The Withdrawal Method, Pasha Malla. Soft Skull. 308pp, $14.95.
Pasha Malla is fond of the deke, and the promise of many head-fakes is implicit in the title of his short story collection, The Withdrawal Method. The title both showcases Malla’s odd sense of humor (contraception never actually appears in the text) and gives readers a hint as to Malla’s central theme: how in these thirteen stories Malla often feints toward the ridiculous so as to better describe a sobering world. These are humorous but often sad stories about how people withdraw from their lives: a daughter and her widowed father celebrate Easter in death’s shadow, a pharmaceutical representative fails to understand his diabetic brother’s disgust, a bicyclist is struck by a car and falls into a coma, a souvenir shop owner struggles to save his business after Niagara Falls runs dry.
“The Slough,” the first piece in the collection, is perhaps the best example of this tendency of Malla’s to undermine our expectations. The story consists of two parts: the first opens with a woman telling her lover that she expects to shed her skin any day now, thus locating us in a world in which shedding one’s skin all at once is biologically reasonable. But this possibility alarms the lover. Will she be the same woman afterwards? If not, how can he be sure to preserve his memory of her? The lover decides to write a series of entries in a notebook, entries that range from describing her basic stats to retelling simple, heartwarming memories of their time together. The section ends with her failing to come home one day, leaving him to imagine
A person reborn, free of him and their life together . . . her riding her bike along the side of the highway, the skin peeling away from her body, flapping at her heels, as she made her way to somewhere better.
In part two, the story shifts into a more realistic world: a narrator named Pasha explains that he and his girlfriend, Lee, spend weekends in the hospital, watching classic movies that she’s always wanted to see. Lee, diagnosed with melanoma, has had two tumors surgically removed from her back and must now have surgery to remove a third that has metastasized in her brain; the doctors give her three months to live. Pasha struggles to empathize with Lee as her surgery draws near, but, disgusted by her skin and burdened by her sickness, he cannot stand to face her. He sleeps with an old classmate, thus withdrawing from Lee’s life, much as she herself has done. Before this story can reach its climax, however, Pasha stumbles into one of Lee’s old friends, Maurucio, who invites him into his apartment and shows Pasha a painting by his deceased sister. Maurucio explains,
I like to have a painting because I can think of her making it, putting herself into it. Art is the opposite of death because it is always alive. No?
Although Pasha silently mocks Maurucio’s earnestness, the words seem to affect him. Later that night, Pasha takes stock of his and Lee’s things and imagines how nice it would be to “write your life into” a book: “Just slip out of who you are and repackage it all into something new.”
The story ends with Pasha holding “an old leather-bound journal,” knowing exactly what to write in it. We are left with the unstated connection between the two stories: Is the first section a product of the second, an attempt by Pasha to somehow explain his infidelity and his failure to remain a supportive figure in Lee’s life by dramatizing his regret?
“Pet Therapy” is more subtle than “The Slough” in the sleight of hand that Malla favors. The story of Karel, a former daycare worker who is hired at a hospital petting zoo, “Pet Therapy” tells of Karel’s job, which is to keep a bonobo named Ewing from raping the hospital’s goats. Much of the story is devoted to cleverly describing Ewing’s sexual frustration—of one bleating goat, a child screams, “The monkey’s killing it!”—while similarly introducing a romantic relationship between Karel and his supervisor, Sujata. Malla also works in some troubling details: Karel and Sujata’s relationship awkwardly escalates, a boa constrictor named Sally appears, and we learn that Karel has left home to avoid a disastrous scandal.
It’s not until the last few pages of the story, however, that the humor suddenly drops away to reveal a series of sinister events. Karel confesses that he was accused of abusing a child at his former job (though he claims to have been exonerated), Sujata and he have sex (but Sujata acts weirdly the next day), and Ewing rapes a goat. During the confusion, Karel locks the bonobo in the room with the boa constrictor, but Malla quickly moves Karel back outside in order to work this emotional spike into the story:
Sujata was speaking. “Do you think we can forgive him?” she asked, and the children nodded, murmuring.
Something surged inside Karel. Then it was gone—they were talking about Ewing.
Shaken, Karel withdraws to the playroom, where he discovers Ewing being crushed to death. After we read of Karel’s mishearing Sujata, it’s hard not to see the connection between the bonobo and Karel, and the connection is a lonely one.
He watched as Sally curled one last time around Ewing, the length of her rippling forward, crushing his body and pulling the hand away, and thought how it seemed comforting somehow to die like that, embraced.
Those who can appreciate “The Slough” and “Pet Therapy” without demanding a clear connection between their various parts will certainly enjoy the other stories in the collection, which each in their own way benefit from this kind of loose, shifting style. As he tells these stories, Malla often refrains from explaining his characters’ pasts, preferring instead to tell their stories slant; he likes to jump within the world of the story from one narrative strand to another and make use of anti-epiphanic endings.
Masha also employs what I call “projected endings,” in which the ending of the story is described in the future tense, a hint at what might come after the final sentence of the story. Out of all of his techniques, the projected ending is most noticeable (I count some version of it in six of the thirteen stories), and while some might argue that it could be distracting, I think it strengthens the pervading theme of the book by allowing the stories to create a sense of withdrawal: the characters remain in limbo, but the story still achieves some sort of narrative completion. This is clearest at the end of “Dizzy When You Look Down,” in which a pharmaceutical representative arrives at the hospital to reunite with his diabetic brother, who has just had a foot amputated. The story ends like this:
I’m thinking now about how, eventually, Dr. Singh is going to say that Dizzy is okay to leave. I see myself collecting his things, and through the window of his room a winter morning—sky like a white curtain, bright. I see me and Dr. Singh easing Dizzy into a wheelchair, some paperwork filed, some talk of prosthetics, good luck. And then I’m wheeling my brother down the hall, through the doors of the hospital, into the light, outside, where the snow’s just starting to fall.
The narrator, still in the physical state of having withdrawn himself from Dizzy’s life (they haven’t spoken to each other for several months), thinks all of this as he’s walking down the hall to Dizzy’s room. His imagining the ending that he has yet to experience creates a wonderful sort of tension: will his real experience differ from that of his imagination? Such is the paradoxical beauty of withdrawing from the world: it allows one to both wallow in displeasure and plan one’s escape from it. As a result, many of these stories are striking for the sheer amount of sadness they hold; however, because of Malla’s light touch and his ability to charm us with his humor and fanciful imagination, these poignant tales never run over with sentimentality.
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