“[N]o system,” writes Adam Ehrlich Sachs, “can endure that much uninterrupted introspection.” And yet “Inherited Disorders,” his charming and witty collection of stories, seems to thrive on it.
Across 117 short stories ranging in length from as little as a few sentences to no more than a few pages long, Sachs explores, in great detail, the various permutations of father-son relationships. Though there are some vague arcs and minor connections throughout the book, the stories largely stand on their own, each a little world unto itself.
There’s an anecdotal, conversational style to Sachs’s writing that makes the stories feel as if they’re designed to be shared. The Somerville-based Sachs wrote for the Lampoon while an undergraduate at Harvard and has since appeared in hip journals like n+1 and McSweeney’s — fitting outlets for his earnestly ironic style. His stories unfold like little riddles or word problems, and often feature highly symmetrical plots in which characters complement one another neatly. In “Footsteps,” for example, a poet and a physicist surreptitiously trade sons, having noticed that the sons’ interests more closely matched the opposite father.
The premises of the stories vary little; indeed, many tread strikingly similar ground and in noticeably close proximity to one another. There are sons burdened by the legacy of their fathers, such as the adventurers’ sons in “Obligation,” or the writer’s son in “The Death of Inspector Pirenne.” There are sons willing to obliterate themselves, whether to spite their fathers or to shelter them, as in “Concerto for a Corpse” or “The Family Rivulidae.” There are fathers who bequeath inheritances — some tangible, some conceptual — to their sons, as in “Salvagable” and “Accepted Donations.” And there are fathers who crush their sons for fear of being surpassed, as in “The Flemish Engraver’s Son” or “The Tallinn Holocaust Memorial Museum.”
What distinguishes these stories from one another, and where Sachs makes them truly shine, is in the details. Neither the piano prodigy in “Concerto for a Corpse” nor the Swiss ichthyologist in “The Family Rivulidae” seems to be able to be honest with his father, for fear of disappointing him. And so the former can only scheme to lose his fingers in a series of vaguely suspicious accidents, and the latter must fake his own disappearance at sea and assume a new identity. How Sachs’s various characters confront the same challenges and wrestle with the same complexes ensure that “Inherited Disorders” continually feels fresh, despite its single-minded theme.
Sachs’s best stories are those that manage to realize the ineffable nature of the father-son relationship. In “The Stipulation,” a famous performer requests that his “father should be kept a fixed distance away from him at all times” during concerts, to ensure an optimal outcome. Specifically, the father should “never [be] brought closer than 30 feet or taken farther away than 300.” In “In the House of the Cryptoporticus,” Sachs uses a pair of preserved corpses caught in a narrow passageway at Pompeii as a kind of Rorschach test to illuminate the archeologists’s own issues. “Were the father and son trying to squeeze past one another . . . Or, as others maintain, was this some sort of embrace, something between a handshake and a hug?”
Most importantly, “Inherited Disorders” is just plain funny. Whether examining the life of a man who copes with the 16 distinct facets of his relationship to his late father by wearing a differently-styled hat that corresponds to each one, or how a tyrannical father can be made less scary by transforming him into an alligator in a children’s book, Sachs always keeps his stories light, engaging, and fun. “It begins,” he writes, “with Al the Alligator taking him to Florida, ostensibly to meet his grandfather — a depressive wombat with a tracheotomy hole — but really to have an affair with . . . a professor at Alligator Florida International University’s School of Business.”
Sachs has a finely tuned sense of humor and an economical writing style that gives each story plenty of punch. And the brevity of each story makes this a great book to simply flip open on a whim for a quick read. He’s made sure that “Inherited Disorders” is crammed full of smart turns of phrase, clever twists of logic, and plenty of laughs.
Stories, Parables & Problems
By Adam Ehrlich Sachs
Regan Arts, 272 pp., $23Michael Patrick Brady, a writer from Boston, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @michaelpbrady.