The Devil’s Disciple by Shiro Hamao

Two very entertaining thriller/mysteries by an author you’ve probably never heard of translated here by J. Keith Vincent.

Both stories, “The Devil’s Disciple” and the novella length “Did He Kill Them” are really psychological studies as much as noir detective thrillers. In both, the “killer” has already been caught so there’s not that much of investigating to be done.  However, in each the confession is highly suspect. There is much more going on than first meets the eye.

They are each interesting as mystery/thrillers and for the portrait they present of 1930’s Japan when they were written. They are not a happy, fantasy, Japan; there is murder in both stories so we are entering dark territory not suitable for tourists, but the look inside the Japanese justice system of the day and the glimpse of Japanese society’s more sensationalist side made for interesting reading.

I enjoyed both stories, in fact I hope to find more of Shiro Hamao’s 17 novellas and three novels translated into English.

Tournament of Short Stories II–Murakami vs. Hardwick or “Goodbye, Haruki!”

I never thought it would come to this.

It’s not like I don’t still love Haruki Murakami.  I do. Maybe not like I once did– maybe the honeymoon is finally over, though it lasted many years.

Many, many terrific writers essentially write the same story over and over again.  Some put the same narrator into slightly different situations but basically repeat themselves each time they write something.

Sometimes you have to look a little harder than others to see this, but it’s true more often than not.

So if you read enough of one author, there’s a danger that it will all begin to wear a bit thin.

That’s what’s happened with me and Haruki.

The two stories I read for this round in the competition were “The Mirror” and “A Folklore for My Generation” both translated by Philip Gabriel.  I enjoyed them both.  Both are well written stories.  But I’ve just had enough of Mr. Murakami’s passive narrators, these men (mostly young men) who take life in as it happens to them with a bemused, slightly detached attitude as though it’s all kind of interesting but not really unusual.  Having read so many of them, I’ve come to long for characters who will at least try to take the bull by the horns once in a while.

I think this feeling about Murakami came to a head with Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage which I loved at the time.  But it has this passive narrator, this young man whose friends gang up against him when one of them wrongly accuses him of sexual assault.  It takes him years to finally stand up for himself.  When he finally does, he is so gentle about it, so passive, that his self-defense looks like an act of contrition.  He’s a perfect Murakami character.

The rest of the cast in the stories I read for this round were all very familiar, too.  A slightly wiser, just a bit older friend who serves as a sort-of mentor figure to the narrator and a just-this-side-of-pixie girlfriend or girl friend to round things out.  I found myself longing for something new.

Enter Elizabeth Hardwick and her two stories “Yes and No” and “The Friendly Witness.” Written in the early 1950’s these are hardly new stories, but they are so full of plot, so full of different characters, the writing so full of language, that they feel kind of new.  Have we reached a point were rejecting a sparse economy of style in favor of language for the sake of language is new? Can we begin to enjoy wordiness again?

Ms. Hardwick may end up writing the same story again and again, I’ll find out eventually, but for now she is new, she is fun, she brings reading back to enjoying language for itself even if it doesn’t really add much to the characters or the story and even if what she is saying could be said in fewer words.  Why settle for five words when fifty will do?  Take this paragraph from “The Friendly Witness”:

It was not long after the gift and Susie’s first letter from school that the evangelicals in town forgot their doctrinal disputes in favor of a common, earthly aim, which was to close Charlie Bowman’s club.  These righteous people, with the first approach of an early winter, seemed to feel a new crusading energy, as though they had to fling off the lethargy of a summer that had been abominably hot and enervating, even in a spiritual way, because their little white frame churches, uncarpeted, brutally lightled by the plainest, latitudinarian, unshaded bulbs, and the drowsy motions of palm leaf fans, aroused an inwardness for which they reproached themselves when the heat disappeared. With a unifying cyclonic energy, they burst in upon the Mayor, several weeks before the accusation of fraud, and startled him considerably, for he was busy with another project very dear to his heart, the reading of Sandburg’s Lincoln. Putting aside his books, he cast a lively friendly eye upon the man and woman who did the talking, the others backing them up for the pews, so to speak, with rapid affirmative nods. “Looky here, it’s a shame!” the woman said, and the Mayor lowered his eyes.  Without any adornment or cosmetic, she was, nevertheless, strikingly garish. The Mayor turned to the milky-faced man, bleached possibly by many repentances, and thought, “Well, he’s found a way to get outside himself!” The man, as if sensing the Mayor’s infinite capacity of diversion, thrust his milky countenance across the desk and said hoarsely, “Are you hearing me right!”

