FOUR NEW MESSAGES

Cohen doesn't pull off every trick he attempts, but it’s a pleasure to witness him test the limits of narrative.

A quartet of cleverly conceived tales that capture our anxieties about living in an increasingly commodified and digitized society.

Following his previous novel, Witz (2010, etc.), a satirical epic about the last Jew on earth, this trim collection of short stories seems relatively breezy. But Cohen packs a lot of ideas and syntactical somersaults into a slim book. The opening, “Emission,” follows the travails of Richard, a young drug dealer who commits an embarrassing sexual act that all but annihilates his reputation online. Through his desperate efforts to scrub his shame off the Web, Richard reveals how much we're subject to (and exploited by) others’ interpretations of our identity. The closing, “Sent,” is similarly focused on the Internet and sex, but the treatment is more offbeat, tracing the path of a bed from the craftsman’s shop to an ad hoc porn set, then following a journalist whose porn habit catches up with him in curious ways. The sense of unreality in these stories is echoed and bolstered by Cohen’s style, which is recursive and sometimes threatens grammatical collapse. Yet the force of his intelligence is always strong, and even at his knottiest, his tone remains conversational. He can push his prose frustratingly deep into abstraction: “McDonald’s," a metafictional piece that deploys a dying woman into a symbolic commentary about the titular fast-food chain, is an ungainly blend of the logorrheic and the allegorical. His experimental bent is much better served in “The College Borough,” about a group of writing students who build a replica of Manhattan’s Flatiron Building on a Midwest college campus. Within the story’s metaphorical superstructure, Cohen embeds a tragic, evocative story about writerly struggles to make sense of the world.

Cohen doesn't pull off every trick he attempts, but it’s a pleasure to witness him test the limits of narrative.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-55597-618-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

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SIGHTSEEING

STORIES

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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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