I, ETCETERA by Susan Sontag
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"Look at all this stuff I've got in my head: rockets and Venetian churches, David Bowie and Diderot, nuoc roam and Big Macs, sunglasses and orgasms." With all that stuff in her formidable head--and her essay-ish turn of mind--Sontag's fiction isn't going to be like anyone else's; and it certainly isn't going to be for everyone. But these eight stories, written between 1963 and 1977 for such diverse journals as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and Playboy, are fascinatingly varied, often delightful in their darkly ironic twists, and only occasionally unworthy of the reader effort required. Paradoxically, the two weakest stories are the easiest and the most difficult. "The Dummy" (1963) is neat--fed-up commuter has himself replaced by a robot with a heart of its own--but Roald Dahl would have done it just as well, without the themes sitting on top. Opaque "Dr. Jekyll" also dances its ideas on our heads--about energy, freedom, evil, karma?--and, despite amusing lines and arresting images, Sontag is outshone by Donald Barthelme at this business of juxtaposing legendary echoes with contemporary banalities. But in the other stories, there's naked pain lurking--deflected, straight to the heart sometimes, by whichever oblique format Sontag is using. "Project for a Trip to China" is wild free association on matters Chinese (multiple-choice questions, lists, gags), yet there's an autobiographical panic running through it, like a rat in a maze. "Baby" is the surreal record of a couple consulting a psychiatrist for help with their mad, bad child--a panorama of parental anxiety that throws out chronological order and leaves the psychiatrist's queries to the imagination. In the recent, feverish "Unguided Tour," the pain (seeing beautiful things abroad doesn't help) is perhaps not deflected quite enough, while the allegorical markings in "American Spirits" may go too far in keeping ironic distance. However, "Debriefing," a gallery of despair, Manhattan-style, successfully mixes autobiographical immediacy with social essaying. And in "Old Complaints Revisited," when a Party member quits, offering a farcically complete catalogue of what it means to belong to the Party, a personal scream comes snaking up out of all that essayistic stuffing. Wiry, allusive, and too smart for their own good--read them anyway.
Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1978
ISBN: 0312420102
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1978


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