Thomas McGuane: “A Prairie Girl”

02/27/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 27, 2012.

Not a bad story by any means, but I’ve the same feeling about this as I did about McGuane’s last New Yorker piece, “The House on Sand Creek”: so what? As the title implies, we’re going to learn about a prairie girl, with all the judgments that pertain to such a descriptor, and as McGuane usually does, he’s going to attempt to upend our expectations. So it is that we are initially introduced to Mary Elizabeth Foley’s former occupation — as the only resident of the Butt Hut brothel to remain after the death of the madam and the subsequent shuttering of the sex-house — and only at the very end of the story told that she grew up on a ranch, which she is now revisiting with her grown son, Peter. Between those two sections, McGuane shows us a strong, confident woman, unafraid to be segregated to her own pew at the local church, scorned by the “beaming malice” of those Good Christian Folk around her, a woman unwilling to compromise her own past or image to anybody. Mary Elizabeth has plans, and those plans allow her to rope in Arnold, a gay man whose parents own the local bank. (We’ll also learn, later, that her parent’s ranch was also foreclosed upon, but don’t mistake this for a revenge story.) Although the two genuinely love one another — sans sex — Arnold eventually divorces her to pursue his true love out in neighboring California, and simply commutes back and forth to visit with his son, who is actually (well, presumably — Mary Elizabeth is as tight-lipped about her past to McGuane-as-author as she is to anyone else) the son of a Mexican immigrant from the loan-officer school that she trained at post-brothel.

Which leads me back to my opening statement and concern for this tale: so what? McGuane covers a lot of time and territory, and I’ll be the first to admit that he writes of some relationships that I’ve not read about before, but he doesn’t dwell on nor really develop them. He seems always in such a rush to get to the next thing that the events remain isolated and unconnected, so there’s no sense of the story building to anything, merely a well-described litany of occurrences. Here’s an example of one of the meaningless mini-arcs in the story: Mrs. Tanner, Mary Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, whom she eventually wrests control of the bank from, is a cosmetically concerned alpha woman, the hen who can’t stop pecking at the flaws of others, even while Mary Elizabeth is in labor. At first, Arnold defends her out of familial duties; later, as she approaches dementia, it’s Mary Elizabeth who protects her, having grown into a whole new set of morals (she once entertained the thought of literally throwing her under the bus); ultimately, it is Arnold who commits her to a home, having finally chosen the man in his life (who he no longer wants to hear his mother call a “house boy”) over the women he loves. As you can see, these events show how the characters have changed over time, but at the same time, this is all they show, and because of the story’s brevity, it isn’t subtly suggested, it’s most often thrust upon us as the only possible conclusion. It’s one of those intellectual traps a writer falls into, in which the reader thinks, “There must be a reason why we’ve been given all these plot points on the side, the author must want us to think [x].” That’s not natural, it’s storytelling eugenics, in which only the most essential traits have been bred out, to the point of uniformity and a marked lack of surprise.

McGuane understands the environment in which he writes, a generally mid-western or country-ish vibe in the vein of Proulx or a gentler McCarthy; perhaps my largest issue with this story, then, is that he doesn’t really concern himself with the setting. Rather than writing from a position of strength, in which he could show me things I’ve never dreamed of before, as in, say, Rick Bass’s “The Hermit’s Story,” he instead describes characters that are familiar to me, with the slight exception of their slighter interactions with one another (slight because these, too, aren’t the emphasis of his work, given the pace at which he rips through the day-to-day). And yet I find myself needing to once again defend McGuane’s work from my own nonchalant reaction to it: there’s nothing unbelievable here, nothing badly written. I guess I’m just always looking for more of a personal connection.

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Jess Walter: “Thief”

02/26/2012 § 5 Comments

Originally published in Harper’s, March 2012.

