Lee Langley

Between duty and desire

In Coup de Foudre, the title novella of Ken Kalfus’s collection of stories, the ex-head of the IMF sends an email apologia to the chambermaid

Between duty and desire
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Coup de Foudre

Ken Kalfus

Bloomsbury, pp. 277, £

Coup de Foudre has a line from Antony and Cleopatra as its epigraph: ‘Some innocents ’scape not the thunderbolt.’ In this new volume of stories from the American writer Ken Kalfus no one, innocent or guilty, can be counted safe.

The novella which gives this collection its title is an audacious fictional riff on a real-life scandal: the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, favoured candidate for president of France, arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a hotel chambermaid in New York. Couched in the form of an email apologia to the maid, this is like the story of Red Riding Hood told by the wolf.

Kalfus simultaneously gives us the narrator’s sexual obsessions and ruthless solipsism alongside the intolerable stress of trying to save the world (financially speaking) with the aid of his Blackberry and a reluctant Angela Merkel. The humour is blood-dark, elegantly farcical, redolent of Nabokov’s Pale Fire and its ambiguous commentator.

In the 15 stories that follow, Kalfus conjures up an extraordinary range of characters and pulls us into their lives — a child used as go-between in a light-hearted game becomes the unwitting instrument of destruction; a scientifically savvy patient builds a gloriously edgy relationship with his glaucoma specialist; in a quiet corner of Paris a young man finds himself mysteriously imprisoned on a park bench.

Some stories grow out of the tug between loyalty and ambition, or duty and desire. In ‘Mr Iraq’, a political journalist at a critical point in his career is torn between meeting a crucial deadline or rescuing his 80-year-old father, in police custody for protesting outside the White House. A story titled ‘The Un’ follows a wannabe writer desperately struggling to climb the seemingly impregnable wall that separates the published from the un. It makes you want to cry — with laughter. Kalfus’s characters are prone to existential doubt and panic, questioning their own fears: can a haircut be politically provocative? Could a minor court case bring about the end of the world?

The protagonists are invariably men; women are rarely in the foreground of these narratives: they are wives, or sex objects, or creatures of beauty, glimpsed and yearned after, filtered through the male gaze.

Kalfus has written three novels and two story collections, finalists for prestigious awards, lauded by the elite of the American writing scene. It’s a sign of literary parochialism that he should be barely known by British readers. This could be about to change. The stories are sharply original; he can be cool, hip, tragic. Kalfus sets the bar ambitiously high and one or two stories may not quite make it. Most linger in the mind, uncoiling, expanding. Witty, unsettling, sometimes weird, they sing from the page with intelligence, humour and style.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.99 Tel: 08430 600033