A powerful argument against selflessness, a treat for fans and a grand introduction for those new to the author’s curious...



A welcome showcase of short (or shortish) fiction by quirky comic master Self (Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes, 2009, etc.).

Eccentric and learned, Self, as Rick Moody points out in his introduction, is a keen student of language, adept at switching registers from East End Cockney to Sloane aspiration and Oxbridge pomposity. Indeed, it seems safe to say that not since Dickens has any English writer been so interested in English sounds and the improbabilities of English orthography, whence one setting called Inwardleigh and another somewhere along the “Edgware Road/Maida Vale hinterland.” Of course, Dickens would not have imagined a post-Kafkaesque correspondence between the bugs and other creepy-crawlies that dwell in a Suffolk cottage and its hapless owner: As they inform him, they don’t have much of a choice in the matter in this grim world, but instead enter “because in the normal course of things there is usually some carrion within which we can deposit our eggs,” to say nothing of the cleaning services they offer in this “flytopia.” Self sometimes operates on the edge of science fiction, but in a J.G. Ballard sort of way; he may write of “emotos” and “procros,” but at the same time he is interested in the all-too-human, in “vast vaginas” and acne so florid as to recall the “Grand Canyon at sunset.” Though seldom meta or self-referential, many an aspiring writer will recognize corners of Self’s imagined worlds, as when he puts one earnest creative-writing instructor inside a prison (“they may have all been sex offenders, but despite that they managed to exemplify the three commonest types of wannabe writer”) and proposes a new genre of writing called Motorway Verse, helped along by lashings of “kaolin and morphine.” Each story is a pleasure, and most are occasions to head to the dictionary or encyclopedia and learn a thing or two.

A powerful argument against selflessness, a treat for fans and a grand introduction for those new to the author’s curious view of the universe.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59691-297-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Aug. 23, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2010

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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