All the Lonely People

Reviewed by John McNally
Sunday, January 15, 2006

THE REASONS I WON'T BE COMING

Stories

By Elliot Perlman

Riverhead. 277 pp. $24.95

Elliot Perlman's new book, The Reasons I Won't Be Coming , isn't so much a collection of stories as a collection of narrators. Well, okay, it is a collection of stories, too -- there are nine here, some quite short, some novella-length -- but the voices are what make a lasting impression. Perlman, the Australian author of the much-praised behemoth Seven Types of Ambiguity , puts to use his experience as a barrister by placing the reader inside the minds of jurors, trial witnesses, a law professor and an employee with the Office of Probate, but the world of law is a subterfuge for the book's real subject: love gone sour. The voices that we are left with, sometimes as detached as a legal brief, are those of sorrowful ex-lovers (usually men) still sorting though the past, trying to figure out what the hell went wrong.

In "Good Morning, Again," the book's opener and one of its stronger entries, a middle-aged man carries on an internal monologue with his former lover even while he's in bed with a younger woman who's trying out older men. The narrator's observations are quirky but credible, as when he ruminates on the protocol of one-night stands after the young woman has drifted to sleep: "You have to feign at least a little surprise at being in this position with someone when you've never known them this way before. On the other hand, you have to behave as if you're under the influence of the other person's body with an insatiable hunger to know their soft and hidden parts, as though this person was the apotheosis of everyone you had ever lusted after." Internal monologue is used to good effect here, but it's so distinct that when Perlman employs it in three more stories, he risks monotony.

"In the Time of the Dinosaurs," the most successful story, is unlike the others in that the narrator is a child instead of a jilted or gloomy lover. Not that Perlman abandons his love-gone-sour theme: The young boy's attempts to impress his teacher with a science project on dinosaurs coincide with the dissolution of his parents' marriage. The boy, however, is never aware that his parents' marriage has gone south, making this a kind of detective story in which the boy consistently misinterprets the clues he's presented with. The details are perfect throughout: the dinosaur made out of beer cans; the much-coveted gold stars awarded to the best project; the chocolate-scented winds from the nearby factories.

In many of the stories, Perlman excels at creating tension. In "I Was Only in a Childish Way Connected to the Established Order," the story of an inept poet who wakes up in a psychiatric hospital, we learn early on that the narrator is unstable and that something terrible has probably happened. Perlman teases us with such sentences as "I am not well and I make no bones about it," but then holds off on the details of how he came to be institutionalized. Other times, the tension is created out of vagueness. "The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine," the story of a retired law professor who has an affair with a married former student, begins, "A momentary loss of muscle control and now you don't speak." What, we wonder, does this mean? And so we read on.

My chief complaint with these stories is that their endings are more inevitable than surprising. The revelations aren't always as startling as we were led to believe, and so the stories read like domestic fiction written by Edgar Allan Poe. "The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine" ends with a heavy-handed metaphor that ties together the meaning of the doctrine and its application to the two lovers. "Your Niece's Speech Night," the story of an interoffice romance, hinges on a plot contrivance that involves e-mail passwords. "The Reasons I Won't Be Coming," a marriage-at-a-crossroads story, pivots on the husband's misunderstanding of a conversation he and his wife had years earlier. The endings almost always feel forced, not organic.

The least successful story is "Manslaughter," a courtroom drama about a killer who is acquitted. The setting, the testimony, the drifting in and out of various points-of-view -- all of this creates a distance between the reader and the story's action. It's the reason I prefer watching Hitchcock's psychological thriller "Vertigo" to his courtroom drama "The Paradine Case." The former is intense, immediate and complex; the latter is static and dull.

At their best, these stories are like walking down the hallway of an old hotel and eavesdropping on sad confessions. It's hard not to be moved when the aging ex-professor of "The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine" silently addresses the former student whom he has impregnated: "So now I sit here alone, while in your house you make grilled cheese on toast for your children, your husband watches television and inside you something of ours lives." These stories are love letters, really, and their protagonist, we come to learn, is none other than the human heart. ยท

John McNally, author of "The Book of Ralph" and "Troublemakers," teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company