The Reasons I Won't Be Coming

Australian lawyer collects his stories of love and litigation.

Each year, thousands of eager young creative-writing students are given some of the worst advice they could get: Write what you know. Like all clichés, that advice is both instructive and dangerous. It's one thing to recognize that a novel about tribesmen in Outer Mongolia might be a stretch for a suburban teen, but it's another to take your immediate life and translate it directly to the page. Elliot Perlman's Reasons is enough to inspire a yearning for a raving Mongolian tribesman. The Australian barrister's nine-story collection features three tales directly about lawyers and the law. It also uses ham-fisted legal metaphors to define failing relationships between lovers, parents, children, ourselves, and our histories. The big problem is that what Perlman (Seven Types of Ambiguity) attempts to do—make the ordinary extraordinary—is surprisingly difficult. He offers us uninteresting and unexceptional characters who are, sadly, uninterestingly unexceptional in their rendering. The masters of the minimalist, everyday tale (Raymond Carver, Frederick Barthelme) excel at drawing out telling, resonant moments from brief interactions between utterly average, normal people. Carver: "'Don't worry,' he said into her ear. 'For God's sake, don't worry.' They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves." Barthelme: "She smiled at me as if to say 'Aren't they cute,' and I smiled back at her as if to say something in return, but I had no idea what it was." Perlman: "By an agreement dated years ago I, the plaintiff, agreed to love you unconditionally in return for an offer of the rest of your life." See? Write what I know? I know that phrases such as "loneliness is an illness" and "in the torpor of the sun's absence" are insipid. I know that repeatedly allowing characters to quote other authors is lazy writing, and a reminder that others have more elegantly rendered the sentiments you're dancing around. I know that one story, "I Was Only in a Childish Way Connected to the Established Order," stands out from the others like a golden dollar in a handful of dull nickels, artfully mourning how relationships can deteriorate while we're not looking. Too bad Perlman so ferociously clings to Little, Normal, Everyday People. Like one of his own characters, his book is overcome by "the dust and debris of no-name brand packaging and a life marked down, drastically reduced."

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