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Book Review

Weird characters inhabit Faber's world

Vanilla Bright Like Eminem
By Michel Faber
Harcourt Books, 256 pp., $23

Michel Faber sees the bizarre in life. In his acclaimed novel, "The Crimson Petal and the White," he reimagined a Victorian underworld with a heroine so outlandish that readers were both repelled and fascinated, while his more science-fiction oriented "Under the Skin," played with an equally odd and repugnant contemporary deck. While nothing in his latest collection of short stories creates such complete worlds either of the past or the present, these 16 short stories continue to explore the author's off-kilter themes of madness and the grotesque with mixed, if not downright queasy results.

The characters depicted in these stories are full of contradictions, and their freakish natures are set in stark contrast to the most mundane situations. If Faber gives us an ordinary housewife (as in "The Smallness of the Action"), for example, she is either a murderer or so adrift in her own mind that she imagines herself to be, while the drummer for a death metal band can be undone by an apparent migraine (in "Beyond Pain") and then learn the joys of normalcy with a Hungarian girl-friend. These contradictions work within the stories as well, as when an imprisoned surgeon is conditionally freed (in "Finesse") in order to perform risky surgery on the dictator who still holds her family hostage. Often his characters are aware of the irony of their situations. Even under the most profound pressure, the surgeon can't quite resist commenting on the resources that have been made available to her. "In our country," she remarks, "blood of all kinds is in plentiful supply."

This turnabout of expectations makes for Faber's trademark humor, which can be extremely grim. "He hadn't meant to kill her," one less self-aware character thinks. "At least not permanently." These little jokes, which fall in the space between intent and interpretation, often play up the disconnections between people, stressing the distance between individuals even when affection binds them. "I feel like . . . like death warmed up," says the drummer. "This evidently wasn't a Hungarian turn of phrase, because she replied, 'I don't think that's something my parents have in the house. How about a cup of chicken soup?' "

Not even the reader is immune to these odd tensions or unfulfilled expectations. When an Indonesian agricultural expert lectures in "Explaining Coconuts," for example, we hear her scientific terminology, but also witness some very off responses. Faber's writing is unapologetic with these dichotomies, letting the scene dawn through language:

"The exposed portion of the ovary," the lecturer begins a long technical explanation, concluding, "can be irresistibly attractive for insects of all kinds." In the audience, meanwhile, a "hoarse voice" orgasmically cries "Oh God."

Only a few of Faber's stories play it straight, and even these are weird. Faber revisits the cruelties of Victorian England for one such outing, "Flesh Remains Flesh," a dark tale that relates the last days of a murderous tannery tycoon. Its nearly Gothic justice is fitting, in that it reimagines a factory life that would have made Dickens flinch, but it is also sickening, giving readers horror story thrills in much more literary packaging.

The title story, which closes the book, is one of the few truly warm and utterly human pieces in the bunch. Abandoning his murderers and victims, Faber tells this story in a benign third-person voice, focusing on Don, an American who is traveling with his family in Scotland. Don is watching his wife, son and daughter, on a train, focusing on them as he keeps himself awake, waiting for their station. Cataloguing their quirks and disagreements, the everyday tensions of real life, he experiences one of those bright and beautiful "isolated moments" of which life is made. If you're not a homicidal maniac, or acting under unbearable fear, that is.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cattery Row."

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