When I was much younger, perhaps ten or so, I dabbled in light and simple theft — palming a chocolate bar at the local bodega, purloining a slightly-too-expensive comic book, the stray soda down the pants. I had a poor role model in my endeavors; he was fine with the stealing, so long as we could grab him a pack of cigarettes every now and again. I was never caught, never even suspected, but one day, after stealing thirty dollars worth of books from my public school’s book sale, I had a guilt-induced breakdown. I hid the books behind the radiator, hoping that they’d burn up with at least as much shame as I was feeling. After a few sleepless nights, I eventually broke down, woke my mother up, and confessed the whole thing. I would never steal again, and if I accidentally walked out of a shop with something, I’d head right back in to pay for it. If I was given incorrect change, I’d point out the difference. These feelings are stirred up in me again by Walter’s bang-on-the-nose story about a hard-working father, Wayne, who finds that one of his children — the Girl, the Middle one, or the Little one — has been stealing quarters from the jar of change in which his family painstakingly saves (as his parents once did) for a once-every-two-years trips. And although the money matters — this isn’t a wealthy family — what really boils his blood is this:

“It ain’t the money, Karen. This is our vacation. You want one of your kids to steal from their own goddamn family? You want your kids to do this? To be like this?”
“Come to bed.”
Wayne’s hands are shaking. One of his kids. Christ.

As it turns out, Wayne’s anger goes back to his own childhood, to the one time he stole from his family’s Vacation Fund and then spent the whole trip dreading the discovery that they’d be two dimes short. “You want your kids to do better than you did,” he thinks to himself, and it kills him — a blue-collar worker, through-and-through, who knows the value of labor — that his children, who he hopes will go to college, who he prays will be better than he is, may in fact be snakes. His worries give us brief introductions to the three children — who his friends constantly refer to as good kids (“Get A’s. Polite. Not shitheads.”) — and their differing personalities. Middle’s the soft intellectual of the bunch, the one who digs around in his nostrils as if looking for a 3 Musketeers or something (as the dad ruthlessly jokes), the Girl’s the typical rebel– “Wears her jeans too tight. Pretends to walk to the bus stop and gets in that knucklehead’s Nova. Tapes album covers all over walls–like this jackass guitar player with curly blond hair above her bed: FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE” — and Little’s the selfish, brooding one (“Looks up from his Legos like you interrupted church”). Any one of them could have done it, for any number of reasons, none of them good, and that’s the point. And through it all, Walter always knows exactly how to pin down a detail in the fewest number of words. He doesn’t waste time, either; these terse scenes and descriptions generally accomplish multiple things at once. A quick scene in which the daughter tries to share her music with her father acknowledges that she’s not a brat; another interaction between father and sons points out the sort of insular games the brothers play with soldiers, but also acknowledges the father’s time spent in the military during peacetime (“in the Navy after Korea but before Vietnam”), just one more semi-shameful thing on the father’s mental mantel.

The climax of this perfectly paced story comes with the father pretending to go to work on his day off, and instead sneaking back into the house, into the closet with a few beers, so that he can keep watch on the Vacation Fund and hopefully catch the thief in action. And it’s here that Walter pulls off his greatest feat, shifting from the third-person to a matter-of-fact data dump and then transitioning into a first-person confessional, all of which perfectly frame the scene and set the mood. Wayne, of course, cannot bring himself to look through the slats, even when the thief appears. It would kill him to know which one of his children is doing this. Instead, the author writes this:

The closet is three feet by five feet. The whole house is just 900 square feet. It’s set on a fifty- by sixty-foot plot of grass and dandelions, across from a vacant lot, in a neighborhood of postwar clapboards and cottages. The house cost $44,000. The interest rate is 13 percent. The father works rotating shifts at a dying aluminum plant–day, swing, graveyard–for $9.45 an hour, and he comes home so tired, so greasy, so black with soot and sweat that he’s unrecognizable, and yet every day he gets up to do it again. He sits in that closet with a beer, his head between his knees.

