Maladjusted Men (And Gals!) In Mannerist Short Fiction

emenem Maladjusted Men (And Gals!) In Mannerist Short FictionVANILLA BRIGHT LIKE EMINEM
By Michel Faber
Harcourt, 246 pages, $23

In Vanilla Bright Like Eminem, Michel Faber, author of the sex-stuffed Dickens pastiche The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), crafts opening sentences like an Edwardian newsman-fop transported to today’s metro section, his sturdy bemusement-cum-dismay summoning a sepia age when the spelling “lede” still made disambiguatory sense because printing (and living) indeed required a lot of inky lead.

“One Wednesday morning,” begins “The Smallness of the Action,” “in a moment of carelessness, Christine dropped her baby on the floor and broke him.”

In the span of 14 pages, she’ll drop, then hurl, him a few more times, until that infant tumor on her autonomy finally stops its metastasis. Or, as Mr. Faber puts it, “her baby’s head had come off from his body.”

Contemporary fiction offers many a more sharply focused snapshot of postpartum rage, but few quite so arresting. Indeed, like most of the 16 short stories—compact character sketches, really—collected in Vanilla Bright, “The Smallness of the Action” is most persuasively read as an exercise in MySpace Mannerism, a portrait whose measured immaculateness has little to do with verisimilitude. Christine feels trapped by domesticity and reduced by motherhood, sure, but none of that inner life is made particularly interesting or specific. No, what makes her special is that she decapitates her son in clipped, elegant prose.

Mr. Faber—who was born Dutch, was raised Australian and lives in Scotland with the idiomatic promiscuity to match—is a cunning, sui generis talent when he confines himself to the crisp purity of the casually brutal. From the sputtering chav with mommy issues who stumbles into a one-night manslaughter spree (“Someone to Kiss it Better”) to the migraine-addled “drummer of North Ayrshire’s foremost death-metal group” (“Beyond Pain”), Mr. Faber’s clinical detachment serves well the deprivations and frustrations of postindustrial near-manhood.

“Lachlan was a detective,” reads the opening line of “Less than Perfect”—“Eighteen years old, no educational qualifications, two big bony fists.”

Such expert clauses hum the dread of fluorescent bulbs. Our detective turns out to be a stringy wage-slave charged with ferreting out shoplifters at the local supermarket. Not that there’s a service-sector duty too small to be derelict: Lachlan is roundly defeated by the humiliations of a would-be thief whose breasts were “round and perfect like pale pink melons.” In “Mouse,” meanwhile, a boorish computer gamer named Manny allows himself novel thoughts of First Life intimacy in a neighbor’s apartment—“The brocaded texture of her bra and the swell of her breasts. … He wanted to lie in her arms and come between her legs.”

Girl parts often swell sterilely, but nothing’s ever consummated in Vanilla Bright Like Eminem. In a way, its namesake rapper—he of the stunning internal rhymes about creatively bludgeoning the trailer-park ex-wife—provides more than just a snappy title. Like Marshall Mathers’ maximalist narrators, Mr. Faber’s subjects aren’t monsters so much as maladjusted men (and occasionally women) suddenly confronted with their own utter smallness. The authorities—and her husband—don’t much care that Christine’s baby’s lost its head.

Mr. Faber’s style provides the fun-house unheimlich of an unedited newswire; comas and infanticide evince the same mannered anxiety as train rides and daydreams. This uniformity entertains, as far as it goes. But as the discomfited reader works through Vanilla Bright, the nonchalance with which life-altering ecstasies and agonies attack and retreat becomes mirrored in the sense that Michel Faber’s prodigious skill with words engenders a certain gorgeous glibness.

Take the title story, in which a middle-aged man, glancing upon his sleeping wife and daughter and teenage son—hair recently bleached a Slim Shady “vanilla bright”—experience[s] “the happiest moment of his life.” Coming at the collection’s close, it’s a flawlessly constructed short story—and that’s the problem. Mr. Faber pulls off the epiphany so smoothly, so assuredly, you begin to wonder if the moment was so special after all.

Fair or not, it’s hard to oblige with tears a writer who never seems to break a sweat.

Jonathan Liu is a writer living in Queens.