Pasha Malla's debut collection The Withdrawal Method starts off with "The Slough," a story divided into two parts. The first, a weirder, more fanciful tale, begins with the unnamed protagonist's girlfriend announcing that she intends to shed her skin, like a snake, and emerge as someone completely new. He begins to imagine what this new woman might be like and what he might mean to her, leading up to an abrupt shift as the story stops, resets and restarts as a more realistic narrative about a young man named Pasha whose girlfriend Lee is dying of cancer.
After the long months of her hospitalization, he too starts to leave her behind, to imagine the life that waits on the other side of her death. "There's no 'if.'" The doctors have given Lee three months, tops. “All these things are already mine," he says, while imagining which of their possessions he would keep and which he would get rid of. Later, he stares at their books, wondering what it would be like to "reinvent yourself as someone hapless and amusing, someone whose missteps are enjoyable, not simply wrong." At the end of the story, he picks up a notepad and starts to write, presumably penning the story that is the first half of "The Slough." It's an intriguing structure, and a fine introduction to Malla's work.
Many of Malla's stories take place in hospitals and waiting rooms, in the childhood bedrooms of sick children, and in the hollows left behind by the persistent decay of death and divorce. They revolve around loss, both the act of losing someone or something and the often nuclear fallout that follows the destruction of a family or a community. In "Being Like Bulls," a speculative story about what happens to the workers at Niagara Falls after the falls stop flowing, a young immigrant who has inherited his parents' gift shop business has to decide whether to keep holding on to what they had or to allow it to be destroyed instead, freeing him for whatever might come next:
Pretty much the entire store was destroyed... Even from where I gazed on from the periphery, it was impossible not to get caught up in things – the explosions of crystal and glass, the cracking of wood, the shelves crashing down in an avalanche of kitsch. But beyond the vague, vicarious thrill of voyeurism, I didn't feel anything. I'd expected to be flooded with sadness, or relief, or nostalgia, or catharsis. Instead, all I did was watch.
Elsewhere, a writer with a disintegrating relationship volunteers by spending his afternoons caring for a dying child, and a young girl finds her relationship to her divorced father shaken as she is redefined as a woman instead of a child, an object instead of a daughter.
In one of the best stories, "Pet Therapy," Karel, an accused child molester, takes a job at a hospital petting zoo protecting the goats from an amorous monkey. As he struggles to understand his co-workers and the aggressive, distant bonabo, he also faces the parallels between the monkey and himself, between the rape of the goats and the crime he is sure he's innocent of, except when he's not. He says, "I felt like I'd maybe even done it – that I might have blacked out for a bit and like sleepwalked my way into something. Or just been kidding around and maybe touched a kid in some way I shouldn't have, without realizing." As the story moves forward, Karel's need for forgiveness increases alongside his unreliability, until the gripping finale that leaves him stranded between punishment and mercy.
In this debut collection, Pasha Malla shows himself to be a confident and capable storyteller with a gift for depicting not only the excesses of loss and love that accompany our worst days, but also the new and often terrifying futures that lie ahead of those black moments. As his characters inch their way forward, looking for forgiveness or understanding or connection, so too do we, caught up in the gravity of these strong and strange stories.