Short Stories for Short Attention Spans

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose attention span seems to be shrinking in the last few weeks. Although I’ve embarked upon The American by Henry James and am finding it quite humorous and easy reading, on the whole I seem to spend more time on interruptions rather than on reading. So short story collections are ideal. I can always squeeze one story in between a team meeting and starting to cook supper, or between a Barney/Zoe socialisation project and a game of Cluedo with the boys. (Sadly, that last one is becoming infrequent, as they keep reminding me that they have left such childish pursuits well and truly behind them.) And these two short story collections by women and about women are truly magnificent, highly recommended. Just don’t expect very lengthy, profoundly analytical reviews of them – my writing attention span is likewise very much reduced.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Everyone was buzzing about it a few years back, and I even bought it for a friend who I was sure would love it, but I somehow never got around to reading more than 1-2 stories from it. I am so glad that I discovered it now. It is so, so good. An instantly recognisable, unique voice, regardless of whether the story is in first person or third person. She reminds me of Jean Rhys, but in a different setting and a few decades later, a working woman rather than a kept one, with not just herself but four boys to look after as well.

Many of her biographical details match with what she shares in the stories, and there is something of the ‘confessional writer’ about her. (She also reminds me of Anne Sexton, with a cool, unflappable veneer hiding tormented depths.) But she twists and exaggerates memories and events, so that they can best serve the story she wants to tell. As one of her sons said: ‘Our family stories… have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.’

Her stories are never boring, and they are surprisingly humorous (unlike Rhys). Some are brief, mere glimpses into someone’s life, you can’t help feeling like a voyeur at times. Others are longer, building up to… well, sometimes there is a climax, but often the stories are not crescendo all the way. Something seems to be about to happen, and then something far less dramatic happens, and life is just that one shade clearer or foggier, heavier or lighter. But nothing has really changed, you always knew it was going to be this way.

Matsuda Aoko: Where the Wild Ladies Are, transl. Polly Barton

I read this one for the online reading group of literature in translation, organised by Peirene and other independent publishers. Unfortunately, I lost the connection after the first 20 minutes or so and was unable to log back on, but I did enjoy hearing the translator Polly Barton and the publisher Tilted Axis talk about what attracted them to these stories.

Ghost stories are very popular in Japan – I’ve recently reread and reviewed Ugetsu Monogatari – and I certainly spotted that ‘story within a story’ narrative framework in some of the stories in this collection, as well as rakugo, Kabuki and other folktales used as inspiration. But the author does a brilliant job of turning those traditional stories on their head. In Japanese tradition, the vengeful spirit is nearly always a woman (who has been severely wronged, admittedly, but nevertheless seems vengeful beyond any reason). In Matsuda’s stories, the women are free agents, surprising, mainge unexpected choices or comments. The stories are set in the present-day, with modern, often eccentric flourishes, and they often end on an inconclusive note.

They have been hailed as ‘feminist retelling’ of folk tales, but the feminism is often subtle rather than screaming out loudly. The stories have all the joyful creativity, wilful darkness and inventiveness of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Anne Sexton herself in her little-known retellings of Grimm’s fairytales Transformations.

 

 

 

#WITMonth – Japanese short stories

This is one of my favourite times of year in terms of reading challenges, namely the wonderful Women in Translation Month created and championed by the ebullient force of nature which is Meytal Radzinski (aka as Biblibio on Twitter). I’m not always good at matching August to translated women writers, but I do try to read a good proportion of them throughout the year.

This month, courtesy of the slim volumes of short stories/novellas published by Strangers Press, a University of East Anglia publishing venture, I have discovered three new Japanese women authors.

Misumi Kubo: Mikumari (transl. Polly Barton)

A bit of a scandalous subject this: the story of a high school student (under age), who meets a married cosplayer Anzu, more than ten years his senior at a comic convention in Tokyo and embarks upon an intense affair, which at once thrills and disgusts him. During the summer, the boy is working as a lifeguard at the pool and gets to spend time with his classmate and more appropriate crush, Nana. As he tries to distance himself from Anzu, he realizes that desires are never straightforward and not always as pleasant as we like to think they are.

There is a matter-of-fact description of sex in all its wet, glistening, slippery glory and repulsiveness which I have only ever found in Japanese authors. None of the sentimental rosy-cheeked intoxication with our own words which you might find in Romance languages, nor the timid self-consciousness so prevalent in Anglo-Saxon literature. The subject matter is deliberately designed to shock, and yet the narrator is no stranger to women’s bodies and all the bodily fluids: his mother is a midwife who works from home and he often helps out with the births. By the end of this brief story, he begins to realize something about himself and about the continuity of life, although it might take a while until he comes to term with the unbreakable mix of purity and dirt which lies in all of us. The sentence which really stuck out in my mind was:

…it seemed unbelievable that water so clear could be connected with the filthy river flowing near our house.

This has all the shock factor, darkness and yet underlying tenderness of Natsuo Kirino.

Nao-Cola Yamazaki: Friendship for Grown-Ups (transl. Polly Barton)

There are three loosely linked stories in this volume, connected more through the names of the characters than through any storyline. There is an odd, timeless tale of human development called ‘A Genealogy’. A (still) young woman named Kandagawa tries to recapture a moment in her past with her former lover on the site of their former apartment in ‘The Untouchable Apartment’. A relatively new author Terumi Yano dithers between her art and love, when she attracts the attention of a young music scholar at an author event. There is a wonderful sense of confusion and yearning about each of these stories, that hesitation about which path to take, that mourning about ‘what ifs’, that need to justify one’s decisions a posteriori, which will sound very familiar to women in their thirties. A delicate, melancholy description of the life of Japanese women reminiscent of Fumiko Enchi.

Aoko Matsuda: The Girl Who Is Getting Married (transl. Angus Turvill)

This was perhaps my favourite of the three: a very strange story which feels like an Escher woodcut. Just when you think you’ve grasped it, the point of view is all changed, turned upside down and you question everything you know.

An unnamed narrator visits her friend, the girl who is getting married. As she climbs up the stairs to the fifth floor, where the girl who is getting married lives, she recalls fragments of their life together and their friendship. But each account differs: they met when they were children, they met at secondary school or at work, on the train or at a cookery school. As the story shifts like quicksand under our feet, we understand more and more about the deepest needs and constraints of the narrator and we begin to question just whose eyes we are looking through. There is an almost obsessive repetition of the expression ‘the girl who is getting married’ (there are no names at all in this story) – and in the original Japanese it is even more emphatic: ‘moo sugu kekkon suru onna’ – the woman who is getting married imminently/very soon. Why does that sound so threatening? Whose fears are being projected here? The very plain, unadorned, clear prose belies the surrealism of the scene, where any interpretation is possible (and most likely wrong). There is a hint of Haruki Murakami’s short stories here.