Dysfunction

Dysfunction by Annam Manthriam
Aqueous Books, 2012
170 pages

First, I want to thank Cynthia Reeser for sending me this reviewer’s copy. Aqueous Books has churned out some great fiction, and you can check out their titles here.

Manthriam’s collection is split 50/50 on first- vs. third-person narrators. At first, most of the narrators, or the character the narrator followed closely, are Indian women. The stories are wither enjoyed Eastern or Western in tradition, or may be the cross between the two. Imagine the life of a woman who has had 45 bride showing appointments but is not deemed pretty enough; imagine a woman with a cleft palate whose lover is a much older man who protects her from her mentally ill mother; imagine a struggling Americanized teenager who tries to find a way to exist with her traditional Indian parents’ secrets.

I got into a routine of expecting this collection to be about Indian women, the way I expect Sherman Alexie to write about Native American men. Perhaps this is a poor choice on my part, to expect such things, but Manthriam led me to believe as much. When a first-person narrator turned out to be a white boy, I felt that I was misled for half the story, and I wondered how the piece might benefit from a third-person narrator instead.

Side Note: Cris Mazza, author of numerous fiction and critical pieces, wrote a fascinating piece on the choice to use first- vs. third-person narrators in Vol. 42 No. 2 of the Writer’s Chronicle, if you’re interested! Some quotes can be found here.

Manthriam’s list pieces were engaging, humorous, and gave snapshots of, well, dysfunctional lives. Here are some quotes from “Variations on a Blossoming Marriage,” a piece that uses the alphabet to insert readers into the thoughts of a woman who may or may not be lovable, and may or may not know how to function around others:

Enthusiasm
Eager Beaver. That was my name (how I made love). His was Even Stephen because everything always had to be equal. When he cheated, I cheated too. Everything always had to be equal—everything.

Nigella
He was black; I was the box marked “other.”

Rattlesnake
For my birthday, he got me a guinea pig. I never wanted one, but he always presumed to know what I desired. It sat there, in the cage. He didn’t feed it, and I didn’t love it.

Wolfsbane
While we were intimate, he impersonated a Swedish chef. When he came, he barked like a dog.

Manthriam’s longer pieces were also incredibly successful, painting characters and settings into cinematic visions. “Golconda, India 1686” begins with the power storytelling has to affect the life of a princess and ends when she literally plays a game to save her family. The story, mixed with directions on how to play a game called carrom and the princess’s relationship with a man named Abdullah, are described like a scene out of Yimou Zhang’s The Curse of the Golden Flower–intense, cold, frightening–like a frozen heart that still beats but you’re scared to ask why.

Even when some of the stories unraveled a bit at the end, I admired the way Manthriam could change how I felt about her characters from story to story. Some I loathed (and I knew I was supposed to), some I pitied (not sure if I was supposed to!), and others were so calm, content even, that I marveled at their peace. Overall, Dysfunction was a collection that I enjoyed, feeling as though I was both grounded in fiction and learning about the individual lives of women who were undeniably part of a rich cultural tradition.

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