The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories


Annotation by Nate Elias

Book by Ken Liu

The stories in Liu’s collection all border in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Playing with the forms of fiction seems to be one of Liu’s inherent tactics when bringing his characters and ideas to life in each narrative. The first story in the collection, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” Liu weaves a narrative that is void of characters and rather focuses on the process of reading and writing in made-up (possibly alien) species. Opening with this story sets up a tone for the book that hints for the reader to approach each story as its own text and to read with the body, soul, and mind in unison.

Liu makes up for the absence of characters in the first story by utilizing vivid character-building techniques in “State Change.” The main character, Rina, has a habit of checking refrigerators, freezers, and ice cubes as a method of therapy and calming nerves. While the plot has nothing to do with this character trait, the character trait itself is a metaphoric tool which reflects on the title, “State Change” and the epiphany Rina has when she comes on to Jimmy, who represents salt which cannot be frozen. This story also utilizes a non-traditional linear narrative technique by utilizing excerpts from letters, memoirs, and history texts.

“The Perfect Match” uses a more traditional narrative flow but requires simplicity compared to Liu’s other stories because the high concept plot requires more suspension of disbelief. The story proposes a software called Tilly (reminiscent of the iPhone’s ‘Siri’ function, only gone haywire) that makes all the decisions for the user. The consequence of this is that people choose to not think for themselves anymore. The main character, Sai, uses Tilly for every decision until one day his neighbor, Jenny, encourages him to turn it off for a short time. While she seems like a conspiracy theorist at first, it turns out that her speculations about Tilly were accurate when suited men arrive try to stop Sai and Jenny when their efforts to hack into the system go too far.

Although Liu’s content deals with science, technology, and speculation it does not read as genre science fiction literature; it reads more like literary science fiction, which is a much smaller niche. His prose often utilizes poetic language such as in the story “State Change”: “I have no candle to burn at both ends. I won’t measure my life with coffee spoons. I have no sprint water to quiet desire, because I have left behind my frozen bit of almost-death. What I have is my life.

I’m currently at work on my own speculative short fiction and Liu’s collection provided a framework of how to fully make a high-concept premise within the confines of the short story form concrete.  Liu exercises poetic language, structural range, and importance of character which serve as a reminder that it is not just the story being told, but how it’s being told. 


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.

The Fantastic

The Fantasticbook by Tzvetan Todorov

annotation by Kate Maruyama

This is a book which looks at the genre of the fantastic. It is a more academic approach to writing than I usually read, but I was turned on to it by Dodie Bellamy, a teacher I admire as a big thinker who is always able to rise above literature to see its patterns and sociological impact. I found the book incredibly useful and appropriate to what I am working on. It was a solid reminder that our fiction can be informed by everything we read.

This book rang true on a lot of levels with me and, while it went further into Freudianism than I needed to venture for my purposes, it celebrated, examined and cross-examined a genre in which I am completely entrenched with my novel.
The fantastic is defined in many ways throughout the book, but it is essentially that point at which a character and/or the reader can apply two definitions to what is happening: “There is an uncanny phenomenon which we can explain in two fashions, by types of natural causes and supernatural causes. The possibility of a hesitation between the two creates the fantastic effect.”( 26)

Todorov speculates that the moment a story is defined as one or another, i.e. a) it was really the landlord disguised as a ghost, or b.) it was really a ghost– we have left the realm of the fantastic. But if the majority of the story takes place in the realm of the fantastic, it cannot be disqualified. Whether or not my novel qualifies for this academically dreamed up genre is not really the point, but an examination of how the story can be read is well worth musing over.

Todorov not only explores this space of belief/disbelief, but states plainly that this state of the fantastic serves the mechanical function of the story by providing tension, suspense and the general action of the story. He talks a great deal about allegories and how the metaphor can become physical, elevating the story from commonplace to whimsical. He missed out on recognizing magical realism, but defines it in various examples of the supernatural becoming reality in Spanish literature.

As I go through the book again, I hope to play a bit more with the physicality of my hero’s universe. I’m certain things exist which I have defined only physically that can be elevated or played with without ruining the story. The physical can, in turn, become metaphor. This cold analysis of techniques was helpful in making me mindful that the machinations found in genre, while frequently organic, can be exploited a little. Just for fun.

The entire concept came together for me, through Todorov’s eyes, in his speculation that Kafka has, over and again, achieved the impossible in creating this “fantastic” by changing the rules so that they become normal. In Metamorphosis, it is not that Gregor has supernaturally become a bug, it is that he continues his life embarrassed by this change in himself, trying to carry on in as ordinary a way as possible. Kafka brought the insidiousness and dysfunction of Gregor’s family into relief against Gregor’s astonished, but workaday approach to being a bug, but he also managed to create the perfect fantastical world: how Gregor got that way, what occurred to make it happen does not matter, it is his environment’s reaction to the normal abnormality of his being a bug that makes the story so brilliant.

Todorov writes,”what in the first world was an exception, here becomes the rule.” (174). He then quotes Jean Paul Sartre, who wrote, “…if we have been able to give the reader the impression that we are speaking to him of a world in which these preposterous manifestations figure as normal behavior, then he will find himself plunged at one fell swoop into the heart of the fantastic.” Which is a fancy way of saying, make the world real, make the rules consistent, trust the reader and you can tell your story.

What to do with this information is the question. It will probably give a sharper eye for this revision and allow a bit more play. It is a reminder that literary criticism is something that happens after something has been written and revised. A reminder that genre is something that is frequently found out after the fact (the term Noir only came along years after its inception as a literary genre…and it was applied to film and literature was termed retroactively). I do think it’s important to be aware of the genre in which we write, its rules, precedents and cliches. I hope to make the world of my book real, make the rules consistent and trust the reader.