IN DESPAIR AND Other Stories, André Alexis applies the shadowy workings of magic to the logic of the short story. The rough material of a few of these tales is hauntings and the supernatural, snipped from the folklore of Alexis's birthplace of Trinidad and pasted back into the realm of work, play, and love in Ottawa, his current home. Typical is the first story, "The Night Piece," which tells of Winston Grant, who takes a job as a live-in housekeeper for an elderly woman who happens to be a soucouyant, a vampirelike creature taken from West Indian lore. Instead of killing her, however, Grant becomes erotically attached and begins longing for her nightly visits. "Her neck was graceful, her breasts full, her hips narrow," Winston recounts. "Were it not for her breath, she was his imagined ideal of a brown-skinned woman."
Some selections are more straightforward psychological explorations, such as "Kuala Lumpur," which details a young boy's discomfort during his father's funeral. Others are obvious attempts to ponder classic philosophical dilemmas, such as "Metaphysics of Morals," which explores the many forms of guilt. Still others are aggressively surreal, like "The Third Terrace," wherein a young man narrates how his beautiful hands not only land him in porn films that feature his digits but also lead him to seek out prostitutes chosen solely for how grotesquely deformed their hands are.
The same strange mood that engulfs these characters shapes the telling of their tales. Despite the fact that many of the selections are written in the more direct style of traditional fables and folklore, Alexis does not cleanly draw out the moral of the story. Nor do many of these pieces have a resolution or much semblance of a plot, for that matter.
At times this approach can come off as frustratingly coy, but perhaps this is Alexis's point: The searing images that briefly illuminate these characters' psyches remain open to multiple interpretations. For example, in a very short section from "Despair: Five Stories of Ottawa," Alexis recounts the longing of a young woman, Martine, for the mysterious Mr. Highsmith. At every dance they attend, he sticks two fingers into her mouth. "[She] was quite surprised," Alexis tells us, "but not unpleasantly. His fingers had been dry as paper, and her tongue stuck to them lightly." Why does he stick his fingers in her mouth? No concrete reasons are given, yet somehow the story hinges on the image. It's as if the author himself were conducting an examination of desire--wielding a tongue depressor and peering with a penlight into the dark interior of his subjects.