Soft Fruit in the Sun, by Oliver Zarandi. Hexus Press, September 2019. 168 pages. $19.99, paper.
Despite its focus on surreal body horror and strange characters who lick alleyway walls or get eaten by their children, Oliver Zarandi’s short story collection Soft Fruit in the Sun surpasses the limitations of shock value, instead developing over time a complex picture of paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia, and emotional detachment from the world. Soft Fruit in the Sun is a series of brief, independent pieces, most of them no more than a few pages long. Each concerns a completely new cast of characters, but what they have in common is an estrangement from reality. Zarandi’s stories depict people living in conditions where they seem to dwell far away from society—far away from culture and common morality. “The House Was a Corpse That Had Been Bled Dry,” for example, sees the narrator discussing on a date how he wants to murder his family. The subject matter is certainly grim, but each character treats it as an ordinary conversation. There’s no narrator weighing in or judging the situation. The scene embodies the collection’s tendency to exploit the uncanny, and here’s where Zarandi’s visual horror earns its place; all the disturbing scenes are depicted without a distinct feeling of horror. Fear or revulsion, the typical goals of the genre, are eschewed in favor of an emotive dislocation, wherein unnerving events take place beneath the watch of an impartial observer. The collection is horror divested of the emotion of horror. We are called to examine Zarandi’s stories from an outsider’s point of view, removed from expectations, and forced to question their relationship with the world. Evidently, Soft Fruit in the Sun accomplishes a nuanced philosophical project. It raises compelling questions about who people are when they step back to examine their surroundings as they truly are. This intent, however, is in service of a larger, more relatable purpose that ties together Zarandi’s craft, characters, and philosophy. By training us to adopt an alien point of view, it portrays how mental illness affects one’s perception. The reflection that Zarandi’s stories prompts allows us to indirectly experience the neuroses of obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia—the ways they fundamentally alter how people interpret their lives.
Soft Fruit in the Sun’s most apparent stylistic choices are the unusual and frequently disturbing descriptions. Zarandi fills his stories with details that range from the overtly shocking feline dissection of “Cats” to the subtly unsettling “Threat,” in which the protagonist dresses up in her dead mother’s clothes and declares she wants to be the “lesser neighbor” in her mother’s cremation tin. His pieces ooze with charismatic grotesqueness. Each of them seems to be exploring new perspectives from which to flesh out the psyche of the collection (and it’s definitely not a stretch to consider each of the stories interlocking pieces of a single mind). However, though we may initially be intrigued by the collection’s style, they’ll find by the end that their perception of everyday life has been fundamentally altered. Zarandi cleverly manages to, oddly enough, normalize the horror of his writing—by the last page successfully teaching us how to pull back from reality and see their world in an objective light. The imagery loses its shock but consequently trains us in adopting a radically different worldview. “A Tragic Life,” for example, demonstrates this effect through dialogue. While on a date, the narrator lies that her friend was murdered hitchhiking. In response, her date doesn’t show sympathy, display an emotional reaction, or even try to fake concern. He only asks, ‘And what was your friend’s name?’ Conversations in Soft Fruit in the Sun tend to be awkward, stilted affairs, but the sheer discomfort that they evoke forces the same detached perspective that the characters have. We take a step back from the way daily interactions are supposed to work, instead viewing them as they are: a collection of words. They’re stripped of their meaning. The gap that mental illness opens up between the world and our emotions is filled with Zarandi’s unconventional technique.
For fans of surrealist horror, Soft Fruit in the Sun provides a wealth of material to explore, but Zarandi’s short story collection lays itself open to psychoanalytic and philosophical readings as well. The fragmented narratives form a mosaic that captures the essences of neuroses and prompts phenomenological revaluation, so anyone interested in picking up this book will surely come away with some small part of it, a scene or quote or line of dialogue, stuck in the back of their mind. That Zarandi includes a personal essay at the end offers context to why he wrote his stories along with how to interpret them, and the fascinating insight he offers into his own struggles with anorexia makes rereading the collection worthwhile. He recounts how his struggle began at the age of twelve when he choked on a piece of bread that he believed lodged itself in his throat for years to come, leading to a persistent fear of eating. The sheer simplicity and power behind the statement, “I have always had a problem with swallowing” places Zarandi into a unique relationship with his body, because even a basic task that most people perform without a second thought presents immense challenges to him. Activities and objects that people typically take for granted become enormous obstacles that impede him living a normal life. Zarandi’s essay unlocks the short stories that precede it—gives new definitions to each and every word so that we can go through them one, two, three more times and every time find deeper meaning. By now, it’s evident that the collection can satisfy a multitude of audiences and submit to various interpretations, from the existential inquiries of thoughtful readers to the aesthetic interests of casual readers. Overall, Soft Fruit in the Sun transcends its genre. Its stylistic touches accomplish a thoroughly inquisitive and captivating look into the mind of someone afflicted by mental illness, and it carries the profound ability to broaden our viewpoints beyond the subjective.
Layla Saleeby is an undergraduate studying English and philosophy at Winthrop University. Besides specializing in existentialism, they write both short fiction and poetry.