, who has found a sanctuary for his solipsism in a lovely house in Brittany where he is attended and serviced by two young women when David Williams, a writer-lecturer in the field having given up his own work, comes to interview him. There David realizes for the first time that his own "Ebony Tower" is a void where "safety hid nothingness" except the abandonment of himself and his potential. In "Poor Koko" we have another reclusive — a writer of 66 who has always shirked real life for his work — now to be destroyed by the impromptu visit of a young hood. And again in "The Enigma" the disappearance of a conservative MP, hemmed in by correct appearances and rightist assumptions, vanishes if only to impose a lingering question mark on the mediocrity of his achievements. The last story is a sad fairy tale come true, told to a child, experienced by a young woman — and there's a charming lais of the 12th century Marie de France in "Eliduc." To the stories Fowles lends his eclectic erudition, the attractive overlay of sensuous surfaces, and a little commentary for and of our time. And as always he proceeds with splendid ease and confidence to catch the eye at a pleasurably decorative level and then turn it inward.

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 1974

ISBN: 0316287458

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1974

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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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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