Ken Kalfus started out small with two short story collections, before working his way up to a debut novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003). After two more novels — the finer of the pair, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006), becoming a finalist for the US National Book Awards — Kalfus has returned to the short form for his latest book. Coup de Foudre comprises a novella of the same name and 15 stories.
Like most collections of short fiction, not every tale measures up. However, Kalfus’s range is formidable and his standout pieces brim with gimlet-eyed observations, dazzling ideas and well-crafted characters whose exploits and predicaments flit between comedy, tragedy and downright absurdity.
It is in Kalfus’s shorter stories that we see him at his most experimental. In “The Moment They Were Waiting For” a murderer on death row is executed by lethal injection, but not before inflicting a curse on the inhabitants of his city. Instead of closure and restoration, his death unleashes “a horrific new era” in which every individual learns of the dates on which they will die. Similar sorcery is at play in “Square Paul-Painlevé” in the form of an “occult mechanism” which keeps a person stuck to a Paris park bench and only able to be freed by the next one who sits down.
These stories are more tall tales than tales of the unexpected, and for the most part Kalfus keeps us magicked. But some are little more than slight sketches during which the weirdness builds, finds nowhere to go and quickly fizzles out. “Factitious Airs” tracks a dental patient’s brief nitrous oxide-fuelled high but his sharpened perceptions and queasy hallucinations cumulatively resemble more an exercise in free-rein creativity for the author than a tightly focused narrative for the reader.
Kalfus’s longer stories prove to be better structured and more character-orientated. “Laser” is a terrifying account of a man whose eyesight steadily deteriorates after corrective surgery, and whose subsequent complaints of purblindness fall on deaf ears. Equally disturbing is “The Un-”, a cautionary tale about a struggling unpublished writer (each rejected story returning to him “in envelopes treacherously addressed by his own hand”). Strongest of all is “Mr. Iraq”, which winningly portrays a Washington family unravelling due to divided opinion on the war on terror.
However, it is Kalfus’s longest piece here, his top-billing novella, that truly showcases his talents. Originally published in Harper’s in 2014, “Coup de Foudre” is a fictional rewrite of a scandal that hit the headlines three years earlier. The first-person narrator is the president of an international lending institution accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a New York hotel. “Few downfalls in public life have been as well documented as my own,” he declares in this, a long, flowing confession addressed to the victim — both a muddle-headed mea culpa and a noble attempt to set the record straight.
Kalfus changes the names to protect the innocent but keeps the scene of the purported crime. Dominique Strauss-Kahn — who was accused by a chambermaid of sexual assault in 2011, though the criminal case filed against him was later dismissed — becomes David Lèon Landau, who checks into the presidential suite (“a suite that had been fashioned for sex”) of the New York Sofitel. This is a man with a busy, varied schedule: the day before his misdeed he indulges in rare bottles of calvados and young women at a “libertine party” in Washington; the day after it he has a meeting scheduled with “stolid, dreary” Angela Merkel to discuss the “lazy, lying Greeks” and their disintegrating economy. In the past 48 hours he has slept less than two hours and swallowed three Viagra tablets.
A night of passion with his mistress, Claudette, fails to satiate Landau’s sexual appetite — so much so that when the maid walks in, he pounces. What follows — attack, escape, capture — both grips and repels. With supreme dexterity, Kalfus allows Landau’s contrite pleas to ring hollow, his hypocrisy and arrogance to flare up unintentionally and render him not only flawed but preposterous.
Coup de Foudre differs from previous Kalfus collections of short fiction. There is less globetrotting, more black humour and an eponymous novella that steals the show — indeed, “Coup de Foudre” is a tour de force. There is fiction here for all tastes, but it becomes clear that the bigger Kalfus’s canvas, the better the results.
Coup de Foudre, by Ken Kalfus, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99/$26, 288 pages