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 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

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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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