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Coup de Foudre: A Novella and Stories


Coup de Foudre: A Novella and Stories

Few American writers have mastered the trick of incorporating detailed descriptions of science into literary fiction without overwhelming the reader or turning the material into sci-fi. One is Richard Powers, the author of such powerful works of science-based fiction as THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS and last year’s extraordinary ORFEO. Another is Ken Kalfus. In the novel EQUILATERAL, he wrote of a scientist who wants to build in Egypt a triangle with miles-high equilateral sides as a way of connecting with Mars. His previous story collection, PU-239 AND OTHER RUSSIAN FANTASIES, was an intellectual feast of works about 20th-century Russia, with a title novella about a nuclear engineer who is the victim of an accident at his plant. Now, Kalfus gives us COUP DE FOUDRE, which mixes experimental works with longer stories that borrow from recent news items. The result isn’t as satisfying as his previous work, but it still offers provocative explorations into contemporary culture.

"COUP DE FOUDRE is a mixed bag, but the best pieces in the collection reward careful reading."

The story that will probably receive the most attention is the title piece. The protagonist of this novella is David Lèon Landau, head of the International Monetary Fund and an all-but-declared candidate for the presidency of France. If that sounds familiar, it should: He is based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the story is a fictionalized retelling of Kahn’s infamous 2011 visit to New York, during which he was arrested for an alleged sexual assault of a chambermaid at New York’s Sofitel hotel. Kalfus doesn’t try to disguise the parallels --- Landau, notorious for his many “sex parties,” stays at the Sofitel before he travels to Germany for a meeting with Angela Merkel --- and he describes Landau’s sexual encounters in vivid detail.

Landau, an arrogant man, revels in his ability to buy $400 scarves for attractive women with his “anodized-titanium Black Card, an advertisement for sexual prowess if there ever was one.” But, as Kalfus depicts him, he’s also a man out of control, someone who knows he needs to rein in his seamier impulses, his hunger to bypass seduction and get right to the coup de foudre (thunderbolt) of passion. The novella doesn’t excuse Landau’s behavior, but it suggests that he is like a lot of people who crave power and abuse it, only, in his case, for sexual rewards as well as political.

The rest of the book is comprised of 15 short stories. The best include “Mercury,” in which a bored 24-year-old elementary school teacher (who, in a wonderful detail, wears his solid-blue tie unclipped “as an assertion of my independence”) loses his job when he asks a second-grader named Sammy to bring “a jesting, cryptic note” to a male fifth-grade instructor. The story is a compelling tale of one man’s reckless behavior and a powerful portrait of the lasting damage that the taunts of older kids and the indifference of their teachers can inflict upon a younger student. “Mr. Iraq” is the story of a journalist who, despite his earlier liberalism, supported the invasion of Iraq and now has to help his ailing 81-year-old father, who has been arrested for protesting outside the Bush White House. The 11th-grade physics teacher of “Laser” has glaucoma surgery that doesn’t succeed as planned. The story is about human fallibility and the difference between a belief in science and a belief in doctors. In “v. The Large Hadron Collider,” a judge in Hawaii retires to his chambers to decide whether or not to issue an injunction to halt the start-up of the particle accelerator, which the plaintiffs in the nuisance lawsuit claim “could produce a small black hole that would swallow the planet.”

Alas, many of the stories in COUP DE FOUDRE, especially the more experimental tales, are clever ideas rather than fully fleshed-out narratives. “The Moment They Were Waiting For” has a brilliant premise: a man executed by lethal injection puts a curse on the town’s residents by making them aware of the date on which they’ll die. That’s the type of plot José Saramago had great fun with in books such as BLINDNESS and DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS, but, although Kalfus plays with the possibilities of this idea, the story is missing the richness of Saramago’s work. Other stories, such as “Square Paul-Painlevé,” in which people sitting on a Paris bench can’t get up until someone sits next to them, or “The Un-,” a cynical piece about an aspiring writer, lack dramatic tension.

COUP DE FOUDRE is a mixed bag, but the best pieces in the collection reward careful reading.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on May 15, 2015

Coup de Foudre: A Novella and Stories
by Ken Kalfus

  • Publication Date: May 17, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • ISBN-10: 1632863804
  • ISBN-13: 9781632863805