I read three fully drawn characters in that paragraph; the Mayor, the woman and the man. Not exactly original characters, we’ve seen them before most of us, but three characters where Murakami and others like him might have included just the Mayor.  The other two are not needed to keep the story going or to make the author’s ultimate point.  But arent’ they fun?  A woman who appears garish even without make-up.  It’s nice just to see the word “garish” used without irony.  And the man in the end who cuts through the Mayor’s nonsense, sees right through him to find the ineffective factotum who really has no idea what is going on.

I loved it.

More please, Ms. Hardwick.

You advance to the next round.

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

theifThis is one of the hardest types of books to review.  I liked it.  I think it’s basically good.  But I’m not crazy about it–to be honest I just liked it.

It’s not bad.  It’s pretty good really.  Interesting enough story.  Well done characterization.  Themes that typically interest me.  Good writing, in translation by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates.  Thrilling enough to keep me reading but not enough to make it a page-turner.

Reminded me of Pick-up on South Street, (1953) starring Richard Widmark, directed by Sam Fuller, one of my favorite noir films.  A darn good one, too.  You should see it.  It’s about a pick-pocket who gets in over his head just like The Theif.  

So, here I am in the Starbucks next to Planet Fitness, post “work out”, trying to think of something to say when I don’t really have anything pressing I want to say.

The narrator/anti-hero of The Thief is a pickpocket in modern day Japan.  In the best parts of the novel he gives us detailed instruction on how to steal.  He’s so good at it that a crime boss from his past seeks him out to perform a couple of very difficult jobs.  When one of these ends in the murder of a very powerful man, the thief knows he has become involved in something that can only end with his death.

This makes the book a lot like Pick-up on South Street which features a pick-pocket who becomes involved in a plot to see secrets to the Soviet Union.  When the thief prevents a boy from getting caught stealing food in a supermarket The Thief becomes a lot like Drive by James Sallis.  (The terrific 2011 movie version was directed by  Nicolas Winding Refn and starred Ryan Gosling.)  In these two a low-level criminal meets his end by trying to rescue a woman and her young son.

So that’s how I review a book like this one, one that I basically liked but just barely, by talking about similar things that I loved.

 

This book counts as number 14 in the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge and as book number one in the Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

Murakami for Beginners: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

after the quake

If you’re one of the many people out there hesitating before you try a Haruki Murakami novel, After the Quake may be just the book for you.

Every so often, I read a comment from someone wondering where to start with Haruki Murakami.  Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore?  Both are fairly hefty novels which can intimidate people nervous about magical realism.

The six stories weighing in at 146 total pages that make up After the Quake make for a perfect introduction to Haruki Murakami’s work.  Each is set in Japan at the time of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, though the earthquake often plays only a minor part in the story.  They run the gamut from the very realistic to the very magical, there is a six foot tall talking frog in one of them, so the reader will get a peek at the full range of Murakami’s writing.

Things start off realistic then become ‘realistic for Murakami,’ then Frog enters the scene in the fifth story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.”

Katagiri found a giant frog waiting for him in his apartment.  It was powerfully built, standing over six feet tall on its hind legs.  A skinny little man no more than five-foot-three, Katagiri was overwhelmed by the frog’s imposing bulk.

“Call me ‘Frog,'” said the frog in a clear, strong voice.

Classic Murakami.  A hero faced with events impossible to explain, whether they be realistic or magical, accepts what comes with the urbane detachment of a man long used to seeing the strange things modern city life brings.

The other five stories in After the Quake stay more-or-less grounded in reality.  While they may feature strange people, they do not feature strange worlds.  Rather they serve to point out how strange the real world can be, which may just be what Haruki Murakami has been up to all along.

