The Withdrawal Method
The most striking thing about Pasha Malla’s collection The Withdrawal Method is how deeply these raw stories get under the skin. Terrible, ordinary tragedies completely unsoftened by narrative mercy roll past, one after another. But there is happiness in places—imagination, reminiscence, and fleeting happiness at least—and Malla takes his characters straight through without flinching.
The thirteen stories return again and again to a few themes. Children appear and reappear, in nearly every case traumatized by a premature and clinical sexualization. Little girls play disturbing games, but never fail to reveal their true naïveté and confusion. A widow and a widower each use an opposite-sex child as a spousal substitute, though in very different ways. Teasing, cruelty, and outright violence abound—but then so do joy and real, pure love.
Despite the difficulties and confusion of childhood in Malla’s world, adulthood—especially young adulthood—is infinitely worse. Nothing is ever as good as it was in college. Jobs are empty and unrewarding; friends are reliable but distant. Couples move in together without understanding why, because of “peer pressure, maybe, from married and responsible friends. Or mutual coercion.” But with all this cohabitation, the men and women are irretrievably cut off from each other.
The men, especially (because they are the narrators), face a question in all of these relationships: When do you make the jump across the gulf between two people? Who do you do it for? Do you do it out of pity? Guilt? Can you clench your jaw and refuse to leap? If you do jump, what happens if you don’t make it across? Malla’s narrators often give unexpected answers to these questions. They open up to strangers rather than lovers. When they do open their hearts to women, they are brutally shut out.
Other recurring themes are more disturbing. Cancer appears no less than five times, and is joined by other chronic illnesses (asthma, diabetes, OCD). All of “Dizzy When You Look Down In,” one of the finest stories in the collection, takes place in a hospital waiting room.
Part of what makes “Dizzy” so good is its combination of Malla’s familiar elements with a new, and very different, one: basketball. Dizzy was great, had a real shot at a professional career. A former player from a rival high school can’t help accosting his brother even ten years later in a hospital waiting room, practically begging for the details of Dizzy’s certain success. The reticent brother eventually reveals that Dizzy got into Marxism in college and ended up building houses in Cuba. He didn’t take care of his diabetes, and now, in his twenties, is back home in need of an amputation.
Somehow this is more devastating for the interloper than his own wife’s endometrial cancer. “That kid could play.” And Malla has no trouble showing that he could. As the story’s narrator sits and waits he relives pickup games in the driveway, championship games at school, and everything in between. The action is fast, smooth, as thrilling as courtside seats.
Dizzy’s potential, his real talent, only makes the harshness of Malla’s obsessions more brutal. Life after school is not what you planned. Your body will betray you. No matter how good you were, nor how good your intentions, you will end up in a hospital bed getting your foot sawn off, at best. His brother contemplates an old Michael Jordan postcard that Dizzy once stared out for hours—before relegating it to marking his place in biographies of Che Guevara, The Catcher in the Rye, and “that motorcycle repair guide, whatever it was.”
Was there a point where he ran out of possibilities? Was there a day when he looked at it and didn’t see anything, a time when everything that had been hope and glory and a whole universe of fantasy faded, and, just like that, when that image of the greatest player to ever play the game become nothing more than a bookmark?
Not every story is equally strong. “The Love Life of the Automaton Turk,” for one, leaves behind Malla’s familiar setting, themes, and characters to go on a weird and fascinating historical adventure. Told in three parts, the first is promising, but cast adrift from the now-familiar world of Generation Y Canada things don’t quite come together. And the final story, an intriguing three pages on “When Jacques Cousteau Gave Pablo Picasso a Piece of Black Coral,” seems likewise to stick out and is a puzzling final note to the collection.
The form of the short story works well for Malla’s project, focused as it is on modern alienation and pain. Watching someone unable to bridge the gap with a partner dying of cancer would be too difficult to sustain over the span of a novel. But the short form also makes for tantalizing unexplored ideas—what was that about the health care industry? the immigrant experience? drugs and alcohol? There is more to watch for in future, and a frighteningly cool voice to tell it in.
Reviewed by Nicole Perrin
Posted in Reviews