Fact, fact, fact = shame, shame, shame. Followed by this KO punch of a line, and the reason why I’d already rank this among the top stories of the year (emphasis in bold is mine):

In the hallway, the thief burns with shame, the quarters two hot circles of mourning in my palm.

Tom Drury: “Joan Comes Home”

02/14/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 12, 2011.

There is a glut of details in Drury’s short, and yet he somehow manages to make them all feel relevant, in part, perhaps, because he keeps the scope so wide — as much about the home to which Joan has returned as about Joan, or her ex- (but not legally divorced) husband Tiny, or the son whom she, having abandoned seven years ago, has now come — at their mutual desire — to collect. They say you can never make a second first impression, but for a story with so much time and distance echoing between each line, even these smallest descriptions feel relevant and new; they are the embodiment of second chances and the ramifications of those decisions. After all, in someone else’s story, we’re all just objects.

In any case, let’s begin at the beginning, with an example of Drury’s precise prose:

One spring, after being gone seven years, the actress Joan Gower returned to Grouse County to get her son and take him back to California to live with her. There Joan played the character Sister Mia on the television show “Forensic Mystic.” Perhaps you’ve seen it…. Joan’s son was Micah Darling. He lived with his father and Joan’s ex-husband, Tiny Darling, in a low, meandering house outside of Boris.

Despite the abruptness of the opening, Drury is careful to make each phrase feel utterly familiar, lived-in, returned to, and matter-of-fact. We are given a ridiculous fact about the television show Joan’s on, and yet invited in to this world with the suggest that “perhaps” we’ve seen it. We’re told specifically who these people are, but not at the expense of showing us: instead, it’s with the sense of being reminded of who these people are. And once we’re set, Drury simply lets the scene speak for itself: on this back porch, Micah and Tiny sit on “rickety metal chairs with tubular arms and clamshell backs,” and the father attempts to impart some last-minute wisdom to his fourteen-year-old son, a boy who is “tall like Tiny, fine-boned like Joan.” These range from the practical to the impractical and from the physical to the mental: how to carry valuables (in front, not at your side); how to fight (a headbutt to the solar plexus); how to manage money (don’t get a credit card); how to “Keep your own mind.” Once Drury’s wrung everything he can from the scene — the boy’s firm decision to leave, the father’s resigned acceptance — he cuts to the next one, once again presenting the plain facts of the setting (“Joan Gower pulled up in a rented green car at the house of Dan Norman, the former sheriff of Grouse County”) before leaving the rest to the human nature of those living within it.

Joan is fluttery, all nerves, and is half-seriously looking for a police escort, just in case there’s trouble. Really, she just needs to talk to someone familiar — to reacquaint herself with the territory — before she returns home. But we’re not given this through her dialogue; instead, we watch these scene at a distance, through the eyes of Dan’s wife, Louise, and when Joan — who has at least a mentally flirtatious past with Dan — touches her husband’s cheek, the wife doesn’t lash out with the stereotypical jealousy one expects of a story like this. No, in a story filled with surprises — with changes — she notes that “It made her feel happy for some reason. Maybe that it was beautiful. Two people, standing in the yard light, one lifts her hand to touch the other’s face. Whatever else you felt about it, that was an unusually graceful sight to see out in the country.” Of course, the lack of violence doesn’t necessarily imply kindness: we learn, through Louise’s memories, that Joan also twice-abandoned her daughter, Lyris, first to adoption and then again, returned by some “family fixers” after a “series of foster homes,” and that’s a wound that goes unhealed. And yet, we do meet Lyris: twenty-three, married to a decently well-off and slightly older man, Albert, so again, there’s the sense that things can be healed, can carry on, despite early injuries. Not in this story, perhaps, but Drury is offering us a fair vision of strained families that opts against the easily dramatic choices that so many short story writers, looking almost to titillate with their forced voyeurism, run into. Living itself can be tragedy enough.