Be honest.  Haven’t you had days so strange that finding a six foot frog sitting in your living room when you got home from work would have seemed like par for the course?

 

 

A Short Story Omnibus Edition

I’ve reviewed short stories here and at my old blog for many years now.  Not quite on a weekly basis, not all the time anyway, but pretty close.  These are some of the reviews I ran at Ready When You Are, C.B. in the years 2009 to 2011.  I’m slowly migrating all of my old posts over to this new site.  I just can’t bare to lose them all.

 

The literature text book I use with my 7th graders has a short play in it called “A Defenseless Creature” by Neil Simon and based on a short story by Anton Chekhov. It’s a simple scene about a woman who describes herself as defenseless and the banker she tries to get her husbands back wages from. The fact that the banker has nothing whatever to do with the woman’s husband does not deter her from begging and pleading for the money. It’s a very funny scene that never fails to get lots of laughs from my students. So I thought why not use the entire play?

“The Good Doctor” is a very funny collection of nine skits based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov. They make for amusing reading and would have been excellent for use with my students, but for the last skit. Even when Chekhov is at his most farcical, as he is in “The Sneeze,” he still manages to make a point or two about life in his times. In “The Sneeze,” an average worker goes to the theatre on opening night. He is a devotee of the arts and saves all the money he can to spend on good seats. Before the play begins he realizes that the couple sitting in front of him is his employer and his wife. The man becomes uncomfortably aware that his situation is awkward. What will his employer think about his presence in such an expensive seat on opening night? Should he greet his employer? Can he use this opportunity to advance his career? Unfortunately, as the play begins, the man sneezes an enormous sneeze directly on the bald head of his employer. My students would have loved this.

The rest of the play is just as funny and still manages to have a point. There are lots of parts, enough for every student in the class. It’s perfect. Right up to the very last skit. In “The Arrangement” the author’s father takes him to visit a brothel on the occasion of the young man’s birthday. It’s a very good skit, touching actually. The young man is nervous, worried about what is going to happen and what he’ll be like afterwards, unsure that he wants to become a man so soon. The father is understanding, carrying on a tradition his own father started, but not quite sure himself that he wants his son to become a man. Can this wait another year? I liked the skit. I also like my job and want to keep it.

So we won’t be using Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor” in my seventh grade class.

 

Sometimes the whole point of a science fiction short story is a bit of a gimmick, but that’s okay if the gimmick works like it does in Jack McDevitt’s short story “Never Despair.” If you’re a student of history, particularly of World War II then you could probably guess the gimmick from the title, even if I had not included a picture of Winston Churchill. Knowing the gimmick ahead of time should not spoil the story for you.

Centuries into the future, our civilization has fallen. The cities, towns and roadways that are present day America have become overgrown like ruins of the Mayan empire. A small group of treasure hunters have wandered further away from their own town than anyone before them. They seek Haven, the place where a legendary figure once stored all of the knowledge of the ancients. Only two members of the original party survive, Quait and Chaka. They camp inside an ancient underground grotto.

During the night a strange figure appears. Chaka wakes, sees him and confronts him. He is unarmed, says he lives in the grotto, says he is the last one left. Chaka tells him about their attempt to find Haven and that they are probably about to give up the search and return home. He offers her words of encouragement. “It is possible you will not succeed. Nothing is certain, save difficulty and trial. But have courage. Never surrender. Never despair.” Sounds like Winston Churchill to me.

Is he a ghost? Is he some sort of hologram in a museum interacting with a visitor? Chaka never finds out. Will she take his words to heart and keep looking for Haven? “Never Despair” asks the reader to write their own ending; my answer is yes.

You can find “Never Despair” in the anthology Wastelands edited by John Joseph Adams.

 

Since buying my first iPod earlier this year, I have become a fan of several short story podcasts. Subscribing to podcasts through iTunes is free. There are a growing number of excellent short story podcasts at iTunes including Podcastle, the fantasy story podcast. Don’t run away yet, non-fantasy readers. At Podcastle, fantasy doesn’t mean unicorns and elves–once in a while sure, but not every week. The fantasy genre is exploding these days; all sorts of new ideas, new settings, new fantasies are taking shape. The genre has come a long way since Bilbo Bagins first headed east to rob a dragon.

