Short-story collections by Melissa Pritchard, Rajesh Parameswaran and Etgar Keret
By Michael Lindgren,
Melissa Pritchard’s aptly titled The Odditorium (Bellevue; paperback, $14.95) considers the inner lives of the strange, the damaged and the forgotten. The title story, about a museum of the fantastic created by Robert Ripley, of “Believe It or Not” fame, exemplifies the whole collection, with its zest for the macabre and its time-spanning imaginative appetite. Pritchard’s tales are populated by gore-crazed surgeons, Russian mystics, feral children, Southern spinsters, a surprisingly wistful Annie Oakley and other relics from odd corners of history. The central story, “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital,” a Jamesian novella about the coldly efficient commander of a haunted war hospital, displays Pritchard’s strengths and weaknesses. Her prose sometimes tries too hard to be poetic, and she never uses a six-letter word when a 14-letter alternative beckons. Her ornate diction and deliberate pacing can be trying, but the singularity of her narrators remains indelible. Believe it or not, indeed.
Rajesh Parameswaran takes Pritchard’s taste for the bizarre and catapults it into the realm of the masterful. I Am an Executioner: Love Stories (Knopf, $24.95) marks the advent of a genuinely distinctive voice in American fiction, abundantly inventive, deceptively cunning and fearless in its careening disregard for the strictures of careful, polite storytelling. In this intriguing alternative universe, exotic aliens turn out to be surly, lovelorn teens, zoo animals fall murderously in love with their captors, and elephants engage in violent clan feuds worthy of Elizabethan drama. Parameswaran has the knack for mimicry and ventriloquism of a born outsider, guilelessly transporting the reader into a Swiftian upside-down land where the rules of logic and of sense have been temporarily suspended. One character has “the air of someone who had been dropped here from another planet, fascinated but flummoxed”; another observes that “children are monsters, strange versions of ourselves.” All of these narrators — animal, human or alien — feel themselves to be strangers, exiles from the familiar and the mundane. “We are just visitors,” one says of the world around him. “None of it is our own.” This gift for the unusual perspective results in a debut collection of startling freshness and force.
The burgeoning career of young Israeli writer Etgar Keret, meanwhile, testifies to the power of the surreal, the concise and the fantastic. Pritchard and Parameswaran may transcend the boundaries of the short story through their acts of imagination, but Keret explodes them. Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (Farrar Straus Giroux; paperback, $14) is a Pandora’s box, containing more than 30 oblique, breezy, seriocomic fantasies that defy encapsulation, categorization and even summary. In Keret’s hands, stories zoom off into unexpected directions, detour onto unexpected philosophical tangents, end in sudden acts of inexplicable violence or devolve into brusque jokes. These crafty mini-parables have tricky rhythms, often beginning with the conversational cadences of stand-up comedy before jolting into the metaphysical or the emotional. Several of them are deeply, weirdly, moving. Keret’s prose, translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston and Nathan Englander, has a deadpan colloquialism that can be poetic (“God entered the yellow church on the disabled ramp”), mordant (“Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide,” begins one) or whimsical (“My wife’s tongue is smooth and pleasant”). Although Keret’s stories avoid being overtly political, their atmosphere of absurdist doom may be the perfect — the only — fictional analogue for the frightening pitch of day-to-day life in Israel. In this way Keret, like Pritchard and Parameswaran, shows that fiction still has the ability to shock and surprise.
Lindgren is a poet and musician who lives in New York City.