Sunday, September 28, 2008

On "All Roads Are One" by Deena Fisher (1088 words) ***

Is this is a story? Of that I'm not quite certain, if we're going to talk about the formalities of form--conflict, rising action, climax, resolution. I'm not sure what the conflict or the resolution would be, although I suppose if I gave it some deep thought, I could come up with one. But I've never been one to insist that a story must follow the conventions so long as it is interesting. Perhaps, such pieces are not stories but just extended pieces of poetic prose. Into that category, "All Roads Are One" certainly fits. And therein is how a good piece of writing can, without necessarily presenting a rising action or conflict in the plot, still supply a rise and a climax in voice, in the words used, in the energy a piece sends out. When the author begins to simply list experiences near the end, the quick sentences and short paragraphs make me want to shout, make me want say, Go on, go on. And then, we move back into something longer, restful, and it's like we've come through something as readers, a storm of words, and now we're just looking at the damage left. Read the piece here at Farrago's Wainscot.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On "Should" by Tao Lin (1824 words) ****

What I like about this piece isn't perhaps that it offers any sort of clarity. In fact, it works way from clarity as much as possible, jumbling moments together, returning to them, redefining them, trying to figure out what they mean. Did this guy just get broken up with? Or is he seeing this girl? Are they compatible or not? The story works with the same sort of obsessiveness with which we work through such thoughts. And like most such thoughts, they lead us nowhere, at least until babies are involved. Read the story here at Bear Parade.

On "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" by Haruki Murakami *****

I wasn't that impressed by Murakami's previous collection, After the Quake, and while I remember enjoying The Elephant Vanishes, I don't recall finding any particular story especially amazing. There, it was more a matter of the collection's overall weirdness and wackiness, something unique Murakami's vision, which was largely new to me at the time (though I'd read a couple of his novels previously). This latest story collection seems more like the work of a master, though some of the stories, in the Japanese, date back to before The Elephant Vanishes. Why Murakami would have left out a story as magnificent as "New York Mining Disaster" I'm not sure. That story, my favorite in the collection and surely one of the best stories I've ever read, tells the tale of a young man who for one difficult year loses a lot of his friends to death. But it's really about death itself and about the way we commune with the dead, and the way in which death makes little sense to those of us who are still alive. Other highlights of the collection include four of the last five stories, the last five apparently being Murakami's most recent output. Murakami claims these are weird tales, though he admits that just about any of his stories would fit that claim; I found them (at least four of them) to be, in fact, refreshingly restrained--weird, but more subtly so. One is about chance happenings; another, "Hanalei Bay," is a story of grief that becomes a rather traditional story of another type--but, for me, rather unexpectedly; one is a story of love with the "weird" story embedded in its center. I won't say that every story in the collection spoke to me--some just seem strange with not much more too them--but on the whole, this is a fantastic new set of stories, one I'm glad to have added to my personal library.

Monday, September 22, 2008

On "Taking You Fast" by Ann K. Ryles (4716 words) ***

I have yet to find a bad story in Stirring. But then again, Stirring so rarely publishes fiction that I get the feeling it's extremely selective. Here's a piece that is very finely written, full of the things one so often sees in fiction--adultery and child abuse. In Ryles's hands, however, they don't come off as pat. They come off as engaging. Part of this has to do with the second person. I have friends who simply reject any story written in the second person. I think this a big mistake. Granted, perhaps I'm a bit too prone to like stories in the second person. Blame that on all the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a kid. But take this story and put it in the first person. It would seem to work fine (I'd say no worse or better than it does in the second person)--until the ending. Part of what's going on here is that "you" are in the present, remembering all these moments leading to this moment at the end. The first person, at the end, in the present tense, I would argue, would seem entirely contrived. You couldn't tell this story this way--you couldn't use the present tense. You couldn't leave us at the start of a trip into the unknown. You'd already be there, telling this story. You'd know. Read the story here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On "Dirt" by Kyla Carter (5180 words) ****

What is a life you carry in a trailer? What of a life you carry in a plastic Kroger's bag? I think poor. I think homeless. But try something else instead. Think also lonely. But here, the lonely, the poor, the homeless, aren't who they seem. And there's a whole lot more hurt to go around. Read the story here at Mid-American Review.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On "Instead of What We Could Have Said" by Vincent Reusch (1185 words) ****

Tragedy lurks behind this piece by Vincent Reusch. I like it when there's a bit of mystery, a certain unknown, to a story--enough that you can sort of figure out what's going on, what happened, but not so much that you know all. I suppose, back when I had to write papers for classes, such stories could drive me crazy unless I knew I "knew" what was going on, but for casual reading, such pieces are grand. They make me read them again, and again. You can read the story--again and again--here at Contrary.