One of my favorite stories from Podcastle is Helen Keeble’s “In Ashes” first published at Strange Horizons.

From the time my twin brother and I were four, our mother only gave us raw food.

Opening Line “In Ashes” by Helen Keeble.

“In Ashes” is a masterful piece of story-telling. Ms. Keeble grabs the reader’s attention from the first line and holds it throughout by slowing teasing out information, answering our questions in ways that lead to more questions. Why does the narrator’s mother only feed her children raw food? Is she abusive?

We soon find that the narrator’s brother can sense the slightest trace of heat in cooked food even food that has been left to cool for days. For this reason his mother keeps him out of sight, locked indoors most of the time. They live in an isolated forest cabin. His father wants nothing to do with him and has taken his two older sisters away to live in the next town over. When the narrator takes him to see their father in an attempt to win their father’s love, her brother becomes mesmerized by the sight of a lit fireplace. What is the boy’s obsession with fire?

How strong is the bond between twins? What will one give up in order to save the other?

As she tells her story, Ms. Keeble introduces the reader to her fantasy world. She does this slowly enough and convincingly enough to bring along more skeptical readers. The reward at the end of the story is worth the suspension of disbelief. “In Ashes” makes for excellent listening.

 

I read three very funny Grace Paley short stories this week all from The Collected Stories. All three were unexpected.  All three were fun.

In “The Loudest Voice” the local grammar school presents its annual Christmas pagent.  This year young Shirley Abramowitz will get the leading role, because she has the loudest voice.  Her Jewish mother is horrified to find her daughter starring in a Christmas pagent.  Her Jewish father thinks it’s nice that all the children will learn the culture of their new home.  The rest of the local Jewish community is divided, but they all attend the show, proud parents that they are.

In “The Contest” a man who never married, what with one thing and another, is reunited with a girl he liked in high school.  She wants him to help her make some real money by entering a newspaper contest the local Yiddish paper is holding.  For the contest they have to identify three Jews in the News based on only the vague hints the paper prints each day.  Every day for several weeks, the two meet and review that day’s clues.  The prize is 5000 dollars and a trip for two to Isreal and three of the major capitols in the Free West.  But they can only go together if they are married.

“An Interest in Life” opens with a man leaving his wife, Virginia, and  their four children. Afterwards, Virginia has to deal with her neighbors, her family, the welfare people.  It all leaves her feeling a bit lonely.  Every Thursday, John Raftery comes to visit his mother who lives in the same building Virginia does.  His mother insists that he meet her and soon the two are meeting every Thursday.  Virginia suspects her husband will never come back home, but he is hesitant to take her relationship with John to a more physical level.  John is great with her children, good to her, probably falling in love her.  What’s a mother to do?

I honestly expected Grace Paley stories to be stodgy.  I thought they’d be hard work.  Instead, I’ve found that they are great fun.  Her characters are funny, her stories take the reader in unexpected directions, even when the premise is cliched like it is in “An Interest in Life.”  Her writing is a hoot.   Some examples:

From “The Loudest Voice”

  Marty’s father said: “You know, he has a very important part, my boy.”

     “Mine also,” said Mr. Sauerfeld.

    “Not my boy!” said Mrs. Klieg.  “I said to him no. The answer is no. When I say no! I mean no!”

    The rabbi’s wife said, “It’s disgusting!” but no one listened to her.  Under the narrow sky of God’s great wisdom she wore a strawberry-blond wig.

From “The Contest”

Up early or late, it never matters, the day gets away from me. Summer or winter, the shade of trees or their hard shadow, I never get into my Rice Krispies til noon.

     I am ambitious, but it’s a long-range thing with me. I have my confidential sights on a star, but there’s half a lifetime to get to it.  Meanwhile I keep my eyes open and am well dressed.

From “An Interest in Life”

  “Don’t be so cruel on yourself, Ginny,” he said.  “Children come from God.”

     “You’re still great on holy subjects, aren’t you? You know damn well where children come from.”

     He did know.  His red face reddened further.  John Raftery has had that color coming out on him boy and man from keeping his rages so inward.

If you’re looking for some fun, try Grace Paley.

