Hyphenated-American fiction writers often face an unfair conundrum. If they focus on race or ethnicity, they risk being pigeonholed or fetishized or deemed spokespeople for their racial or ethnic group. If they avoid these topics, they risk charges of cultural treason. In his dark, imaginative, and engrossing debut short story collection, Yale Law graduate Rajesh Parameswaran splits the difference: embracing his Indian heritage yet transcending that heritage with universal themes of love and loss.
To be sure, I Am An Executioner has plenty of Indian culture. There are arranged marriages, culture and caste clashes, saris and chappels, and mouthwatering meals of chutney, samosas, and okra. The narrator of one story is a tiger; another is an elephant. Yet not all of the stories star Indian or Indian-American characters. And even when they do, Parameswaran seems eager to subvert cultural clichés. In the title story, the narrator, never ethnically identified, speaks in what seems like a parody of Indian English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors.” In another story, the hapless hero is an unemployed computer salesman who pretends to be a doctor –that stereotypical Brahmin profession – with disastrous results. In “Demons,” an Indian-American woman tells a neighbor that her dead husband on her living room floor is doing yoga, saying: “That is, you know, one of the things we do in India.” And the gullible gringo swallows the story.
Certainly, Parameswaran shares similarities with other authors of Indian extraction who write in English: the magical realism of Salman Rushdie, the black humor of Manil Suri and Hanif Kureishi, and the violence of Aravind Adiga. Clear nods to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri include a character named Mrs. Sen and a story in which Indians (from India) joke about Indians (Native Americans) on Thanksgiving. Yet the book also speaks to more diverse influences: the metafiction of Borges, the tall tales of Melville, Orwellian dystopia, and crime, fantasy, and science fiction genre films. With its range of characters, settings, plots, voices, and styles, I Am An Executioner is neither an immigrant story, nor a veiled autobiography, but proof of the imaginative possibilities of short fiction.
Despite their differences, the stories have remarkable thematic cohesion. Per the title, there are dead bodies in nearly every story. Many of the narrators suffer from guilt and when reality fails to meet their expectations. And many are sympathetic villains: a bloodthirsty tiger, a murderous wife, and the hangman in the title story. Most of the stories are told in first person –and one in the rarely used first-person plural –and in classic fashion, the unreliable and delusional narrators miss some key truth of their lives; thus, one of the book’s main weapons is dramatic irony. And no mater his subject or style, Parameswaran demonstrates a clear command of prose, plot, and pathos.
While the collection’s range is commendable, some stories misfire. “Narrative of Agent 97-4701” and “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucinda, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)” read like experimentation for experimentation’s sake. The story in which footnotes subsume the main narrative has been done to death, from David Foster Wallace to Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s published one of the stories). And in a book of nine stories, two with talking animals may be one too many.
Ultimately, Parameswaran seems concerned with both cultural and existential questions. According to I Am An Executioner, life is painful, whether you live in India, America, or a nameless City, whether you’re male or female, a spy, a filmmaker, or a hangman. Musing on his lover’s worldview, one character seems to sum up the book’s philosophy: “all monuments and pleasures in life are brief.”
Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include: Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano, a dual review of The Listeners by Leni Zumas and Flea Circus by Mandy Keifetz, and The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño. He is not an executioner, except when editing.