Friday, July 3, 2015

Ken Kalfus’ ‘Coup de Foudre’ is a collection of surprises

Here’s the thing about Ken Kalfus and his Coup de Foudre. You can’t typecast him or describe this collection in a few simple words. The fifteen short stories and one novella contained in it are so different, one from another, that it is almost like an anthology
of work by myriad authors. The book is divided into three parts, from which we may glean some of the author’s intentions.

Part I is devoted to the title story, a retelling, in graphic detail, of the Dominic Strauss-Kahn sexual “interaction” with a hotel housekeeper. In it, David Leon Landau, the Strauss-Kahn stand-in, writes a confessional letter to the housekeeper recounting what occurred between them. He toys with sending it even though it would mean a setting aside of their civil settlement, the reopening of the criminal charges against him and his literal (as opposed to moral) bankruptcy.

There is more than a little Humbert Humbert mentality revealed in the letter. Landau is certain that Sarkozy is having him illegally tracked by French intelligence and has bugged his telephone. Yet, this does not stop him from pursuing his Viagra-fueled sexual conduct. In a tryst with a sometime sex partner, he throws her to the carpet in the foyer of his hotel suite:

This is how I prefer to have my women, and how they sometimes prefer it too, without the feints and hypocrisies of seduction, without the over significant looks and the lame jokes, in a sudden strike, a jump, a rage – a coup de foudre, a thunderbolt.

The justification for his attack on the physically unattractive housekeeper: “Every person is worthy of sexual attention. Our fundamental human dignity demands it.”

Arrested at the airport on his way to a meeting to present his plan to save Europe to the “sluggish” and “stolid dreary” Angela Merkle, he is outraged, not because of his own behavior but, ironically, by that of the politicians who have “plotted” his disgrace:

Now, and not for the first time, I felt ambivalence and an actual revulsion toward my involvement in politics. I was reminded that this kind of aggressive, sordid behavior is a regular feature of political life, manifesting itself far in excess of and with greater virulence than a middle-aged technocrat’s romantic adventuring…Criminality behind the façade of politics is a regular trope of popular culture. But I was squarely within the political process. I went into politics for love of country and a belief in humanity, and for me the abuse of power still provokes outrage.

Indeed, he feels “the weight of the world’s many conspiracies. All my virtues – my intelligence, my idealism, and my passion – were being employed against me.” He conflates his own downfall with the downfall of Europe:

You must wonder how I could be so smart and yet think so recklessly. This was, however, exactly the man I was, the man I am today, the man who would save the European economy.

While you are still reeling from this portrait of a monster, Kalfus moves into a completely different mode in the stories which make up Part II of the collection. Two of the stories are fantasies: In “The Moment They Were Waiting For,” a convicted killer utters a curse at the moment of his execution. Everyone then living discovers he knows the exact date of his or her own death. In “Square Paul-Painleve,” the narrator comes to believe that a park bench is enchanted so that one is unable to rise from it unless “freed” by another person.

“Factitious Airs” described a nitrous-fuelled “enlightenment” which comes to the narrator during a periodontal cleaning (and disappears as the effects of the gas wear off) and “Teach Yourself Tsilanti: Preface” is a wickedly funny sendup of academic philologists.

“In Borges’ Library” recounts the perhaps apocryphal story of an aged reader who read a book and was struck mad by it. The narrator says:

The last book he read proved that everything he had read before it was read wrong. His life had been wasted. It’s impossible, I believe, for one reader to communicate to another how he has read a book at the level where the book is most intimately experienced.

I was particularly taken with several of the stories in the final section of the collection. “Shvartzer” is a very realistic portrait of an angry, blustering, elderly man with dementia. The ophthalmologist in “Laser” epitomizes the “Doctor as All-Knowing God” who simply ignores facts that don’t fit with what he opines. The journalist in “Mr. Iraq” misses an important deadline and is fired while bailing his 80 year old father out of jail. The older man has been arrested in a protest against the war.

“The Un-” explores the world of the aspiring but yet-unpublished writer desperately trying to get over that “wall” between himself and the published writer.

On that subject, in a 2006 interview in Philadelphia Stories, Kalfus said:

Perhaps the pains and failures of published writers are inspirational to the unpublished. But it may be more productive to remember that as serious readers and aspiring writers, we're part of the great world literary enterprise, among the noblest human endeavors, whatever our level of success. Passionate reading, receptiveness to good literature, thoughtfulness about the world, the willingness to take creative risks and rigorous craftsmanship lie at the heart of the enterprise.

Ken Kalfus is the author of two earlier story collections, Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies. His three novels are The Commissariat of Enlightenment, Equilateral and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. He has received a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and a Guggenheim.

No comments:

Post a Comment