Readers with a high tolerance for ambiguity will find much to admire in these fleeting pieces.

READ REVIEW

THE DOMINANT ANIMAL

Microstories offer glances of the unsettling power dynamics at the heart of every relationship.

In “The First Whiffs of Spring,” the opening story of this experimental collection, the narrator, riding a public bus on her way to a get-together, spots a sign featuring a cartoon cow, lipsticked and bonneted. The image echoes in the human performances of her day: She recalls it at the celebration she attends where she herself is dressed up, in the overdecorated house, and in the helpless baby, “the cause of our celebration,” with “its swollen face, its unseeing eyes.” (If the rest of Scanlan’s stories are anything to go by, that baby is lucky it can’t see much yet.) As a good first story should be, this one is emblematic of Scanlan’s (Aug 9—Fog, 2019) book as a whole: a quick glimpse of a weird world, with the readers as passengers just catching a startling tableau only to find it vanished when we turn to see it closer, leaving us to ponder what it might mean. This lightning-fast vision means that Scanlan jettisons traditional story elements in favor of tone and image, which are almost always disquieting. In “Mother’s Teeth,” a daughter spends the day with her cancer-riddled mother and reflects on their bitter relationship. In the title story, the narrator’s observations of the man next door and his dogs prompt her recollection of her own ill-fated stint as a dog owner. In “Vagrants,” an impoverished couple drives through wealthy neighborhoods; indeed, many of Scanlan’s stories focus on couples floating through often grotesque circumstances, as in “Please,” in which a woman is tormented by her husband’s constipation.

Readers with a high tolerance for ambiguity will find much to admire in these fleeting pieces.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-53829-3

Page Count: 160

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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