Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems
By Douglas Ray
JANUARY 27, 2017
Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables, and Problems is an assemblage of 117 witty and imaginative vignettes that examine the relationships between fathers and sons. You’d think this familiar territory well covered by Odysseus and Telemachus, Abraham and Isaac, Prince Hamlet and the ghost of King Hamlet, among countless others. You’d think the subject would be tired, that we needn’t go further than Oedipus killing his father at the crossroads. But in these 117 snippets—none of them spanning more than a few pages—Sachs puts the fun in dysfunctional with prose that seems familiar yet magical, reminiscent of Borges, Balano, or Hrabal.
Formally, these vignettes could stand alone as pieces of flash fiction. But when viewed as a collage, the book’s sheer abundance of fun, of story, of imagination, of verve, takes on the feel of a novel. The insistent focus evident in the book’s curation is a quality that no small number of the book’s characters also possess. Take the first son we meet, the son of a Nazi officer who is a nature poet enamored with ferns. Critics interpret all of his work—poems explicitly about nature—as his attempt to reconcile his father’s horrific past. It’s not until he writes about the Holocaust that a critic interprets his work literally: as descriptive of a fern. While the character is enamored with ferns and wishes to capture them in words, the world is obsessed with reading his work through a lens that fits its needs. The result is comical, perhaps absurd.
Some of Sachs’s vignettes explore the nature of influence as it relates to inheritance—but not necessarily as it relates to hereditary connections. In one such vignette, a group of artists choose to nail their scrotums to various surfaces. One of the artists asserts, “We all come from somewhere,” a suggestion that none of us—perhaps especially artists and writers—exists in a vacuum, free of influence, imitation, or, yes, inheritance. Rather, we exist in a matrix of expectations, imitation, and roles that oddly and circumstantially come to define us.
The pace with which Sachs’s novel-slash-collection moves is bracing. Much of the book, if read in a sustained period, feels like a series of “bits” in one stand-up comedian’s set. Take, for example, Sachs’s back-to-back vignettes “Explanation” and “Vindicated”:
A philosopher famous for his gnomic aphorisms was found stabbed to death in his Paris apartment. Beside the body his aphorisms were found explained to death. His son, a proponent of clear thinking and clear writing, has confessed to stabbing his father, whom he called an obscurantist, and explaining his aphorisms, in both cases to death. According to Paris police, the son stabbed his father eleven times in the back and then typed up long, lucid explanations of each of his aphorisms. An erudite coroner pronounced both the father and his aphorisms dead at the scene.
This scene—one of many featuring a dead father—does call to mind Oedipus killing his father at the crossroads, but we’re left with a Wes Anderson-esque sense of cleverness rather than Harold Bloom’s sense of the anxiety of influence. A quarter rest later, and here is “Vindicated”:
A father’s fears were vindicated in the worst possible way when his only son—whom he had always admonished for “eating too quickly”—choked to death on a salmon roll at a New York sushi bar. The father immediately set to work on a eulogy. Observing the zeal with which he set about this terrible task, his wife became concerned. Her concerns were vindicated in the worst way when he delivered, to a packed synagogue, a eulogy entitled: “My Son, the Speed Eater.”
In Sachs’s mini-stories, nothing is sacred except the ability to appreciate the absurd. After 117 snippets of fathers and sons, there is no sense of closure, no neat resolution in this brisk tour of familiar yet situationally specific dynamics. But Sachs’s debut is adventurous in its form and distinct in its voice. In the book’s smart humor—more so than in its deep, probing questions (“What are a son’s duties to a father and vice versa?”)—we’re reminded of language’s ability to reveal moments of the absurd in relationships usually addressed as purely sacred. The stories are grounded in an appreciation of the specific as well as the absurd. The absurdity of the specific. Familiar yet fresh.
DOUGLAS RAY is author of the poetry collection He Will Laugh and editor of The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He is at work on a new project, Supporting Transgender Students: A Guide for Schools and Teachers. A graduate of the MFA program at The University of Mississippi, he teaches at Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.
Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems. By Adam Ehrlich Sachs. Regan Arts, 2016.