Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" by Yasunari Kawabata ***

Kawabata's "palm-of-the-hand" stories are all short, all what we would now call flash fiction or short shorts. Few go longer than five pages. Many are only a couple of pages. Flash fiction is hard to do memorably. And that's partly what I feel after having finished this book--that I don't remember much of it. Few of the stories had staying power with me. What Kawabata seems to be doing is presenting simple moments of enlightenment, the same thing Japanese do in haiku or tanka verse, only now in the form of short shorts. We get by and large everyday experiences blown up to some small transcendent thought. On their own, the stories are fantastic, but as a whole they begin to blend in to one another.

I think of another short story craftsman--and especially of his collection of really sharpened bits, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love--Raymond Carver. Even in Carver's oeuvre there are many stories that, while good alone, don't stand out within a whole collection. But there are also ones that do. I think the difference is that Carver's commonplace is often strange. I can say, that's the one about the couple pouring Teachers over one in the motel room. That's the one about the couple buying a living room set in the front yard.

I don't feel like I can do that so easily with Kawabata, given that the commonplace really is commonplace. Right now, because these stories are fresh in my head (having read them today as opposed to yesterday), I can say, That's the one about the blue jay that fell from the tree and the girl saves it. Or that's the one about the kid making paper boats and wanting them to fight, and a crippled woman who had a fiancé who appears to have backed out of the wedding. That's the one about the man who drew pictures of flying horses with a girl when he was young--she never went on to marry, but he did--and now, in his old age, suddenly knowing loneliness, he's having visions of flying horses and a girl on them, a girl in black, an old woman. That last story, I remember, I think, because it managed to be chilling by its end. The first two I remember in part because this is the second time I've read them.

And that leads me to another point. Perhaps, in reading the collection through only once I have missed something. The fact is that those stories I had read before stuck out more. It's possible that were I to read this book again, I might just feel quite differently about it, might find it not just pleasant but incredible.

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