EYES

NOVELLAS AND STORIES

A set of stories about senses and sensory deprivation from contemporary American literature’s longtime laureate of disillusionment.

Gass (Middle C, 2013, etc.) has always been a love-hate proposition. He's an exquisite maker of sentences, weighing his prose like a poet for rhythm, consonance, and intellectual heft. (“Color is a lure. Color is candy….Color is oratory in the service of the wrong religion….Color is camouflage.”) But his fiction is a tough sell, built as it is out of storm clouds and fury at a humanity that has forever fallen short. The two novellas that anchor this collection reveal the upsides and downsides of that approach. The excellent, punningly titled “In Camera” is set in a photography gallery whose holdings are carefully guarded by its owner and whose acquisition processes may not be strictly legal. That question gives the story its drama, but Gass is more interested in exploring the ways photographs can render (and in a way surpass) reality, closing with a dry but artful riff on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” “Charity,” a story almost entirely without paragraph breaks, explores one man’s lifetime of exasperation with pleas for donations, from cookie-schlepping Girl Scouts to junk mail to telemarketers; the feeling of oppression Gass creates is palpable if static; its dour mood rarely shifts. The remaining stories are shorter (if not necessarily lighter) experiments in form and style: a story told from the perspective of the prop piano in Casablanca, another about a man who communicates solely with his hands, a man recalling his childhood in fragmented prose that evokes stray puzzle pieces. It says something about Gass’ talent and flexibility that he can write an effective story that’s narrated by a barber-shop folding chair. But this is Gass’ universe, and here, even folding chairs don’t get off easy.

Glum fun.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-101-87472-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2015

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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