“Good Morning, Again,” the first story in Elliot Perlman’s The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, finds a man in spirited wee-hour conversation with a past lover. His regret is palpable, perhaps even poignant enough to convince her of reconciliation. That is, if he weren’t talking only to himself. A younger paramour with nasal blockage wheezes, asleep beside him. Good morning, indeed.
Perlman shapes his tales of bruised humanity from the detritus of strained relationships. Fond of psychiatric and legal terms, characters wander in a Kübler-Rossian ether, pointing out logical flaws in each other’s emotions. In the titular story, a probate officer relates the disintegration of his marriage. Speckled throughout are short lectures on the finer points of probate law, disruptions meant to stifle confusion and grief. As husband and then-wife lie awake in bed, she asks him, “Do you ever wake up with an inexplicable… panic inside you?”
Inexplicable panic, existential dread, aching solitude, and lucid despondency seethe within Perlman’s stories. Characters nonchalantly volunteer things like “I have every confidence that loneliness will be one day recognized for what it is, a pathology.” Men are wont to confess, “When we met I was more or less in the fetal position inside my suit.” Often inner monologists, characters are both vessels and gluttons for the cruelty of unremitting judgment. Yet they are not benumbed to reticence. Hopelessly conscious of embarrassing personal truths—the sort we realize, then yearn to forget—Perlman’s characters are erudite specialists of anomie. Hyperliterate and brutally funny, alternatively self-assured and self-loathing, they are mostly noble and deserving of our sympathy, even if we’re implicated in our schadenfreude. The effect might be depressing if Perlman didn’t show such care in imbuing his characters with devious charm.
A few unmitigated knockouts lurk within Reasons. “Manslaughter” displays some of the same gifts for competing perspective as Perlman’s second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) in miniature. A criminal mastermind, telling a more truthful, more frightening tale, artfully interrupts Perlman’s omniscient narrator.
“A Tale in Two Cities” locates a perfect setting for Perlman’s recurring themes of betrayal and longing in the Moscow of the ’70s and ’80s. The feral instinct requisite for survival in Communist Russia remains unnervingly similar to that in modern life. No small feat, the story also offers the collection’s most generously rendered chance for redemption.
Scant evidence exists to suggest that casual flirtation with Perlman’s fiction will not end in total obsession. Case in point: the flawless elegy for elegists, “I Was Only in a Childish Way Connected to the Established Order.” The narrator, tormented by psychotic episodes which may or may not be compounded by his profession— poetry—is in thrall to a literary lodestar. Stalin-era poet-exile Osip Mandelstam inspires, perhaps inhabits, the story’s tragic outsider hero to tender, haunting effect. Twinned in ruminative estrangement, Mandelstam’s phrases echo “inexplicably” in the nameless narrator’s thoughts. Madman to some, gentle genius to others, Perlman’s poet is doomed by a “hope less addiction to the music in words.” Yet what distinguishes Perlman’s fiction, here and elsewhere, is that he understands the source of his hero’s alienation—his earnest, romantic innocence, and maybe ours—not as malady but as essential to human nature.