Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: I Am an Executioner: Love Stories by Rajesh Parameswaran

By Rajesh Parameswaran
Knopf. 272 pp. $24.95.
The stories in Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection are set in turn-of-the-century India, modern-day America, fictional countries in unnamed time periods, and on a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy in the 24th century. Yes, it seems that Parameswaran truly wanted to assemble a varied collection. And I haven’t even mentioned the non-human narrators of two of the stories (or three, depending on how you count).

The collection opens with one of the non-human narrators, in this case a zoo tiger. The tiger, Ming, is in love with his handler. (The “love stories” subtitle is not always quite this literal.) Despite being a somewhat “tamed” zoo animal, as well as an excellent storyteller and observer of the world, we soon see that Ming is still a tiger; he has the same innate animal instincts of his wild ancestors. When he feels threatened, he will attack. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that the story does have a happy ending (or beginning for that matter). In fact, the story is highly unsettling; I cringed and squirmed. It was only because of Rajesh’s clear, engaging prose that I never wanted to stop reading.

The title story is similarly unsettling. It is, in fact, narrated by an executioner. The “love” in this story? The executioner’s love for his job. Even when a young girl somehow ends up on the death row in his fictional country, he is not perturbed. He is convinced of the fairness of the judicial system and feels that if this young girl has been sentenced to death, it has been done for the right reasons. Most of all, he is ready to, in his words, “execution” her. But the executioner is not an unlikable monster. Like the murderous Ming, Parameswaran is able to put some humanity into this proud “killer.” This is quite a feat.

Other stories includes a metanarrative, where the narrator imagines the narration of the story of a man in a photograph, complete with the parenthetical comments by the photographed man, who interrupts where there imagining narrator got things “wrong.” It is one of the most engaging of the collection, but also the most gimmicky. In fact, most of the collection feels gimmicky, especially the final two stories, which include the translated memoir of an elephant (you read that right!), and the aforementioned story set on an alien planet, where humans cavort with human-sized indigenous insects. Simply put: in too many of the stories it feels like the author is trying too hard to be clever. Even the “love stories” organizing premise becomes a joke.

I devoured these stories quickly, and although I will never forget them, they are not stories I want to return to again and again. They are blisteringly original and entertaining, but they don’t rise to become something more than themselves. Sadly, it’s a classic case of the journey being more fun than the destination.

1 comment:

  1. I am tempted to read this book purely because the last book I read whose title contained the word "Executioner" was amazing.

    But it was also a Pulitzer-winning masterpiece of a giant novel.
    So I'm not sure this will compare.