 

Whilom ther was dwellynge at Oxenford

A riche gnof that gestes helld to bord,

And of his craft he was a carpenter.

Opening to “The Miller’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

 The Miller plays a bagpipe.  He is a drunk who rides a broken down horse but he insists on leading the other pilgrims out of town as he plays.  It’s easy to accept this description as summing up his character.  But, he is also a genius of a storyteller.

 Even his tale is easy to dismiss.  The beautiful Alison has married an older man, a rich carpenter.  Nicholas, a young clerk, rents a room in their home.  Soon,  Nicholas wants to sleep with the beautiful Alison.  A second clerk named Absolon is also in love with Alison, but his love is loftier–he wants only a kiss.  A marvelous plot follows as each man tries to secure Alison for himself, ending with everyone getting exactly what they deserve: a nightmare kiss, a smack an the behind with a hot poker, and a broken arm.   Alison emerges unscathed.

 “The Miller’s Tale” is  two old tales united by a single word–“Water!”  In the first Nicholas tricks the gullible carpenter into believing a second flood is imminent.  To save his young wife he must hang three separate containers from the ceiling of his workshop.  Each of them must hide in a container and wait for the rain to begin.   Of course, Nicholas intends to spend the night with Alison while the carpenter sleeps high above the ground. .

 In the second story, Absolon, who is in love with Alison, determines he should come to her window to beg a kiss.  She is annoyed  by this so she tells him to close his eyes and pucker up. Then she sticks her naked behind out the window.  He is so enraged that he has been tricked into kissing her behind that he grabs a hot iron from his friend the blacksmith and comes back seeking revenge.  This time, Nicholas presents his behind out the open window only to get a smack with a red-hot poker.

He screams “Water!”

By this point in the story, most readers will have forgotten that the carpenter is still asleep, high in the rafters.  Thinking the flood has come, he cuts the ropes and plummets to the ground smashing the barrel and breaking his arm.

If “The Miller’s Tale” were just this story, it would be brilliant comedy, but it’s much more.  Coming as it does right after “The Knight’s Tale,” it’s easy to see it as  a satire.  For example, in “The Knight’s Tale” two heroes are both separated from the woman they love– one is in prison but can see her through the bars of his cell  while the other is free to roam the  world but  banished from her sight.  Who has the better situation? asks the Knight.  The Miller asks this question again in his tale–Nicholas lives with Alison, while Absolon lives some distance away.  Who has it better? The Miller tells us a woman will always choose the man who lives close by, of course.  (Long distance relationship were a problem even in 1385.)

The Knight refers  to destiny, to fates being written in the stars and lives controlled by gods we cannot fathom.  He even features descriptions of three temples, one for each member of his love triangle.  The Miller mocks this idea with his own presentation of three vessels hanging from the rafters and the Miller’s mistaken belief that God is about to flood the world again.  At the end of “The Knight’s Tale” king Theseus makes a speech explaining how the world is an ordered place, and everyone must perform their role within that order.  At the end of “The Miller’s Tale,” the old carpenter who ought to be revered as the wise king, has been rendered a complete fool.  What he says about having been tricked is true, but none of his neighbors believe him because Alison and Nicholas have already told them  that he is obsessed with Noah.  The Knight presents an ordered world; the Miller knows that order is an illusion.

Full Disclosure:  The image of the Miller comes from the Ellsmere manuscript.  My inadequate translation of the opening lines is as follows: Once, at Oxford there dwelled a rich oaf, a carpenter who took in borders. It was common during the middle ages to tell stories of Noah’s wife refusing to board the ark, which is why three separate containers are justified.

This is a tale of two stories.

Earnest Hemingway’s “A Day’s Wait” is a slight piece, something so subtle that it’s importance is easy to miss.  A father and son on a winter day in Minnosota.  The son, Shotz, is sick, running a fever.  His father is worried but his son reassures him, tells him it’s okay, encourages him not to be concerned.  The father goes hunting.  (It is a Hemingway story.)  He talks to the boy afterwards and learns that the boy thinks he is going to die.

