From Australian author O’Neill, a story collection brimming with imagination.
The best of the stories are straightforward, such as “The Cockroach,” which takes place in a Rwandan village and tugs at the heart. The ruling Hutus have condemned the Tutsis as cockroaches to be destroyed. In “Collected Stories,” the narrator’s mother is a racist short story writer appropriately named Hately. The prose in the better stories engenders sympathy or antipathy for the characters. But many of the other stories look like experiments, research into the limits of reader tolerance. Do you really want to read “Figures in a Marriage,” consisting solely of flow charts, pie charts, graphs, doodles, a time line and a mind map? Do you really want to know the length in centimeters of man’s and wife’s tongues and genitalia? “The Footnote,” not surprisingly, has plenty of footnotes. “The Examination” is more interesting than the question-and-answer format suggests, since the test-taker is a Tutsi who writes a heart-rending composition. In “Tyypographyy,” a typewriter always types “y” twice, and an instructor speaks only in numbers: “Beckyy put her hand up. ‘946563291?’ ‘3975316!’ he said.” Yet a few of the experiments are mildly amusing, such as “A Story in Writing,” wherein O’Neill uses one literary device after another—setting, free verse, Homeric simile and many others.
The prose—when the author bothers to simply write prose—is very good. But too much of the book looks like a Ph.D. thesis in creative writing, where extra credit goes to the candidate who tries techniques others know better than to try.