In any case, the light “climax” of this story involves Joan’s return; Tiny, who has forgiven by largely forgetting her, escorts her in, reunites her with her son, and the two prepare to leave. There’s some emotion in the yard, once again handled in a surprising fashion, with Micah putting all of his unspoken emotions onto his pet goat, momentarily sobbing at the thought that he’ll never see him again. The final sequence, however, follows Tiny — the former plumber who now makes his living by disposing of other people’s potentially toxic trash — as he returns to Micah’s now empty room and sits, silently, on the red-and-black plaid bedcovers, meditating or praying. He’s not alone — Drury is careful to have Tiny’s mother show up to bid Micah farewell — but he is diminished, and quietly devastated by his son’s admittance that he’s always seen Tiny more as a brother than as a father, though “I don’t mean that bad.”

Joan’s biggest surprise upon re-entering the house she left is that “it was not so different from what she remembered, or maybe the opposite: that it was very different from what she remembered.” This is the reader’s biggest surprise, too, for “Joan Comes Home” is never what you’d initially expect and yet, upon closer reading — especially given Drury’s clear foundations — always ultimately exactly what you’d expect. Life goes on; it changes, or it doesn’t, but it goes on.

Michael Chabon: “Citizen Conn”

02/13/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012.

If you take this as a story about the decades-old feud between two golden-age comic-book creators, the stubborn artist Morton Feather and his writing partner, Artie Conn, then you’re going to be disappointed: despite being written by the same author, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay this is not. Likewise, if you take this as a spin on Citizen Kane, in which an empty success of sorts is traced back to a deep-seated childhood unhappiness, you’ll probably also be let down. These tropes have been tread before, and although Chabon has done well in revisiting or reinventing genre fiction with his creativity, short stories don’t give him nearly the amount of space he needs for that layered sort of world-building. However, if you accept the grasping meaning of what Chabon’s struggling with — “our everlasting human cluelessness” and the ways in which our dreams of the future constantly blind us to the already-achieved happiness of the past — then this is a fairly decent story that is flawed in its perhaps needless ornamental descriptions.

The baseline, as in the escapism of Clay, is that troubled boys create heroes to save themselves, and what destroys the partner- and friendship of Feather and Conn is Conn’s choice to drag reality (of the monetary sort) into the fantasies this painter so desperately needed. Now that both men are facing death, Conn’s desperate to repair the rift between them and be forgiven, but Feather refuses, entombing himself instead among the few remaining possessions — painting after painting after painting — that fill his apartment in the Zion Pointe Residence for Independent Seniors. Our narrator, incidentally, is as neutral as they get — a female rabbi with no real knowledge of these artists (her fanboy husband provides that service) –, a choice that allows Chabon to emphasize that neither of these men are “right” and that the complexities of human emotion are not so easily satisfied as through money and fame. Feather’s life and livelihood have become like ashes to him, corrupted by the death of his friend’s imagination and support; on the other hand, Conn has realized that fame and fortune are meaningless to him without his friend, and now he’s determined to “give him peace before he dies if it kills him.”

But this is not all that Chabon fills the pages with; the result is a bit freewheeling and overlong. I’ve always had a problem with descriptions, particularly in short stories, for I prefer the writing to be sleek and minimalist: to either stay tersely on point, or to wander through layers of ideas (like Waking Life) without ever committing to any single point, trusting in the strength of characters to provoke our own conclusions. Chabon’s details, unfortunately, fail to make the point about these men, and focus instead on irrelevant facts about the community, the rabbinical services, the comic book business. And while the neutrality of the narrator is, as I mentioned, a strength toward addressing the key and unknowable concepts, the narrator herself does not have to be quite so vague and, dare-I-say-it, stereotypical. (“I had noticed that there tended, even among the least observant Jews, to be something about my presence, as a rabbi, that struck people as ineluctable. Men with no faith, women with nothing in their hearts but guilt, rage, or the accumulated inky soot of years of fierce denial, had crossed crowded ballrooms and airports to give me the opportunity to condemn them or force them to confess.” Do you see how, even in giving us a generality like this, Chabon tends to add flourishes?)

