BUTTERFLY STORIES

The prolific Vollmann, fresh from a sadomasochistic survey in Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs (p. 258), makes another savage thrust into society's sexual fringes with this fractured tale of Southeast Asian prostitutes and a journalist who couldn't say no. The ``Butterfly boy,'' first seen at school, has no friends among his male peers, instead being terrorized by them and by a bully until he is saved by a girl admirer. Ever the outcast, as an adult he travels with a photographer to Thailand and Cambodia on assignment, but the two spend far more time with the prostitutes than gathering material for a story. Unlike the photographer who uses his women without becoming interested in them, the journalist approaches them sympathetically, with an earnestness that both attracts and embarrasses them. By the time he returns to San Francisco, he's fallen in love with a Cambodian woman and become HIV-positive; he wants only to divorce his wife, however, and bring Vanna and her child to America. Unable to locate her from a distance, he begs another assignment, eventually reaching Bangkok and crossing clandestinely into Cambodia, but language difficulties and social differences keep him from achieving his goal. Under the corrosive influence of his callous fellow traveller, he allows himself to be tempted by other flesh—but in the fevered state brought on by various sexually transmitted diseases, a bottle of Benadryl is ultimately his only consolation. The flesh-peddling and sensory overload of Southeast Asia fill every page, but they're given such a weak lead that the story has nowhere to go: scenes of decay and corruption rule in unchallenged succession.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 1993

ISBN: 0-8021-1502-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1993

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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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A welcome introduction to a major author and a pleasure for fans of contemporary European literature.

FLIGHTS

Thoughts on travel as an existential adventure from one of Poland’s most lauded and popular authors.

Already a huge commercial and critical success in her native country, Tokarczuk (House of Day, House of Night, 2003) captured the attention of Anglophone readers when this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. In addition to being a fiction writer, Tokarczuk is also an essayist and a psychologist and an activist known—and sometimes reviled—for her cosmopolitan, anti-nationalist views. Her wide-ranging interests are evident in this volume. It’s not a novel exactly. It’s not even a collection of intertwined short stories, although there are longer sections featuring recurring characters and well-developed narratives. Overall, though, this is a series of fragments tenuously linked by the idea of travel—through space and also through time—and a thoughtful, ironic voice. Movement from one place to another, from one thought to another, defines both the preoccupations of this discursive text and its style. One of the extended stories follows a man named Kunicki whose wife and child disappear on vacation—and suddenly reappear. A first-person narrator offers a sort of memoir through movement, recalling her own peregrinations bit by bit. There are pilgrims and holidaymakers. Tokarczuk also explores the connection between travel and colonialism with side trips into “exotic” practices and cabinets of curiosity. There are philosophical digressions, like a meditation on the flight from Irkutsk to Moscow that lands at the same time it takes off. None of this is to say that this book is dry or didactic. Tokarczuk has a sly sense of humor. It’s impossible not to laugh at the opening line, “I’m reminded of something that Borges was once reminded of….” Of course someone interested in maps and territories, of the emotional landscape of travel and the difference between memory and reality would feel an affinity for the Argentine fabulist.

A welcome introduction to a major author and a pleasure for fans of contemporary European literature.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-53419-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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