This scintillating collection of a novella and eight short stories uses offbeat character studies to wrestle with snaky issues of identity and self-knowledge.
Hébert’s loquacious, usually anonymous narrators are obsessed with penetrating the riddle of the people around them. In “Mindwarp,” a nameless writer battens for inspiration on Guy, a working-class barfly who is almost elemental in his beaten-down ordinariness. Things get complicated when Guy begins an affair with the feisty, appealing Yolanda; the couple pushes back against the writer’s determination to “warp” their reality into a fictional celebration of heroic failure—until the writer himself seems to become the unstable, increasingly desperate creation of his own story. Quirky, opaque figures abound in other stories; “Ana, Always,” about a Yugoslavian youth’s efforts to fathom the tragic mystery of a middle-aged woman, is a meditation on family and exile, while “Stephen,” the weakest piece, gives us a maudlin tale of a boy and an injured rabbit who become martyrs to real estate development. “Silence,” a somewhat affected tale about a guilt-burdened war veteran who acquiesces in his wife’s affair with an ex-comrade, finds power in the evanescent fracturing of its hero’s personality. Only in “Azazel,” a comic gem about a mythical desert herdsmen who tends the world’s scapegoats until the powers that be decide he needs a ritzy California estate in which to receive humanity’s atonement, do we meet a man who thoroughly knows himself. The author delights in mind games; the title novella is as much a commentary on the conundrums of fictional representation as it is a fiction. Fortunately, Hébert’s writerly conceits are rescued by the quality of his prose; his deadpan realism, mordant wit and acute powers of description ground his flights of abstraction in the soil of experience.
A beguiling blend of high-concept narrative and old-school literary chops.