It can be difficult to see what’s happening in a Hemingway story.  Little things become important, common words become meaningful.  Hemingway’s stories look like they should be easy to read, but they’re really not.  I have been using “A Day’s Wait” with my 7th graders  for years with mixed success.  While I think it’s a wonderful short story, it’s a challenge for 7th graders.  I’m sure the editors who put out literature text together thought they would understand a story about a seven year old, and that they would appreciate how the child tries to act like a grown-up in the face of death.  But I’ve found both of these are a tough sell.

This year I started using a new literature series that includes “Through theTunnel” by Doris Lessing.  In “The Tunnel”  Jerry, a young boy slightly older than the boy in Hemingway’s story, decides he is old enough to spend his summer days swimming with the bigger boys instead of playing on the beach he and his mother have shared for years.  The big boys make a sport of diving under the water and swimming through a long, rocky tunnel.  Jerry decides he will do this and begins training, diving down the bottom of the sea and holding his breath for longer and longer amounts of time, until his head begains to ache and his nose to bleed.  On the last day of their vacation Jerry makes his attempt and swims through the tunnel to the other side.

In the closing paragraphs of each story, both boys return to a childish state, Shotz cries “easily over things of no importance” and Jerry jumps around his mother bragging about how long he can hold his breath.  Both literature series’s instruct the teacher to discuss how the boys are both more grown up and still just as childish as they ever were.  Both stories do an excellent job of illustrating this odd part of childhood, the way a person can be both mature and immature at the same time.  They both do a wonderful job of it, too.  But it’s a difficult concept for middle schoolers, who are both childish and grown-up, to appreciate.  It’s a lesson one learns afterwards, an observation a parent makes.

If you back me into a corner, I’ll tell you that “A Day’s Wait” is the better story, but I’ll also tell you that “Through the Tunnel” is the best choice for inclusion in a middle school literature series.  The seventh graders have always been a bit lukewarm with Shotz’s story, but the sixth graders loved Doris Lessing’s tale of Jerry and his swim through the underwater tunnel.

You can find the complete text of “A Day’s Wait” here.

The complete text of “Through the Tunnel” by Doris Lessing can be found here.

 

 

A friend of mine has a habit of going to the zoo whenever there’s a typhoon.  He’s been doing this for ten years. At a time when most people are closing their shutters, running out to stock up on mineral water, or checking to see if their radios and flashlights are working, my friend wraps himself in a Vietnam-era army surplus poncho, stuffs a couple of cans of beer into his pockets, and sets off. He lives about a fifteen-minute walk away.

Opening to “New York Mining Disaster” by Haruki Murakami.

I used to live in San Francisco’s Sunset District, just about a 40 minute walk away from the San Francisco Zoo.  This was  in the late 1980’s when the San Francisco Zoo was had a certain down-on-its-luck feel.  The entry fee was low enough for a college student with a part time job in a downtown hotel to visit on the spur of the moment one rainy afternoon.  The zoo is a remarkable place in the rain.  Most of the animals have enough sense to take shelter during a storm, but some, like the elephants, are too big to take cover and some, like the tigers, keep up their daily habits regardless of the weather.

But when it’s raining, most of the tourist and families stay away, so you can have the animals to yourself for a while.  Though it never occurred to me, you could probably sneak a can or two of beer in with you like the narrator’s friend in Haruki Murakami’s short story “New York Mining Disaster” does.  The rules are different in the rain.

The rules are different in Haruki Murakami stories, too.  The narrator borrows his friends suit to wear to a funeral.  Five of the narrators friends have died in a single year.  None of the deaths are connected to each other at all; the narrator’s lost friends didn’t even all know each other.  Illness, accident, happenstance.  Five in a single year.  The narrator’s friend explains that since he purchased the suit, a dark one, specifically for the purpose of going to funerals, not a single person he knows has died.

Haruki Murakami stories are like that.  Something strange happens, a pattern of events seems to appear.  The characters try to make sense of it or ignore it altogether and go about their normal routines–work, relationship, trips to the zoo in the rain.  Look for deeper meanings and you’ll find none.

A few short stories later in the anthology Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Mr. Murakami ends “A Folklore for My Generation”:

As I said at the beginning, there’s no real moral or lesson to be learned from all this.  But this is something that actually happened to him. Something that happened to all of us.  That’s why when he told me his story, I couldn’t laugh.  And even now I can’t.

