Many readers will be glad that they don’t live in Persuasion Nation, though the most perceptive will recognize that we...

IN PERSUASION NATION

STORIES

Within this series of thematically linked stories, consumerism goes haywire in a country and era somewhat like our own.

Following his fabulist novella (The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, 2005), Saunders returns to the short story with his signature synthesis of satire and surrealism, through which flights of the imagination assume a hyper-reality. Within the brave new world of “Persuasion Nation,” parents buy computerized masks for their babies, transforming infants into amazing, more articulate facsimiles of themselves (and making the neighbors jealous). Advertising holograms based on individual preferences shadow potential shoppers, in a society where consumption equals patriotism. Children are taken from their homes to live in a training camp, where they form an elite Tastemakers & Trendsetters cadre (complete with their own bubblegum cards). With all the pressures to consume and conform, free will is either an illusion or a betrayal. The stories take a variety of formats—letters of complaint and comment, a scientific report, a holiday memory (in the uncharacteristic, bittersweet realism of “Christmas”)—and most of them feature first-person narration by a series of oddly dysfunctional narrators. Exceptions to the variety of first-person voices are two of the longer stories at the collection’s center: “Brad Carrigan, American” finds a television series under threat of cancellation resorting to increasingly extreme measures to sustain interest (and in the process probing the morality of anything-goes reality TV). The title story that follows turns the world of commercials into a battlefield of all-American revolt. Though much of the fiction is slapstick funny in a dark, deadpan way, a spiritual undercurrent courses through the work, as desire and suffering feed on each other, and God may be just another pitchman or empty promise. Where many short stories at the creative vanguard seem to bear minimal relation to the world at large, Saunders’s work is as effective as social commentary as it is at exploring the frontiers of fiction.

Many readers will be glad that they don’t live in Persuasion Nation, though the most perceptive will recognize that we already do.

Pub Date: May 1, 2006

ISBN: 1-59448-922-X

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006

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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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