(Knopf)It's a mystery to us how some writers can build a short story. When we try to do it ourselves, it comes out squirrelly and wrong, definitely pea soup: too many words, too much detail, too little drama. A good short story writer has to crank up the machine quickly, project a batch of word pictures --- usually with dialogue --- and then get out, leaving us satisfied, wanting more (or at least wanting to go on to the next story).
It's a spare and potentially rich art form, reminds us of Matisse, or perhaps a sumi drawing. Or the tiny rainbow in a spot of dew hidden in the spider web in the corner of the garden.Some who call their works "short stories" are lying. For instance, those of Henry James aren't short stories at all --- they're just artfully truncated novels. The real masters can be counted on one hand: Jack London, Guy de Maupassant, Kafka, Hemingway, Gogol, Sherwood Anderson, Salinger. But, reading After the Quake, we might have to include Murakami as well.The six tales here all center around the great Kobe earthquake, but in all of them, there is a little mysterious something to set the tone. A big frog, a man minus one ear, an old lady who sees "stones" in the soul, paintings of flat-irons, a tiny bra. In "UFO in Kushiro," it's a simple box,
a box like the ones used for human ashes, only smaller, wrapped in manila paper. Judging from the feel, it was made of wood. As Sasaki had said, it weighed practically nothing. Broad strips of transparent tape went all around the package over the paper. Komura held it in his hands and studied it a few seconds. He gave it a little shake but he couldn't feel or hear anything moving around inside.
And what's in it? We never find out. And as we get into the story, we don't even want to know. That's the art --- after twenty-eight pages, we are more interested in the character Mr. Komura than the box he bears. The box is the writer's sleight of hand.
His wife of many years just left him: she couldn't stop watching television scenes of the earthquake damage and rescue attempts and then she just up and goes away. Not long after, a friend asks him to deliver this box to a sister in Kushiro. There Komura meets Shimao, spends the night with her, and then starts thinking about the box. She says,
"I wonder why it's started to bother you now, all of a sudden."
Komura glared at the ceiling for a minute to think. "I wonder."
They listened to the moaning of the wind. The wind: it came from someplace unknown to Komura, and it blew past to someplace unknown to him.
"I'll tell you why," Shimao said in a low voice. "It's because that box contains the something that was inside you ... Now you'll never get it back."
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But the story that won this reviewer's heart was "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo." I've always been quite fond of frogs, especially ones that can talk, one that, when we address him as "Mr. Frog" says "Please --- just call me Frog."
It's a sweet Kafka parable, without the Kafkaesque morbidity. Like Kafka, our writer allows us to visualize the creature, but imperfectly. We see him through a frog I mean a fog of brevity:
Katagiri found a giant frog waiting for him in his apartment. It was powerfully built, standing over six feet tall on its hind legs.
That's it for frog description, except that it has no teeth and can and does say, "ri-vit" (so Karagiri will believe it's a frog and not a man in frog disguise).
Mr. Frog --- that is, Frog --- tells him that there is a creature named Worm who lives below Tokyo, right under where Katagiri works in the bank. Frog has found out that Worm is going to wake from a long sleep and start moving which will cause an earthquake that will kill 150,000 people. He and Katagiri have to stop it.
The tale put me in mind of Mrs. Caliban, another tender monster story from twenty years ago. Mrs. Caliban's monster was also large and green and loving and somewhat wet. He came from the ocean into her life (and her bed) and then one night, sadly for him, and her, and the reader --- disappears back into the cold, dark sea.
Karagiri, like Mrs. Caliban, may well have invented his riveting Frog, but there is just enough mystery to it all that when we are done, we think we may have been gulled --- in a pleasant literary way, of course --- and that maybe our character has a vision that the rest of the world should emulate.
The ending of "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" is classic: Katagiri wakes up in the hospital, a nurse in attendance, Frog nowhere to be seen. She says,
"Another bad dream, eh? Poor dear." With quick efficient movements the nurse readied an injection and stabbed the needle into his arm...
"What were you dreaming about?"
Katagiri was having trouble differentiating dream from reality. "What you see with your eyes is not necessarily real," he told himself aloud.
"That's so true," said the nurse with a smile. "Especially when dreams are concerned."
"Frog," he murmured.
"Did something happen to Frog?" she asked.
""He saved Tokyo from being destroyed by an earthquake. All by himself."
"That's nice," the nurse said, replacing his near-empty intravenous feeding bottle with a new one. "We don't need any more awful things happening in Tokyo. We have plenty already."
--- Lolita Lark