I can’t explain why Mr. Murakami’s fiction touches me as deeply as it does.  If you could explain this to me, I wouldn’t let you.  I’d run from the room.  I’d delete your email.  I don’t want to know why.  A man alone, drinking a beer in front of the elephant enclosure on a rainy afternoon.   No further lesson or moral is needed.  I already know all I need to know.

Did Lizzie Borden take an axe?

Angela Carter examines the character and her situation in “The Fall River Axe Murders.”  Her telling of what happened on the day of the crime stops short of the murders. Instead, Ms. Carter looks at Lizzie Borden’s life, her family, and what was expected of young women in late 19th century America.  The ways of New England families are Ms. Carter’s subject.  Could they lead one young girl to murder her father and step-mother?

It’s a fascinating story, one full of more suspense than you’d expect.  It reminded me of a production of Medea C.J. and I saw several years ago starring Fiona Shaw in the title role.  The play’s conceit was to set the action in a more modern apartment building with  Medea as an upwardly mobile housewife.  The audience all knows how the play will end, but Ms. Shaw’s performance kept us on the edge of our seats the entire time.  We just couldn’t quite believe that she would do it.  Not this Medea, this woman loves her husband and her children far too much to go through with it.  She seems a little crazy, and it’s clear what she’s thinking of doing, but it’s also clear she doesn’t want to. Right up until the final moments before the murders we all thought this Medea would have a different ending.

The end result is a terrific short story. One that works as a thriller and as a piece of literature, even as feminist literature.  If you’re looking for a break from more difficult feminist reading or if you just want a brief foray into a darker world, “The Fall River Axe Murders” is just the ticket.”The Fall River Axe Murders” works the same way.  I expect that when Ms. Carter wrote the story Lizzie Borden’s innocence was already established–I believe most historians now agree it was someone else, maybe the minor character Ms. Carter writes out of the script in the opening pages of her story.  But Lizzie Borden’s innocence or guilt is immaterial as far as “The Fall River Axe Murders” is concerned.  The question of the crime’s cause, what might lead to such an act, are what interests Ms. Carter.

Maybe Lizzie Borden didn’t take an axe, but she had reason to.

Henry James vs. Haruki Murakami: A Deal Me In Short Story Challenge.

Tmurakami jameshis post concludes my first round of the Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge.

While I expected to finish back in August, I have enjoyed the challenge so much that I’ve already set up, and started on, a second set of stories and essays.  I’ve added essays to the challenge for  Non-fiction November.

For this final round in my first deck I had only two cards left, “The Figure in the Carpet” by the master of the short form Henry James and “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes”  by Haruki Murakami who is not slouch.

I’ve been trying to find connections between the two stories I draw as part of the challenge, sort of a challenge challenge.  It was easy at first, but got harder as I went along. This time it was pretty tough.

“The Figure in the Carpet” is another backstage story, by which I mean it’s about writers and publishing.  The narrator is a big fan of Hugh Vereker, a writer of great ability and renown.  The narrator, who has had a few things published in various smaller magazines, gets a chance to meet the great Hugh Vereker at a party.  He finds the author friendly, open to his opinions about writing in general and about Vereker’s work in particular.  But soon into the conversation Vereker tells the narrator that he, like everyone else who has ever read his work, has missed the key factor, the one thing that would unlock it all.  No one has ever figured out what he was really doing all these years.  No one has been able to see the figure in the carpet.

The narrator goes back to re-read all of Vereker’s work to try to figure things out, but he cannot.  Vereker won’t tell him, won’t give him the slightest hint.  Vereker does tell his young wife, but she will not tell anyone either, certainly not the narrator.  In a more typical James ending, something would have been revealed, usually something that makes everything else appear different than it did before.  But here the great man goes to his grave his secrets in tact.  We never do find out what he was really up to in his writing.

