When I ordered this book from the library I expected a novel. What in the buzz I heard about The Withdrawal Method led me to believe this, I am not sure, but obviously I wasn’t reading too closely. I also forgot that this book of 13 short stories was published by Soft Skull Press (no longer of New York, sadly, but with the same crappy website). These two things weren’t the only surprises.
The first story, “The Slough” is a two-part affair with a character named Pasha struggling through a changing relationship. Oh no, I thought: young author, same name character, relationship story equals boredom with possible disgust. However, the author’s quietly assured descriptions, like the inhabitants of a park on a gloomy day being “ambitious folks… young couples pushing strollers or middle-aged women being dragged around by dogs,” and “improbable bed-sand” littering former lovers’ beds. This story also takes on the irreality of the illness of a loved one; the first half is a surreal telling of a girlfriend shedding her skin, the second is about a girlfriend in the hospital, dying from metastasized skin cancer.
I am glad I persevered because The Withdrawal Method contains some amazing stories. In “Pushing Oceans in and Pulling Oceans Out,” a young girl with burgeoning OCD and a handicapped brother struggles with the desire to control, and turns an Easter egg hunt into something a desperate scream of a test. Malla writes in first person here and it he gets the tone--tentative yet gossipy, annoyance battling fear--exactly right. There are sharp details like nobody’s business: my favorite is that the girl calls her father “my dad Greg” in her mind.
“Respite” is another man-woman relationship story. Womack unknowingly disappoints his lady by spending a lot of time on his novel, asking her about her work and basically just being himself. When his girlfriend pleads for him to “do something,” he decides to do some volunteering, choosing to care for a dying boy one day a week. His physically intimate, repetitive work is explained in loving detail by Malla and worked effortlessly into the relationship story. It’s magic.
Alternate present gets a go here to with “Being Like Bulls.” Set on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, years after the attraction has been turned into a multinational garbage dump, the story focuses on Paul, a second-generation immigrant living off his dead parents’ investments and moldering in the dead stock of their souvenir store. The story is a subtle, beautiful take on obligation, the emptiness of a landscape bereft of nature and hope and the tensions of a globalized world.
Check it out now. I hope this guy puts out a novel soon.