Admirable efforts to strip familiarity and sentiment from stories of humanity at its worst, albeit with hit-or-miss...

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A TREE OR A PERSON OR A WALL

A clutch of stories with a flavor of the experimental, the apocalyptic, and often both.

Bell’s debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2013), was an extended riff on origin myths with prose that foregrounded the loping lyricism of the title. Much of this collection is written in a similar mode, though the mood is usually darker. “Wolf Parts” is a visceral rewrite of “Little Red Riding Hood” that focuses on those big teeth the wolf has, “The Migration” is a collective dispatch about outrage and riots after the murder of a pregnant immigrant, and “The Collectors” revisits the grim tale of the Collyer brothers, hoarders found dead in their overstuffed New York home. That last story is just one example of how much Bell enjoys exploring the moments when rationality slackens into madness, and he’s superb at it in “His Last Great Gift,” about a preacher who persuades his congregation that he’s invented a crackpot “New Motor” that will improve society. And “Dredge” is a pitch-perfect noir about a troubled man who keeps a drowned woman’s body in his basement freezer. Bell has a try-anything attitude that makes him an important emerging writer, but not every experiment comes off. The gambit of “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed”—its paragraphs are arranged alphabetically—mutes the intended atmosphere of loss and destruction. Likewise, the novella Cataclysm Baby, built on 26 vignettes about lost children in a degrading world, is overly engineered and clogged with portentous phrasings (“none remaining to bear our future forth except those afloat beyond the last lands of the West…”).

Admirable efforts to strip familiarity and sentiment from stories of humanity at its worst, albeit with hit-or-miss execution.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61695-523-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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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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