Short Takes on New Works 

Bunker 13
By Aniruddha Bahal
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $24

This blood-'n'-guts novel follows the exploits of MM, a hard-living Indian army cadet turned journalist embedded in a military unit fighting rebels in Kashmir. MM suspects that the corrupt unit commander, his old academy classmate Major Rodriguez, is involved in drug dealing and gun running, but MM isn't out to expose the commander's operations -- he wants in on them. Bunker 13 has all the elements of a dynamite thriller: action, intrigue, sex, and scandal. Unfortunately, it's also just not exciting. Bahal's vivid descriptions would evoke more response if his characters were more developed. For all his forays into mind-blowing drugs and kinky sex, MM still comes across as a generic antihero. The only inkling readers get of any personality beyond this protagonist's hedonistic exterior comes from his tendency to spout off on random subjects such as the history of parachuting. This only shows that, in addition to being a testosterone-pumped thrill-seeker, MM is also an insufferable bore. Bahal writes from the second-person point of view, a unique stylistic choice that might be intended to lend a "you are there" urgency to the proceedings but only reminds the reader how difficult it is to relate to the flat protagonist. Bahal made his name in the real world as a reporter, investigating corruption in the Indian army, and many scenes here seem to be lifted straight from his battered notebooks.-- Mike Rosen-Molina

Whitegirl
By Kate Manning
Delta, $13.95

Ever wondered what might have happened if Nicole Brown Simpson had survived her attack? Would O.J. finally be exposed as the perp, or would she be able to confirm his story that her assault was the handiwork of vicious drug dealers? Former journalist and television producer Manning uses this intriguing hook as the premise for her debut novel, which explores elements at play in a biracial marriage that implodes violently. It is a fascinating topic with much turf to mine, but Manning proves to be her own worst enemy because, for all the stereotypes she seeks to shatter, her characters remain cardboard cutouts that instead reinforce racial clichés. Epitomizing every blonde joke ever told, narrator Charlotte is a beauty queen-cum-fashion model who has never heard of Othello. Yet we're also supposed to believe she is capable of the intelligent pontifications on race that fill half the book. And while Charlotte's husband Milo breaks type in that he's the first black man to win winter-Olympics gold, he's also surly, philandering, and abusive. The best friends, too, are right out of central casting: Charlotte's Claire is wonderfully supportive, while Milo's Darryl keeps telling Milo he should dump the white chick for some black boo-tay. The who/howdunit ending is as consistent with the rest of this novel as are all of its other stereotypes. -- Vicki Cameron

Please
By Peter Darbyshire
Raincoast, $15.95

Told in vignettes and lacking a conventional plot, Please feels like a long short story. English-major types will have fun debating its form, but the cover says it's "a novel." Unfortunately, it reads like a blog, albeit a witty and abnormally well-written one. Please belongs to that genre of fiction that has dominated Western culture ever since disgruntled white males have had Salinger to misread and existentialism to misappropriate: the ambivalent confession. Darbyshire's narrator is Everyman, not in his universal appeal, but in that we all know an underemployed someone who complains incessantly about the inequities of capitalism, but refuses to use his degree to get a "real" job because the system is so corrupt, man. In short, he's the narrator in Of Human Bondage with his heart cut out, wallowing in that same ol' miasma of pop culture and ambitionism as he waits for fortune to deliver a better life and occasionally tries to track down his ex-wife. The rest of his time -- and there's a lot of it -- is devoted to the odd acting job and exaggerating the incidentals of his life. If it's meant to be satire, it doesn't work. Please inverts the equation; it's actually society that's the victim of this man and his kind. Still, the book is often very funny. If you see humor in cancer or amputation jokes, you'll have a great time with Please. Darbyshire can write, but the laughs would be better if they weren't so dispassionate. And as cool as emotional distance may be, it doesn't make for much of "a novel." -- Matthew King

Stillness and Other Stories
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $23

Great fiction can transport us into the heart of battle and loss. For proof one need only pick up this astonishing literary debut, which comprises sixteen tales about the Balkan war. Based on her experiences working for the UN War Crimes tribunal, Brkic brings us hardened soldiers and jaded peace brokers, snipers who take aim at former classmates, and mothers hovering around mass-burial excavations. The view she offers of this bloody conflict is prismatic, evoking cruel ironies. While aggressors try to trick their consciences into submission, victims fight for a reason to stay alive. A mother in "Suspension" believes her son is still alive long after he's disappeared: "[S]he insisted that the boy was alive. She marked his birthday this year, cooking the sarma with cream as Edin liked it." Other characters adjust in more practical ways. They learn to run fast and zigzag across intersections, to communicate by tapping on pipes, reading lips, or passing notes. But those who get out alive are rarely better off. One man in "Passage" escapes to New York but is so alienated that he decides to return home to an island in the Adriatic Sea. Tales of this magnitude put an immense strain on prose. They have a way of fracturing it, or reducing it to cliché. Excepting a few instances, Brkic's prose never wavers. It remains stalwart, exact, brutal, and grittily poetic. It does not allow us a place to hide from its ugly truth. -- John Freeman

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