Tania James’s “Aerogrammes”

Tania James's "Aerogrammes"While it’s characteristic of writers to have stories to tell, Tania James positively bursts with them.

There is not a margin in which to let one’s mind wander as they read Aerogrammes, James’s jam-packed and hectically lovely short story collection.  Nor is there a moment to stop and wonder when these narratives might first have entered our writer’s mind, because the results appear to have been edited for years, flawless in their execution and always turning our eye toward a new someone and somewhere at precisely the right time – that is to say, just before our present characters show us the full extent of their vulnerability.

Leave it to Knopf to enchant us over and over again, this time around with a variant landscape of everything from early 20th century pro-wrestlers to chimpanzee adoption to fiscally-motivated marriages between ghosts and mortals. With exception to the latter (an exception that James’s convincing storytelling makes it hard to concede), the vignettes throughout Aerogrammes uphold our notion of the Possible, solidly grounded in what could reasonably happen to its characters in the modern world, but allowing us a hungry glance toward the fantastic edge of each reality.  All of this our author does in prose that glides so smoothly you’d think you’re hydroplaning between covers. It doesn’t even slow you down to notice how sad she’s made you feel.

Saffa put the baby in a cardboard box and waited. He tried to appear cool against the questioning eyes of the vendors, tried to ignore the mewling sound that the baby had begun to make. He fixed a careless gaze on the rice seller across from him, whose own baby straddled her back within a red wrap, perhaps the same careless position in which the baby chimp had been before its mother took one wrong step and flew into the sky.

There are other ways to bring us into this raw place, and James calls on them all. Grown children witness to the deterioration of a parent, aged dancers who will never again recapture their expressive beauty, war-torn and unexpectedly alcoholic reunions, the literary paranoia that follows trauma, siblings who can’t and won’t recognize one another despite every conceivable effort to. James ends each story with a note of fear or uncertainty, but never resignation. We’re held in suspension at the peak of a moment we know can’t take us along. The only cure for the way it leaves us is, of course, to read the next story — and so, of course, there will always be too few.

The titular story in Aerogrammes is the book’s connective tissue, the epicenter of every theme. Abandoned in a nursing home by his distracted son, Mr. Panicker befriends his neighbor May. She needs his help to communicate with the recipient of her charity donations, an Indian boy whose true identity Mr. Panicker doubts. With quiet, straightforward prose, the story’s close-third-person narration, strong elderly characters, and fiercely maintained ties to Indian culture represent the collection as a whole.

She smiled, enchanted by the name settling like dust over the picture, and touched her forefinger to the boy’s face, drawing from this some strength. They spent minutes like this without a word, and for Mr. Panicker, for now, this was enough.

And it’s reasonable to think that the title Aerogrammes calls back to this story because what James has presented is enough, too. Even when the ending of a story leaves you seeking the falling end of the arc, what we’re given is enough. Though our characters may not take the time to speak, their actions are enough. We might not see the future headed towards ghost marriage, for example, but it’s a projection that’s reasonable enough, logical enough. To be given enough is more perfect, of course, than being offered positively everything. Enough is not enough to spoil us, only to motivate us, and the best kind of motivation to come from a book like this is to try to write something with an empathy that can even come close.

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