Playful inventiveness and a fluid prose style reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh at his most antic distinguish this debut collection of 15 unusually varied stories.
Several lift characters from familiar literary sources: notably, Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, who’s chosen by a bachelor patron of the dating service “Literary Lonelyhearts”; the blind seer Teiresias, who conducts tours of the Oedipus Museum (in “Chez Oedipus”); and “Lady Macbeth, Prickly Pear Queen,” whose old habits inconveniently resurface following her marriage to an ardent young fruit magnate. There are also echoes of Borges, Beckett, Kafka, and especially early T.C. Boyle in such parabolic tales as “Life in Dearth,” whose heroine’s discovery of sex reveals to her the emptiness of her native village’s insularity and pride; “The Census Taker,” which records the collision of an exacting civil servant with a woman unwilling “to be counted”; and “The Charwoman,” an ironic paean to the pleasures of unconventional behavior, which also includes a hilarious parody of a proper Victorian upbringing. Avrich ransacks history in the clever title piece, a scholar’s lament for mankind’s lapse from times when the devout poor “happily endured injury and starvation,” enabling the building of marvels like the great cathedral at Chartres—and foresees dystopian futures in “Trash Traders” (where exchanges of what people throw away cause wholesale identity crises); and “Waiting Rooms,” an acerbic sex comedy about a man-hunting woman whose failure to find the complete package (so to speak) is foreshadowed by an alarming profusion of prosthetic devices. Even better are “The Braid,” narrated by a paternally trained cat burglar who finds a way to assert her independence; and “The Banshee’s Song,” about an ugly-duckling daughter who’s compensated for her miseries by an energizing, troubling ability “to see into the spirit world.”
Stories that tiptoe artfully along the edge of credibility, seldom failing to astonish as much as they entertain.