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people want to live

13 january 2022

I read Farah Ali's' outstanding story "Disorder" in the October 2021 issue of The Common. I liked that one so much that I ordered her recent debut collection People Want to Live, from McSweeney's.

Several stories in People Want to Live share a structural feature with "Disorder": a married couple with a communication problem. This sometimes involves a child, often a child in trouble ("Disorder"), or a child who has died ("Heroes"). In "Bulletproof Bus," a man makes desultory efforts to look for jobs he's not qualified for, all the while avoiding leveling with his wife about his situation (not that she's fooled). "The Leavers" is narrated by a nurse who has left his disastrous marriage. He talks about its problems obliquely, in counterpoint with the story of a mental patient he cares for, and that patient's provoking sister. And of course, he talks only from his own point of view, so we are not sure how far to trust him.

"Transactions" features an even less-trustworthy narrator, a woman who cares for her invalid husband. We learn in the story's 14 pages – as much as its teller will allow us – that she not only helps her husband in his illness but is likely the cause of it, via a sort of Munchausen-by-proxy situation.

Others of Ali's stories play brilliantly with the boilerplate language of documents and protocols. In "Tourism," told in the second person, the addressee seems to be reading a brochure or perhaps listening to an audioguide. He is visiting the fabled Hunza region of northern Pakistan; many of the narrator's suggestions are standard descriptions of attractions. Yet the brochure (or audioguide) also seems to know every detail of the addressee's grimly absurd personal life. The turn from the generic to the intimate in the story is marvelously poised.

The title of "Foreigners" works both ways. An aging Pakistani couple apply for a U.S. tourist visa to see a new grandchild. The entire story is in the voice of their American interviewer. As in "Tourism," the formulaic nature of the language quickly starts breaking down. The interviewer starts to ask inappropriate, even searing questions about emigrant children and the awkwardnesses of intercultural contact. At the same time he forbids the couple to ask questions about him – but then proceeds to reveal scores of parallel personal details that in their frequent randomness paint a vivid impression of literal alienation.

Similar themes circulate in "Present Tense," told in the title mode but also in flashback. A man returns to Karachi from his home on an unspecified continent. His parents have settled into bland retirement, but he cannot shake the memories of a childhood episode where they'd separated and the father for while gone without a trace. These memories have traumatized his brother (on yet a third continent) and formed the invisible, terrible fabric of apparently ordinary lives.

"Beautiful" is the strange little adventure story of an orphan who runs away with a ratcatcher: fantastic without employing any magic at all. An escape is also effected in "An Act of Charity," another crossed-wires marriage story, where a couple – a women's-rights advocate and a burnt-out salesman – "free" a maid from the service of their friends, rather aimlessly and not possibly permanently, but almost as if they can make no other gesture towards improving their world.

"Believers" is noirish and less convincing than the other stories here; "The Effect of Heat on Poor People" is fraught and full of pent-up violence; "Together" compresses a novel-length saga into nine pages. The volume's final and longest story, "What's Fair?," is a crime story and also seems novelistic, even a sketch for a longer work, this one about Artful-Dodgery thieves coming of age. There is no really weak story here, though, and there are eight or ten excellent ones.

Short fiction can tell very little about its world. A writer can either spend a lot of time explaining things, or get right into a narration that will inevitably exclude a lot of exposition, but is all the stronger for leaving some things mysterious and oblique. Farah Ali is an outstanding example of the latter kind of fiction writer, and I look forward to reading much more of her work in the years ahead.

Ali, Farah. People Want to Live. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2021.