I connect, ultimately, to the final paragraph more than I do to any of the characters or plotting, and I think that’s illustrative more of the flaws of the rest of Chabon’s story than to its cumulative weight. I felt an emptiness in reading this, and was therefore waiting for something to reach out and grab me: this direct final paragraph, which pointedly draws a conclusion, succeeds in doing so. We can do better.

Stuart Dybek: “Four Deuces”

02/07/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 13, 2011.

People in love got it easy: they really can listen to one another talk all day and never get bored. Writers don’t have it nearly so good: they’ve got to chisel these words onto the blank page — arduous work, if you’ve never really tried to polish down to the essence — and then convince you of those word’s worth, to cajole you with each sentence — nay, each phrase — to keep on reading. Not that “it gets better,” but that it’s damn good already. Dybek’s approach takes us, the reader, to the limits of our attention span and then, unfortunately, past it, as the bartender/owner of The Four Deuces, Rosie (or Rosebud) decides to spill her life story to her only patron, Rafael (an artist), who reminds her of an angel. By cutting out Rafael’s occasional comments and skipping over descriptions of their interactions (save for the constant refrain of “na zdrowie” that reminds us that they’re drinking/toasting throughout), Dybek writes a strong, confident monologue that unfortunately runs out of steam.

At the beginning, the narrative is clear: Rafael has been scratching some picks for the track, and Rosie, who used to gamble regularly with her “sumnabitch” husband Frank, uses this as an opportunity to start talking to him. Once she’s got his ear, she explains that they won this bar — 220 W. 22nd Street, “Four Deuces, that’s a deceptively lucky hand. A man with a hand like that lays in wait for the kill” — using the profits from one very lucky day at the races. Apparently Rosie had some sort of psychic power — she only half believes this — that was given to her by the devil (at least, that’s what she imagines), and when blindfolded, she could suss out the winners more often than not, and this allowed them to nail a Pick Three jackpot at 45-1. This voice may also, in an IRS scam gone bad, have led Frank to kill his betting partner, Lester, over the profits; at the very least, it drove Rosie into a sadomasochistic relationship with Frank, whom she drove to whip her, to mark her. And, worst of all, it’s possible that this unconscious “deal” may have led to Rosie’s miscarriage and her subsequent year of depression, a year in which she suspects Frank grew close to their new neighbor, a provocative Widow with a proclivity for leaving her “unmentionables” hanging out on the laundry line across from their window. It’s supernatural mumbo jumbo on one level, sure, but Rosie’s conviction sells it: you can hear her voice, and Dybek fills the story with rich details that allow us to see their relationship, with Frank turning from a lewd poet who used to deface two-dollar bills with his lascivious odes to her into a BOH (Bartender Occupational Hazard) with a tendency to drink up their profits. Among the gems:

  • You know the difference between a dreamer and a visionary? … A dreamer’s asleep, Rosie. A visionary’s so wide awake everyone else seems like zombies.
  • Frank had a theory there was a hidden theory to luck and if you could find it, the odds would be on your side. Don’t matter if it’s astrology or astrophysics, he’d say, they’re both about a pattern in the stars that allows you to predict. That Oriental rug you’re standing on is just a design to you and me, Rosebud, but if a swami saw it, he’d know there was a prayer woven in it.

Then there’s Frank’s previous job, as a railway dick (the night cop who keeps out vagrants and vandals), which turned into petty larceny and a pack-rat mentality, to say nothing of the patterns he would find in random graffiti, which he’d jot down and save. The idea, time and again, is that if you put all these things together, if you find a way to know them, to learn them, you’ll have that killer hand nobody sees coming — the four deuces — and you’ll be able to win anything. At the same time, there’ll be a price to pay for this knowing, and it’s their inability to find salvation in each other that drives a jealous Rosie and alcoholic Frank apart, to the place at which the story begins, with a widowed Rosie talking to a handsome stranger with whom she does not want to sleep. This is also what runs the story off the rails: the moment this Williams-like romance breaks apart, when the physicality ends and Rosie becomes the obsessive snoop, the story becomes all too banal. We’ve also become so accustomed to Rosie’s phrasing that it’s no longer fresh: she’s spoken for so long that we’re inoculated to her charm. And of course, all the supernatural elements have been severed by this point, so it’s ever more a rant and less of a mysterious confession.