On "Diary of a Mad Old Man" by Junichiro Tanizaki ****

This is the second book by Tanizaki that I've read involving older people who take crazy chances with their health for the sake of eros. In this case, the mad old man might be called--in fact, is called at some points in the book--a dirty old man. He's pretty dispicable and in some ways pretty pitiful, the way he lets his lust drag him around, even at his age. I suppose this is a way of saying that at least in one way he's still a young man, but it's also a way of saying he hasn't exactly matured much in his seventy-seven years. But there's also a little heart here too, for it is his crush on his daughter-in-law that gives him something to look forward to in what has otherwise become a fairly drab existence of acupuncture, medicine, and traction. Tanizaki has made old age seem quite undesirable.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On "An Ugly Man" by Ana Marcela Fuentes (427 words) ****

Dump one guy and take up with another. That's what Fuentes says she's going to do at the start of this little gem--and all in under five hundred words. I didn't know if she could pull it off and was dubious about the prospects, especially as I neared the story's end, but does it she does, and with aplomb. Read the story here at Vestal Review.

On "The Key" by Junichiro Tanizaki *****

I first read this book in 1994, for the one meeting I attended of a world literature book club before moving from California. Rereading it fourteen years later was every bit as enjoyable. In The Key one has the makings of the quintessential Japanese novel, at least according to another author, who told me that the Japanese are just plain strange--cherry blossoms and weird, kinky stuff we don't want to admit to thinking about. Tanizaki's book is about a husband and wife who keep diaries of their sexual exploits. The diaries are secret--in theory at least--but in reality they are meant for the consumption of each other. Here you have this older middle-aged couple who, because of their secret writings, are just as much in lust with each other as one would expect of twenty-something newly marrieds. And in that sense, I adore this book.

Where it gets strange, however, is in the husband's goding his wife into an affair and his wife's reaction. One could say, be careful what you wish for. I'm thinking of the Inman diaries in particular, where Arthur Inman encouraged a close friendship between his wife and his doctor and was then enraged when he found out years later that the two were carrying on an affair--this despite the fact that Inman himself had had numerous affairs and at least in part encouraged his wife to go out with the doctor in an effort to further his untoward relationships. In Tanizaki's book, however, whatever jealousy exists merely seems to be more fodder for lust. But the consequences are still dire, just not in the manner that they turned out for Inman.

Monday, September 8, 2008

On "Family Five and Dime" by P. J. Woodside (2407 words) ****

Some of the best parts of the movie The Good Girl occur in the five and dime that Jennifer Aniston's character works in. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the horrid and desperately depressing store, but those scenes remind me a bit of the location of this story. I think of some cheap ripoff of Pic N'Save, some place where only the poorest people in the community go, on the wrong side of town, where shopping ceased in 1962. Put a couple of employees in the mix, and you have the makings for a story of lives that have petered out. Like Aniston's character, one of them seems bound to try something different--if only she can, if only she is allowed. Unlike The Good Girl, however, this story is set down South, where community standards come into play. It isn't just the hopelessness of the character's surroundings but the will of the community that characters don't try to do anything to change their situation, don't do anything that might upset anyone. Will the narrator conform? Read the story here at StorySouth.

On "Lizard" by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Ann Sherif ***

The strange thing about these stories is that they are both incredibly digestible and interesting, while simultaneously unmemorable. I say this because just minutes after finishing the collection, I remember only two of the six stories--one of those being the first, one being the last. The first: a man walks onto a train and a homeless man sits down next to him, turns into a beautiful woman, asks probing questions about the man's marriage, then turns back into a homeless man. Yeah, well, it's Japanese--we have to expect a little weirdness. The last story, perhaps, might actually stick with me. It's about girl who experiments heavily with all kinds of sex when she is young, which now, as she is getting married, is coming back to haunt her. In stories in between we get a story of a girl who curses a person who has attempted to kill her parents and who thereby brings about that person's death, and her lover, whose own parents died in a tragic accident when he was young; a couple who has dinner in a closed-down diner; a woman who actually marries the married man she was having an affair with, with its resulting questions about fidelity after the marriage; and a girl who leaves the religious commune in which she grew up. If there's a general theme working here, it likely revolves around love and whether we can ever really know whether we have. Yoshimoto's answer seems to be yes. Perhaps, that's the reason the stories don't stick with me as much--there's not a lot of emotional payback.

Friday, September 5, 2008

On "Border-Line Nostalgic" by Kelsey Rakes (205 words) ****

Perhaps one of the best and worst things about flash fiction is the way that it often ignores the conventional rules of short story form--that is, of plot, the whole idea of rising tension, climax, and resolution. Often, flash fiction is simply a reminiscence, a memory, stated in some nice words. In other words, it's a prose poem--not technically, a story, though many might call it such. At the same time, being shackled to story plots can be rather dreadful too. One can write a perfectly crafted story and have it be infinitely less interesting than a long piece of writing that technically hasn't followed the "rules" about what a short story is supposed to do. With regard to flash fiction, however, I think too often that writers just write--I'm more interested, generally, in those short short fiction pieces that manage to convey a plot trajectory in such a short space (and be well written) than in those that manage to be merely well written. And then there are pieces that make me not even care. After all, isn't part of what a great piece of writing does, be it story or poem or essay, make us feel?

