These are the typical love stories: beautiful young lovers blissfully discovering one another’s hearts and bodies; prideful rivals stubbornly seething at each other amid the steam of sexual tension; heavy glances, starry nights, wrinkled hands held tight...
But Rajesh Parameswaran is no Jane Austen, and he is certainly no Nicholas Sparks. Love in his debut anthology, I Am an Executioner: Love Stories, takes a darker, less expected form. In nine tales, the author presents the world through the eyes of the misunderstood, the murderous, the megalomaniacs, and the mad. In these tales, tenderness blends in disturbing seamlessness with bloodthirst, and violence is carried out with quiet intimacy.
Yet these stories, as the collection’s cover suggests, are not without a certain strange humor. They are not bleak, nor are they sadistic in the manner of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris. Parameswaran creates a tone all his own, something like an even blend of Roald Dahl as he wrote for children and Roald Dahl as he wrote for adults. Even as his stories twist and turn, mounting in horror, I can imagine them paired with the whimsical illustrations of Quentin Blake.
Ming, the captive Bengal tiger of I Am an Executioner’s opening tale, would have felt easily at home in a children’s book, until the fateful day on which we as the readers meet him. Personified to neurotic perfection, he is an instantly sympathetic character who wants nothing more in the world but to be fed his breakfast and to have his affections returned by his (human) keeper, the pudgy, balding Kitch. However, his crush quickly turns obsessive, and its tragic end, by the time it occurs, feels all but inevitable. With each turn of events, Parameswaran holds his squirming reader rapt, building and building his world with excruciating detail and undeniable skill.
The author’s ability as a sculptor of the written word is dazzling. Every one of his nine stories is told in a different voice, each with its own distinct verbal ticks and rhythms. Some are more likable than others, but all are colored by the author’s obvious enthusiasm for storytelling.
In a recent interview with Jacob Silverman, Parameswaran discusses his love of the writing process. While many writers love writing only once the painful part of producing a text has ended and the finished product lies printed in their hands, Parameswaran claims to love the hard labor itself:
“I hear writers who say it’s almost like working in a coal mine or something,” he says. “But for me, it’s like play in the fullest sense of the word. I really like doing it.”
This sentiment bursts forth from the pages of I Am an Executioner, manifesting itself in inventive worlds, quirky characters, and scenarios that blend the mundane with the magical, the fantastical, and the awful.
Photo of the author by Michael Lionstar
Additionally informing Parameswaran’s stories is his Indian heritage, which he passes onto most of his human characters, from the turn-of-the-century Brahmin in “Four Rajeshes” to Manju Kumar, the Texas transplant of “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan” who sings of Krishna and always wears saris. If Executioner’s characters are colored by Indian culture, though, they come alive because of their mysterious behaviors and curious motivations.
However, Parameswaran’s zeal for writing is also the root of Executioner’s weaknesses. Despite their differences in voice, all nine narrators share a tendency toward verbosity and excessive self-reference. At its best, this means beautiful scenic description and poignant revelation when the reader recognizes those tragic flaws that the characters cannot see in themselves.
At its worst, though, it means redundant bits of circumlocution and rambling meta-conversation between layers of narrator, as exhibited painfully in “Elephants in Captivity (Part One).” Told on two levels simultaneously, this story is a back-and-forth between a main narrative -- related by an escaped elephant—and a body of extensive footnotes -- written by the elephant’s translator.
The translator, a man of dubious elephant ancestry, regales the reader with anecdotes of human suicide, elephant death, and his own pachydermal penis, stories so loosely connected that they build the expectation of a climactic, revelatory ending that pieces everything together with a bang. Instead, the plot points are all left hanging.
Still, these frustrating moments can’t overshadow all that is triumphant about I Am an Executioner. Through elephants and aliens, housewives and intelligence agents, these stories provide insight into surprisingly relatable minds.
Parameswaran’s blend of horror, tenderness, and humor works as it does because beneath its violence and wit lies compassion for even the most deeply disturbed among us. Despite their eccentric appearances, these are but stories of universal human experience, twisted slightly.
Mia Monnier is a graduate of Middlebury College who lives and writes in Los Angeles.