A few solid moments remain, with Rosie realizing how much she still needs Frank for organizational purposes, or finding that he’s still the only man for her (something about suffering together, perhaps?), but this second half (of a fifty page story) is mainly focused on plotting, and less on the unique details that so ground the initial section. It’s also a bit confusing, with Rosie visiting a priest and obsessing over the scent of cologne (sandalwood) that it turns out he doesn’t wear, and if we’re supposed to connect these new sexual urges back to the devilish thoughts she had oh so many pages ago, well, it doesn’t quite work. It’s noticeable, but really only in the effort with which it takes to run back to the four deuces metaphor, or to repeat earlier lines in a new context: methodical, planned, less organic by far than the way the monologue starts out, and, oh yeah, given that she’s been drinking this entire time, you’d think the opposite would be happening to the narration.

To make a long story (and review) short(er): a race was never won by rambling.

T. Coraghessan Boyle: “Los Gigantes”

02/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 6, 2012.

What I like most about the author formerly known as T. C. Boyle is that he has such a strong sense of narrative: tastefully modern without the excesses of post- or experimental narrative, lightly studded with a few choice words, written so masterfully that it only sounds casual, etc.  He doesn’t have a distinct “voice,” so to speak, nor does he have a specific milieu that he’s known for writing in, and he’s equally at home in the past as in the present (very little in the future, which is fine, since his interest is primarily in people, not plot). In other words: you’re always going to get a solidly written story, and it will almost always take place somewhere surprising. In 2010, he took us both to the desert, following a commune of self-imposed mutes in “The Silence,” and later to a gated, xenophobic community in “What Separates Us From The Animals.” Perhaps the one thing that shines through all of his work is his love of nature, particularly in his latest novel, When the Killing’s Done, but on the whole, expect the unexpected: His latest follows the attempts of an unnamed South American president/dictator (who used to be a cattle rancher) to breed an army of giant warriors.

Yes, in his utterly serious approach, Boyle is giving eugenics a modest, Swiftian treatment. But rather than remaining once-removed, Boyle chooses to humanize from the outset: “At first they kept us in cages like zoo animals, but that was too depressing.” The animals parallel will grow to be a little too on the nose as it’s repeated throughout the story (the readers aren’t idiots), and the fact that the Colonel ever planned to keep the “livestock” in cages rather than houses (after all, they came voluntarily and both the men and women are paid for their services, although the women’s make only half as much, this being a country of mass inequality) is a huge misstep in the plot department, but by leading with depression, we understand that even the most well-fed man, paid well to do nothing but impregnate willing women, can be unhappy. That we are all more than our bodily functions and cannot be turned into mere machines. (I’m assuming this story takes place in the past, given the presence of fans and radios as opposed to AC and TV; this would explain why they don’t just artificially inseminate, paying the men for their sperm only.) As our first-person narrator flashes back to describe the pranks he, an extremely strong man, used to perform, we’re given an even clearer division between how jolly he used to be, and how unhappy he is now. Learning that he has a woman back home — whom he’s doing this for — only adds to the fire; even more the knowledge that she’s petite (“opposites attract,” he notes), which leads him to worry that she is perhaps in a camp of her own, the one for producing midget spies.

