In his introduction to the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Ben Marcus writes that the best contemporary fiction synthesizes the heartfelt and the innovative. He points out the limitations of the prototypical New Yorker story and its reliance on craft, while at the same suggesting that experimentation alone leaves something important out.
It’s a strange sentiment coming from one of our most cerebral writers. The reader who lives and dies by perfect Chekhovian narrative structure in his endless quest for insight into the human condition wonders what a bloodless experimental technician like Marcus knows about the heart. The connoisseur of Oulipian textual limitation, who long ago confirmed there are no new stories and who has just completed his multi-letter lipogrammatic novel (written without vowels!), is flabbergasted that a demigod and literary genius expects said novel to include anything as clichéd and overwrought as emotion.
Marcus’s remarks echo those of other writers: John Fante once said, “Writing and storytelling, necessary but distinct skills—I fear I only have writing.” Donald Barthelme, who suggested that collage was the central principle of 20th century art, used to implore students in his graduate writing workshops to “break their hearts.” The late David Foster Wallace, we’ve recently learned, struggled against and was tortured by his own estimation of his early work as too pyrotechnic.
I really like Marcus’s vague-but-supportable foundational poetics for 21st century fiction. And if you’re with me, Canadian author Pasha Malla is writing some of the best short stories in anglophone literature today. Seeing as we’re experiencing a surge of great story collections—Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and Kevin Wilson’s Tunneling to the Center of the Earth—that’s saying something. Malla’s The Withdrawal Method, published in the U.S. by Soft Skull, stands strong with this crew.
Malla’s stories are a strange assortment of short and long, which resonate distantly with the concept of withdrawal—not necessarily coitus interruptus, but calculated removals of the self. In one story, a documentary on dads follows its subjects, improbably, from their childhoods to their deaths. In another, Jacques Cousteau gives Pablo Picasso a piece of rare black coral, and hilarity ensues. In another, a guy’s girlfriend tells him to prepare himself for her full-body molt. In “Long Short Short Long,” an insecure music teacher’s rhythm lesson is misinterpreted by a particularly damaged student as a directive to snip the lovely golden locks of his most accomplished tormentor.
The stories innovate—sometimes in their language and sometimes in their form. Sometimes they enter GeorgeSaundersLand, though they manage to do so without joining the legions of Saunders imitators. But primarily these stories are crushers. Even the most heady ones, which you may be reading with Marcus’s poetics in mind and thinking, It might be difficult for me to react with sincere emotion to this particular content—even these blindside you in the end.
The stories in The Withdrawal Method work like this: engage with situational and linguistic comedy, develop in unexpected direction, show that scope of story will be broader than reader initially thought possible, develop in subsequent direction that is again unexpected in the counterintuitive sense that it is expected but the expectation is so perfect it seems undeliverable, confirm that indeed we are heading in that direction, reader is like, “No fucking way,” story goes slightly off the rails for a moment, seems unresolvable, makes reader surprisingly anxious, then: resolve, crush.
For example, in “Pet Therapy,” my favorite piece, a bonobo (a primate similar to a chimpanzee) in an animal therapy center for sick kids behaves strangely one day when he is let outside into the goat pen:
“Right away he started prowling around the pen, knuckles scraping the ground, breath whistling out through his nostrils, big simian head bobbing stealthily with each calculated step. There was something different about his movements, something dubious and predatory, and in that premonitory way in which animals can tell a storm is coming the goats staggered away from the lustful chimp, mewling.”
The bonobo then proceeds to fuck a goat, which sends everyone into a tizzy—the children believe the bonobo to be killing the goat. So the center’s board is convened and a the protagonist is hired to chaperone the bonobo and keep him from fucking any more goats. But the bonobo can’t stand him, and even seems jealous of his relationship with the female director of the center. The man has a past as a childcare worker that haunts him. We learn that in bonobo culture the males are at the mercy of the females, who tend to use sex as a regulatory device. Then a mix up with a delivery service results in the arrival of a gigantic depressed python which won’t eat.
I don’t really know how Malla gets away with what he does in this story, and throughout The Withdrawal Method. But it is astounding to watch him do it. And the comedy is very, very dark. It is also powerful and moving.
The U.S.-Canada border tends to be a one-way literary strainer: American work gets play up north, while Canadian books tend to be ignored down south. With writers like Malla (and his contemporaries Jon-Paul Fiorentino, Sheila Heti, Lee Henderson, John Goldbach, et. al.) breaking out, we should hope that border becomes more porous.