FICTION: Hugs Last Too Long
Pasha Malla, The Withdrawal Method: A Collection of Short Fiction (Soft Skull Press, 2009)
Pasha Malla’s thirteen-story collection showcases a series of intimate relationships. They’re not banal boy/girl stories, but rather they play with man/woman, boy/girl, snake/boy, girl/chimp, and machine/man, among other combinations. His characters make us imagine they’re the tales of our anonymous neighbors in the apartments below us, where we always wondered what was going on; stories of the strangers doing it in trailer parks or sitting next to you in hospital rooms. His effect is an intimacy that borders on voyeurism. At the end of each story I was a satisfied customer.
The collection is full of stories all engaging and well-paced enough to pull you through with ease. And then after settling a few days, you find another resolve that you didn’t know was there before, completing the tale in a different, more satisfying way.
It’s more than a simple everyone lives happily ever after. Instead the happily ever after resolves into an everything should be the way it was meant to be, within the worlds the author creates.
The title The Withdrawal Method serves as both warning and enticement, and the cover reinforces the perception that the stories will have edges. They do: “Ready to bury some placenta? ‘Yep’ I say, and we high-five.” The line, from “The Past Composed,” is one of many that shout from the pages. Malla’s subjects are relatable and always intimate. There is also a strong current of sexuality throughout each story; each approach is different.
“Pet Therapy” answers the question of how the main character, a normal guy, ends up in Middle America instead of on a coast. It’s a dark tale of unrequited love between a chimp and its caretaker. I was nervous while reading the story, as the recent chimpanzee attack of a woman in Stamford, Connecticut was fresh in the news. The tragic end of Malla’s story, however, was much funnier for me than the story in the news.
“The Love Life of the Automoton Turk” was unique and original, playing out over decades compressed into forty pages. The tale starts in Vienna, 1755, leaps to Havana, 1838, and ends in Philadelphia, 1854 with “‘Checkmate,’ said the voice, and then the roof of the museum came crashing down, a ball of flame rose into the sky, and all that was left was the rumble and hiss of the fire consuming the museum, devouring
Arcing the collection is Pasha Malla’s strength in describing the physical details of his characters and stories. “Being Like Bulls,” the tale of a chockie shop adjacent to a dry Niagara Falls showcases Malla’s creativity. It creates a fun ride as we smash through “I heart Canada” mugs and snow globes along with Kaede and Paul as they work though their relationship.
For some of the more abstract stories in the collection Malla relies on implication to resolve the story. “The Slough” uses thick metaphor to guide us through the story of a young couple’s breakup. The secondary characters, “the sorts of people that hugged too long, always” are also well-developed. Its original and abstract tone reminds me of authors like Karen Russell (St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Vintage Contemporaries) or Donald Barthelme (Forty Stories, Penguin Classics) who are not afraid to stray into the absurd while somehow maintaining an anchor in reality. Among the quirky events occurring in the story are the main characters eating at separate restaurants for Valentine’s Day, “the idea being that loneliness would reinforce their love.” Very effective and fresh.
The Withdrawal Method is full of well-paced setups with good payoffs. The players vary in age from children to adolescent boys to Gen-X adults. Thirty-somethings will get a few extra smiles from references to Michael Jordan, Turbo Graphix, The Doors, and a scattering of other culture pops adding to the crunch of the stories.
Although the book should find a broad audience, I feel its specific appeal is with readers in recently ended or soon-to-be finished relationships. Reading about Malla’s tales of intimacy and withdrawal, love and loss, can make a person feel downright normal.