There’s not all that much to this story, though; the unusual circumstances not only take up much of the five pages, but they also strain credibility, especially when our hero attempts to escape and ends up chained to a table, on which he is more or less force-fed and raped. We meet only two of his fellow breeders, and only one of the women, and though its fine that we learn little about these peripheral characters, these brief relationships don’t exactly illustrate anything about the protagonist. Instead, Boyle appears to save all of his points for the conclusion, which feels unearned:

Rosa is pregnant now, incidentally, and if we’re lucky she’ll bear our first son come spring, and if we’re even luckier he’ll be neither a giant nor a dwarf, but something in between. As for me, I try to keep my head down and avoid attracting notice, but inevitably they’ll find me, I know that. How could anybody, let alone a man like me, expect to blend in in a land where the people are so very, very small.

It’s a good ending, and as I mentioned earlier, the story itself is well-written and moves at a lively enough pace, but I suspect this is where Boyle started, what he worked backward from. A good story should neither be too subtle nor too obvious, but something in between, and Boyle’s finished production, which falls on the latter end of that spectrum, never manages to blend in. I don’t regret reading this, I like the ideas presented within, but surely there could have been more done here, particularly with the Colonel quoting correlations to the Greeks, and our hero citing Samson. To put it in dramatic terms, there’s a first and second act, but it’s missing the third act in which things really take a turn; instead, we skip straight to a reminder of how small-minded people can be, and how it is often better to just be ordinary.

Yoko Ogawa: “Old Mrs. J”

02/01/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, February 2012.

[Translated, from the Japanese, by Stephen Snyder.]

A lightly macabre story, with an unshakable feel of Poe or the vignettes in the Japanese film 3 Extremes, in which a writer discovers that her garrulous old landlady, Mrs. J, may be harboring a dark secret in her garden. Our first hint that something is amiss comes early (at least, it does if you’re one of those readers who assumes [or demands] that everything be relevant in some way), with a hillside of kiwis that “tremble as though covered with a swarm of dark-green bats” being mysteriously plucked under the cover of darkness. What follow are some subtler hints: cats scrounging in the garden, for which our narrator recommends laying down pine needles (“Cats hate prickly things”), a difficult husband for Mrs. J (“He gambled away everything I made and didn’t even have the decency to die properly. He was drunk and went missing down at the beach”), and some extremely strong hands on this old gardener/masseuse (“She cracked her knuckles and the noise was so loud I thought she might have broken her fingers”). And then, like a tell-tale heart, Mrs. J starts pulling up hand-shaped carrots out of her garden: “Scrubbing turned it bright red,” “The carrots looked even stranger in the [newspaper’s] photograph, like amputated hands with malignant tumors. They dangled in front of us, still warm and dripping with blood.”

All this is fine stuff, and there’s a particularly creepy section in which our writer protagonist first observes Mrs. J transporting box-loads of kiwis to an abandoned post office and then later using her supernatural strength to give her an ever-tightening massage: “Her fingers were cold, and I felt no trace of skin or flesh. It felt as though she was massaging me with her bones…. If she went on much longer, her fingers would scrape away my skin, rip my flesh, crush my bones.” But the transitions are perhaps a little too jarring in their speed; while I understand that they’re supposed to be unsettling, the story feels as if it’s skipped a few grooves, jumping from a newspaper article (“HAND-SHAPED AND FRESH FROM GRANNY’S GARDEN”) to a scene in which our hero is being interviewed by an inspector (“Did she tell you he was dead?”) and then to a final, too-tidy conclusion in which the hand-less, strangled corpse of Mrs. J’s husband is found in that pine-needle covered garden (a cat’s body is found in the post office, under a mountain of kiwis). There’s very little takeaway from this, and because of the brevity of the scenes, a second read shows you exactly how Ogawa has constructed each moment to hint at this inevitable end, all without ever explaining motive or developing character.

Why have the police suddenly arrived? Where has Mrs. J gone, and how did she know they were coming? More importantly than these unanswered and perhaps irrelevant plot questions, how did any of this affect the narrator? As is, it sure doesn’t affect the reader.

Where Am I?

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