High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories

book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Wendy Dutwin

The six stories from each decade of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2006 collection High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories, 1966-2006 showcase the development of an artistic talent devoted to the mastery of her craft. She is a master of the short story form and I learned so much from her, particularly how to build suspense with tiny details.

Oates is constantly exorcising the demons of darkness from her past by revisiting certain themes again and again in her work. It’s no accident that I’m so drawn   her stories. The themes that fascinate her are the ones I find myself most interested in exploring in my own writing. She has a fearlessness I still struggle with in her approach to these subject matters, but I grow braver with every story of hers that I read.

Oates makes zero apologies about the women characters in her work. Feminist critics describe them as weak, needy and passive, withdrawing from emotional and sexual intimacy and drawing themselves toward masochistic encounters. Many of them have experienced abuse, sexual, physical, emotional or all three. But Oates is fascinated with why women are this way, perhaps even why she might be that way as her own history riddled with physical and sexual abuse. She seems to be writing through the violence to discover her own truth.

By having the courage to look at the ugliness in her own past, she illuminates a path for others struggling to find their way. Again, it shows the power of fiction, the social importance of it, the revelation of human truth in the words of the brave. She talks about this in the notes following the High Lonesome collection when she says:

“Prose fiction is, in essence, the realization of an elusive abstract vision in elaborate and painstaking construction, sentence by sentence, word by word. The daunting task for the writer is: what to include? what to exclude? Through our lifetimes a Sargasso Sea of the discarded accumulates, far larger than what is called our ‘body’ of work, for each story is an opening into the infinite, abruptly terminated and sealed in language.” (661-662)

One only has to look at a classic short story like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” to understand what Oates probably wrote and discarded to get to what she ultimately kept in a story so rich with nuance, subtext and horror. Connie is so vain, a typical naïve teenager aware of her good looks, but blind to her empty soul. Arnold is a fascinating character that a writer knows Oates developed “in elaborate and painstaking construction” because of the endless interpretations that surround him. Is Arnold a man or the Grim Reaper? When Connie looks out to “the vast sunlit reaches of land behind him and on all sides of him” at the end, is she staring at a shepherd who is going to walk her through the valley of the shadow of death? Does she transcend beyond her bodily vanity to something spiritual and greater when she leaves the house to save her family, the first selfless act she performs in her life? These are the questions that fill a writer with excitement when contemplating the words of a writer like Oates and dissecting how she chose this word and put together that sentence.

All of her characters are deeply wounded with psychological scars that have no easy answers. The temptation to avoid such twisted characters that cannot be wrapped up neatly by the story’s end is one that Oates resists; she prefers mess and complication, because that is life. But in her brave and honest hands, that darkness of life takes on a greater beauty. Her stories transform loneliness, rape, suicide, murder and other forms of loss into a broken, but recognizable tapestry of our own humanity. And to do that in the structure of a short story highlights the rhythm and poetry of her prose, proving that her prolific quantity of work carries with it an enormous quality, too.

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Kafka on the Shore

book by Haruki Murakami

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I had been recommended Murakami for years, but hadn’t read him, so I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to Kafka on the Shore. When reading a translation, I’m always partially aware that I’m not getting the whole scoop. One can only hope the translator got the feel and pull of what the original author was after.  I love reading Japanese translated into English and I’ve read a great deal of Banana Yoshimoto. Whether it’s a cultural thing or a language thing with Yoshimoto and Murakami, a great deal of attention is paid to color and objects. There is less time spent going into the trickle of sweat on a back, the feel of a fabric, the variations of smell, but often objects are introduced to litter up the landscape, create a painting. In Murakami’s work, I got the sense of the main characters moving through a painting, an odd filmic plane, which served the surreal nature story. And with both authors, we always know what our main characters are eating–I love that.

Murakami often creates a scene through the ritual of everyday tasks. We get into a character’s world through behavior. While his characters do think things out, they do so in an analytical, distant way. But behavior can reveal so much. Kafka, self-named in escaping his father’s house, is fifteen and wakes up in a girl’s apartment. The night before, he woke up in an alley covered with blood, no idea what happened.

In his creeping through his day cautiously, Murakami builds tension.

“I grab a carton of milk from the fridge, check the expiration date and pour it over some cornflakes, boil some water and make a cup of Darjeeling tea. Toast two slices of bread, and eat them with some low-fat margarine. Then I open the newspaper and scan the local news. Like she said, no violent crimes in the headlines. I let out a sigh of relief, fold up the paper and put it back where it was” (pg. 93)

There’s a great deal of quiet  in this book. Nakata is an older man who has been “off” for most of his life, who talks to cats, a “simple” man who goes through his days without much care for memory or speculation. Nakata is infuriating and fascinating in that he is being called by something supernatural, something urgent, but can’t seem to define it. A young trucker named Hoshino is taken along on Nakata’s journey and, as he did above, Murakami slows down time to an infuriating pace. After supernatural events that occur because of Nakata (a rain of leeches, a rain of fish, a conversation with the local cats), he tends to go to sleep for days at a time. Murakami counts the passage of time in meals as Hoshino kills time until Nakata wakes. In this sequence there is about a page and a half of time passing, meals eaten, cigarettes smoked:

“Dinnertime came and the sleep marathon continued. Hoshino went out to a curry restaurant and had an extra-large order of beef curry and a salad. After this he went to the same pachinko place as the night before and played again for an hour…” (pg. 234)

Images are presented plainly, time passes, but in the quiet of Murakami’s prose, enormous and peculiar things happen. As with the best magic realism, he tells his story, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “With a brick face.” Leeches rain from the sky, a stone is turned opening a door to another world, a boy has sex with the existential version of his mother and his sister and soldiers, lost since the World War I wander in forests and, if you ask them, will lead you to a purgatory, a quiet world where time is measured out in meals.

Here, Kafka stays at a cabin in the middle of a forest we soon after learn is enchanted:

“I pull on a windbreaker over my yacht jacket and go outside. The morning light pours down through the tall trees into an open space in front of the cabin, sunbeams everywhere and mist floating like freshly minted souls. The pure clean air pierces my lungs with each breath. I sit down on a porch step and watch the birds scudding from tree to tree, listening to their calls. “ (pg. 131)

Kafka takes what happens to him with passive wonder. While it may drive the reader crazy, this is Kafka’s fatal flaw and only when he takes control of his life can he come out of the dreamy haze the author has woven for us.

Murakami is a reminder to let the wonder of magic realism or the world of the fantastic lie–that there’s time to look around, like Kafka, observe and move through a story and incredible happenings without explaining everything at once. Hoshino is frustrated in following the enigmatic Nakata around the countryside, but knows he serves a higher purpose serving him. Kafka journeys and meets his fate in little ways along the way.

But in his spellbinding and imagistic language, Murakami keeps us rapt, and traveling and aligned with his characters. My characters tend to blunder through their lives, wrestling with each random emotion as it comes up; I love letting their minds wander, and my reader with them. But after reading Murakami, I want to get out of my character’s heads a little and look around: to stop and breathe into their physical surroundings, the minutiae of their days. There may be more tension and wonder to be found if I take a moment to breathe and look around.