Rakes's piece is such a work. I haven't spent any time examining whether it's technically a story or just a great piece of writing, and I don't care. It's magical, and that's what matters more. It evokes a sense of the past (and the present) and is sad, sad, sad. Read the story here at Right Hand Pointing.

On "New Japanese Voices" edited by Helen Mitsios ***

I first came across this collection when working at a bookstore many years ago. The book came out at that time, and I was very curious about it, but I never got around to reading it--or at least more than one story in it. Now, it's fifteen years later, and the "new" in New Japanese Voices doesn't seem so new anymore. Some of these authors have gone on to quite a bit of fame in English translations; others, I haven't seen anything more of. The works featured in the book are the following:

"A Callow Fellow of Jewish Descent" by Masahiko Shimada
"On Meeting My 100 Percent Women One Fine April Morning" by Haruki Murakami
"Swallowtails" by Shiina Makoto
"God Is Nowhere; God Is Now Here" by Itoh Seikoh
"X-Rated Blanket" by Eimi Yamada
"Yu-Hee" by Yang Ji Lee
"On a Moonless Night" by Sei Takekawa
"Living in a Maze" by Kyoji Kobayashi
"The Imitation of Leibniz" by Genichiro Takahashi
"The Unsinkable Molly Brown" by Tamio Kageyama
"Wine" by Mariko Hayashi
"Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto

On the whole, the book presents an interesting smorgasbord of fiction writers in Japan in the late eighties and early nineties. But I can't say that the stories on the whole really hooked me. Standing out the most was probably Murakami's, but that story, which has never seemed that impressive to me before, perhaps stood out here because I've read it two or three times before. Other stories I can remember, now, days after reading them, include Shimada's piece, about a Japanese man who befriends a Jewish man in France (only in the end, we're told the man isn't what he seems, which in turns causes us to rethink the whole story).

I really enjoyed Kobayashi's "Living in a Maze," which recounted the story of a man whose nightmares become his everyday life. Such is an old story form, but the dream here was interesting enough that I was drawn in. The man's date becomes a cow, and then so too do the rest of the people, just as in the movie Jacob's Ladder, all the people become lizards. Cows don't seem nearly as creepy or interesting as giant lizards, and yet the manner in which Kobayshi describes all these events--so realistically--makes the ludicrous and silly seem both horrifying and funny.

Kageyama's "Unsinkable Molly Brown" is about a woman who is so fat that when she takes scuba lessons the instructor's have to take various measures to stop her from floating. Hayashi's "Wine" is about a woman who accidentally buys a very expensive bottle of wine and then can't figure out what to do with it (after all, it's too expensive to drink, and it's too expensive to give as a gift for any but the most special person or special occasion). Takekawa's "On a Moonless Night" is about a woman being eaten by insects--told in a "shocking" manner but, for me, makes it seem over the top. Yamada's "X-Rated Blanket" is more like a prose poem--about a woman's lover (i.e., he is her blanket). "Swallowtails" was about a kid with problems at school who grows butterflies as a hobby at home and probably comes closest to the kind of quieter stories one might expect from an American MFA student or from the master Kawabata.

Monday, September 1, 2008

On "Superhero" by Reese Kwon (3909 words) ****

Why is it that college so often means breaking with all the traditions and rules that one lived by while growing up? Perhaps, the answer is rather obvious. Students, out on their own for the first time, feel free finally to experiment, to be themselves, to take on a new systems of belief that don't simply fit into that which their parents have. And yet, there are complications in that. A student may become Cassandra, as the protagonist of this story becomes, but can she truly get away from her parents' authority? Or rather, does the new self continue to hide in one's old self? Perhaps, the true step in becoming an adult is learning how to be one's self even when with one's parents. Or perhaps it's learning to negotiate between selves. Or perhaps there never is any growing up, never is any becoming an adult. The fact is I'm nearing forty, and I still have difficulty negotiating that space between them and me. But while the world, I think, in some ways becomes no more easier to figure out as one ages, the anxiousness one feels at the start of that journey on one's own is perhaps at its most in the late teens and early twenties, in this college-going time. Kwon's story captures the hope and dispiritedness of those years very well. Read it here at Narrative. (Log-in required--but it's free!)

On "The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe ****

I don't know exactly what to think about this book. Centered around a sandpit into which the main character is drawn, the story seems a metaphor for any number of things. Is the sandpit death? life? marriage and family? duty to society? American aid to Japan? The one blatant comparison is to a spiderweb or to a pit into which one bug draws another bug as prey. In this sense, the man at the story's center is the bug drawn into the pit of the woman--and of the society for which she works. As such, perhaps the broader comparison most applicable is to that of societal constraints and family obligation. But Abe also seems to hint that the trap is life itself. Consigned to dig in the sand each day just to keep the trap from caving in, the man perennially wonders why the woman doesn't have any will to escape--or any desire to let him escape. This is life, she seems to say--what more do you wish for? A lot more, the man thinks, but in the end, is there anything more? Or are we all consigned to sandpits from which there is no digging out, pits that are decaying and that will eventually bury us?