The Withdrawal Method, Pasha Malla, Soft Skull Press
Pasha Malla’s cleverly titled collection The Withdrawal Method features protagonists, most of them men, who feel themselves to be in emotional retreat. They have happenstance jobs, partners they don’t understand, family members they don’t speak to anymore. In “Timber on the Wheel of Everyone,” a man whose young son is ill with cancer lives largely in a fantasy world in which his selfless derring-do makes him a hero to his son and a scourge to his ex-wife. An eighteenth-century Austrian courtier decides that he is “a man trapped irrevocably in a realm of logic, distant from the enigmas of human emotion.” The protagonist of “The Slough” becomes repelled by his girlfriend after she reveals that she has found a way to shed her skin like a snake.
Malla, a Canadian who was recently awarded the Giller Prize, his country’s top literary award, for this collection, is refreshingly unpredictable, injecting magical realism into some tales while letting others unfold in a conventional universe. Even the more conventional stories, however, possess a quirkiness that makes them memorable. In “Pet Therapy,” a young man works in a children’s hospital making sure that the Pet Therapy Ward bonobo doesn’t rape the Pet Therapy goats. The bullied fourth-grader in “Long Short Short Long” is convinced that his teacher is sending him secret Morse Code messages.
Children appear in many of these tales, orphaned, neglected, or ill. They have more resourcefulness and energy than their adult counterparts, but are equally aware of some precariousness inherent in the order of things. In the powerful “Big City Girls,” a seven-year-old boy and his older sister and her friends play a sex game on a long, dull school snow day. Malla captures the way in which children intuit the entwined excitement and violence of adult sexuality:
Alex was on top of the girl. He held his [toy pirate’s] hook to her throat.
Can you be Jordan Knight when you rape me? said Heather’s voice in the dark.
Okay, what do I say?
Just be slow and nice, she said.
Okay, said Alex. Okay.
… I guess I’m dead now, said Heather. Where do I go?
The ways of men and women together are not pretty in Malla’s world. Sex as often creates distance as connection. Malla is particularly good on the naked dislike that can develop between long-term lovers. In “The Slough,” the main character is teasing his girlfriend by nudging her with his foot while she studies for a class. She tells him to stop:
He nudged again and she looked at him, exasperated. “What?”
“I love you,” he said.
She stared at him. “And?”
“And do you love me?”
“No, I hate you.”
For all their fierceness, these are sly, leisurely stories that don’t readily signal where they’re heading or the effect the author may mean them to have, though in retrospect they drop hints suggesting that their surface aimlessness is deceptive. Malla is a painstaking literary mechanic, and funny, too, with a great ear for colloquial speech. The deepest registers of emotion are reached in “Big City Girls,” “Respite” (which unsentimentally describes a writers’s volunteer visits to the home of a dying child), “Timber on the Wheel of Everyone,” and “Dizzy When You Look Down In,” a story about two brothers, one seriously ill with diabetes. Dizzy, the diabetic brother, is undergoing an operation to have a foot amputed; his well sibling, the narrator, waits in a hospital lounge trying to make sense of the pieces of Dizzy’s life. A gifted high school basektball player, Dizzy deliberately sabotaged both his academic future and his physical health. Why? Was it his radical politics? His resentment over being diabetic? His propensity for getting stoned? We are never told for sure, and don’t need to be. Who could truly explain such a thing anyhow? The mysteries that make so many of Malla’s characters withdraw, overwhelmed by life, are mysteries that enrich his stories and encourage us to more than one reading. I think Malla knows a little more than he lets his readers in on, but I appreciate his sophisticated ambiguities. Closure is overrated.