A versatile, prolific author asserts his pre-eminence in short fiction with an unassuming brilliance that almost makes you...



After more than 40 years of publishing short stories, Theroux has become a master of the form, with a deep capacity to engage, enchant and unsettle.

There’s something almost quaint—and ultimately gratifying—about the manner in which Theroux’s stories rely on irony, circumstance and character motivation while retaining their inscrutability. It’s a quality shared by all the great modern storytellers, from Chekhov to Cheever, and Theroux, better known for his witty, idiosyncratic travelogues, can claim their legacies as his own. What connect most of the 20 tales are characters getting even, getting back or just “getting theirs” at the expense of someone who may, or may not, deserve reprisals. In the case of “Rip It Up,” a chillingly prescient story of junior high outcasts collaborating on an explosive device to set off against their tormentors, the outcome yields disorienting, unexpected and ambivalent results. The same holds true for “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife,” in which a writer returns home for his father’s funeral and uses the occasion to torment a former teacher, now a helpless patient in a convalescent center, with stories suggestive (but never explicitly so) about past abuses by the teacher against the student. Outside of “Our Raccoon Year,” a tale of an over-the-top war against nature that seems a miniature version of Theroux’s best-known novel, The Mosquito Coast, the macabre and absurd elements of Theroux’s stories are more affecting for being rooted in the commonplace and the plausible. Even the shoe salesman in the title story who appears to veer into the deep end by indulging in blackface minstrelsy is depicted as someone you might have known or heard about while growing up. Such characters seem so odd but true that, in the same way he makes exotic locales worth visiting, Theroux inspires you to wonder what you’re overlooking when encountering friends, neighbors and strangers alike.

A versatile, prolific author asserts his pre-eminence in short fiction with an unassuming brilliance that almost makes you think stories will become popular again.

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-544-32402-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

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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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