At less that one tenth the length of Henry James’s story, Murakmi’s “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” is the magical kind of Murakami his most dedicated fans love.  His narrator enters a contest to make a new confection based on Sharpie Cakes.  At stake are two million yen, enough money for the narrator to marry his girlfriend.  He spends a month working on a new sharpie cake.  Afterwards, he his called in by the company and told that he is the winner, but they are not sure that his cakes are true Sharpie Cakes.  The older employee think they are not Sharpie Cakes while the younger employees think they are true Sharpie Cakes.

The Sharpie Crows must decide his fate.  The Shaprie Crows are crows that eat only Sharpie Cakes. Since they will only eat true Sharpie Cakes, if they eat the narrator’s cakes, then the dispute will be settled.  If they don’t the dispute will also be settled, but the narrator will not get the two million yen.

Without giving away the ending, the narrator does not get the prize money, but the reader doesn’t know if his Sharpie Cakes are true Sharpie Cakes either because the crows cannot agree.

Which is kind of a connection between the two stories.  Neither has an open ending, not at all, but both stories leave their central question unanswered. We don’t know if the Sharpie Cakes are true Sharpie Cakes, nor do we ever find out what it was  Hugh Vereker’  considered the key to his work.

I wonder if both stories have the same message, ultimately.  Murakami’s is so playful, so fanciful, that I could be easily reading much more into it than I should, but James’s story makes a case against authorial intent, in my view.  Since we can never really know what the author really intended, the best we can ever have is the author’s word and why should we believe him, we are left to make of stories what we will.  At the end of the day, we just have the text in front of us.  How we choose to read it is our own concern.

The same message seems to come through in Murakami’s story.  The narrator knows that his Sharpie Cakes are real, but the birds cannot come to a consensus.  They disagree to the point of violence while the narrator walks away determined to make and eat his own cakes without giving in to the opinion of “damned Sharpie Crows.”   We can read the Sharpie Crows as critics and the company employees as an audience, but nethier group can decide if the narrator’s Sharpie Cakes are true Sharpie Cakes or not.  Murakmi’s narrator is an author refusing to care what his critics and his audience really thinks.  James’s narrator is a reader/critic who will never know what the author really thinks.

Me, I think I’m  just going to draw another set of cards and see what happens.

John Hersey vs. Haruki Murakami

hershey murakamiFor this round of the Deal-Me-In Short Story Challenge I drew John Hersey’s “To the End of the American Dream” and Haruki Murakami’s  “Man-Eating Cats.”  At the risk of making this a Haruki Murakami week I decided to go with what the cards dealt and give him another go, even though I just finished his new book.  Scroll down for the review.

The title held out the promise of magical cats after all.

I’ve been linking the two stories I draw each round I do this challenge, just to give my posts a little something extra.  This time  both stories are set on islands which is an obivious bit of luck.  Both are also linked by the overall sense of other-worldliness you get when on an extended vacation.  Though both feature characters who more-or-less live on the island, both are outsiders, people who don’t mean to stay forever.

Hersey’s story features Earnest Heminway which comes as no surprise really.  Since the story is in a volume called Key West Tales,  Hemingway was bound to show up sooner or later.  “To the End of the American Dream” is a collection of vignettes, sort of eye-witness accounts Key West Natives might come up with about that time I ran into Hemingway and what we did together.  It’s entertaining enough, but Murakami’s is the better story.

“Man-Eating Cats” is about two lovers who have run-away to a small Greek island.  Each of them never intended for their affair to go this far, but when their spouses accidently found out they were being cheated on, they two main characters had little choice but to leave Japan. They have enough money between them to live on the island for three years if they are careful.  Neither of them really wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, just to have an affair for a while.  But now neither really wants to go back to Japan.

Murakami’s story has that air of being somewhere but being nowhere that I talked about yesterday in my review of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. It’s like being in an train station or in an airport.  You’re in a place, but you’re not really in they place.  The couple are on the island but they are not really part of the community, part of the island.  They are just passing through; the way they really meant to be passing through each other’s lives.

It’s an interesting idea and an interesting short story.

There is something of this same air in John Hersey’s story about Hemingway, but I get the feeling that Hemingway was much more a permanent fixture in Key West.  The accounts Hersey gives of him show that he was not a permanent fixture in the lives of everyone he met, but he made a strong impression on them, as you can probably imagine.