Harder than it would seem, as every actor knows, is the playing of a corpse. For several minutes after the plot event that yields the lifeless body—the sword thrust, strangulation, pisoning, etc.,—the audience will watch it closely to see if it is really dead. Whatever else is happening on the stage will be lost.
Something like this principle applies in fiction, too. The presence of a corpse in a scene is unsettling. It requires of the living characters that they either be burying it or running from it.Eating a sandwich in its proximity will not do. For this reason, Faulkner does not let us know for sure that Emily Grierson has been sleeping with the deceased Homer Barron in A Rose for Emily, until the story’s last paragraph. Had we known any sooner, we would have stopped reading.
In his debut short fiction collection, I Am an Executioner: Love Stories, Chennai-born American writer Rajesh Parameswaran takes on this minatory axiom of narrative aesthetics and comes away largely triumphant. For the whole of one story, for example, while the Indian-born wife/protagonist cooks, talks on the phone, and attends a pre-Thanksgiving Day party, we are asked to imagine her just-deceased husband’s body slowly, gradually rigor-mortising into a V-shape on their living room floor. In the collection’s title story, the narrator courts his second wife on the internet without revealing to her his heartless profession as their unnamed country’s official executioner. In the beginning of their marriage this oversight bedevils him, for, as we would expect, his bride is reluctant to get lovey-dovey with him. But, then, much to our surprise, at the story’s end, she does get intimate with him after she watches him dispatch by stoning, a girl small enough to carry under one arm.
The narrator of Parameswaran’s futuristic final story is an undertaker on a lesser-developed planet over-run by Earthling adventure tourists. At the start of the undertaker’s story, he is attending to the impaled body of an ill-compassed female Earthling who lost her life driving too fast and too close to the roadside jungle’s sudden outcroppings.
These stories have several virtues: fullness, daring, invention, and flawless comedic timing. In a few, one hears the voice from The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira of the Indian diaspora’s first writer of international stature, V. S. Naipaul. However, save in his last story, Parameswaran’s subject is not influenced by postcoloniality, nor, refreshingly, does it have any of the overworked plaints standard to English-language immigrant fiction—that, for example, the emigrant is afflicted by guilt for having abandoned her home country.
Instead, Parameswaran’s stories shine light on the world’s sinister absurdities, among them, loving spouses occasionally wishing that their mates were dead; the “respectable” work done by executioners in societies that employ capital punishment; and death’s off-putting physical remains.
Parameswaran is not a writer that evaders of cemeteries and wax museums will fast cotton to. That’s their loss and his unmerited misfortune. As one Tamil proverb enjoins, Should we blame him who announces a death? No, not in the postmodern gothic wallah Parameswaran’s talented case.
John Cussen, Ph.D., teaches literature and writing at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He is a former Fulbrighter to India.