UNDER THE RED FLAG

STORIES

A peek behind the Bamboo Curtain, where Chinese poet Ha Jin, winner of the latest Flannery O'Connor Award, works out the conflicts between tradition and constraint that animate his second collection (after Ocean of Words, 1996). Ha Jin, who writes in English, is a Chinese veteran of the People's Liberation Army and, although he doesn't address political dissidence directly in his work, the 12 stories here all contain that undercurrent of cynicism in the face of authority that's common to military (as well as Communist) societies. Thus, the soldier of ``A Man-to-Be,'' who holds back from taking part in a gang-rape, not only finds himself defensive about his own manliness but is eventually shunned by his fiancÇe's family, who doubt his ability to father children, whereas the hooligan boys who terrorize their fellow classmates in ``Emperor'' discover that their popularity and status increase ever higher with each new atrocity they perpetrate. The abiding tensions of peasant life prove themselves again and again to be deeper than the Party's ideal of the New Communist Man, as in ``New Arrival'' (where a childless couple refuses to adopt a beloved young boy entrusted to their care because of their fear of bad luck) or ``Fortune'' (in which an old man's faith in fortune-telling remains so absolute that he becomes willfully deluded rather than admit that his life has been ruined). Honor remains a powerful primordial force as well, best illustrated in the predicament of the dutiful Party member who disobeys his dying mother's wish for a traditional funeral and is promptly denounced by his comrades for filial impiety; or in the public degradation of a prostitute (``In Broad Daylight''), which, however harrowing, remains a less vivid spectacle than the degradation of her accusers. Splendidly fluid and clear: Ha Jin has managed to make an utterly alien world seem as familiar as an old friend.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 1997

ISBN: 0-8203-1939-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Univ. of Georgia

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1997

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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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