The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 22 June 2017

The Word Book

Hello Gentle Reader

The short story is perhaps one of the most difficult forms to operate and write in. It’s a piece of prose with what some would call: limiting factors.  The most obvious disadvantage or ‘limiting factor,’ of the short story is its length. A short piece of prose does not exceed ‘x,’ amount of words. Critics of the short story view this as a limitation of the short story as it is (superficially speaking) presumed not able to contain the same depth of their more prestigious relative: the novel. The novel is considered the crème de la crème of literary endeavors. Novels, within their pages; can house numerous characters, a multitude of events, present various timelines, and discuss a variety of themes. The reality is: novels can sustain and hold more, then their short story cousin. Novels can span landscapes and years; they can house numerous characters, who are born, die, survive and suffer; their themes can be a goulash of thoughts and perspectives; simply because they are not limited by pages or word count. Readers are also more forgiving of novels. If the plot begins to drag, or the story loses its luminous luster, there is always a redeeming quality to be found, just a few pages down the way. One great example of this liberal forgiveness offered to novels, would be “The Golden Notebook,” by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing. “The Golden Notebook,” is a massive novel riddled with a complex structure which seeks to map and understand a woman’s mental structure and facets, as well as her life; from her early life in Africa, to her political engagement and awareness, her professional identity, to the sexual betrayals and insecurities she finds herself suffering through; then with added measures Lessing threw in another inner novel that the character is writing to either deepen the novel or create a greater postmodern narrative structure. “The Golden Notebook,” is a divisive novel. Its heralded by some as a testament to early feminist literature, where Lessing was breaking new ground for discussing very graphic or at the time ‘impolite,’ or personal feminine concerns, such as menstruating. Others, however, decried the novel as being self-centered, narcissistic, and lacking a clear defined structure—even by postmodernist standards. Doris Lessing herself, would find her relationship with the novel ambivalent at best, as she often dismissed the feminist and social liberating attachments the novel would attract. It is a startlingly piece of literature, and Lessing was able to bring forth her themes and her preoccupations to the full front with the novel. However, the novel is far from being polished, smooth and without great faults. Its plot flat lines for extremely long periods of time, the characters are self-absorbed, the book itself felt endless. But, Lessing had her redeeming moments; which often allowed me to overlook the at times endlessly painful moments of the novel; because there was always the expectation or the hope Lessing would turn things around, and she did (though: “The Yellow Notebook,”—if I recall correctly; was the most painful reading I have done in recent memory). I wouldn’t call “The Golden Notebook,” the best piece of literature or novel I have ever read. It was a marathon of a novel; and a coarse horse pill to often swallow. But it proves as a reader, we are more forgiving of novels, they do not need to be thoroughly polished, pruned, and refined as a short story or a poem.

Short stories have less room for forgiveness and no room for mistakes. A short story must be pruned, smelted, molded, refined, polished and produced to high standards. There is no room for forgiveness or redemption. With a short story one either succeeds or falters. Short stories are practically naked because they are contained in fewer pages with fewer words. In order for the short story to succeed, it must grab the reader’s attention and entice them immediately. There is no time to set up a lavish scene, to discuss the political workings of a new world, or to go into grand depth or detail discussing the heraldry of ancient houses or a characters ancestry. Short stories exist in flashes of moment; it’s a contradictory marriage between poetry and prose. Much like poetry, short stories must utilize the most precise language and imagery to convey the greatest amount of depth in a confined space; while utilizing sentences and narratives to move through the motions of prose.

Many writers delve into short stories. They try the form on for size. Though they produce the odd piece here and there; they never truly commit to the format itself. Their short stories are well crafted; yet the writers themselves do not truly appreciate the form. Rather they treat the short story like a holiday, and much like a tourist on vacation, they are grateful for the distraction, but now it’s back to the day job. Yet there are writers who are renowned for their novels—like Yasunari Kawabata—but who personally feel their greatest achievements were in the short story format.

A rotten short story or a rotten short story collection, is like biting into an apple and being greeted by a worm, who is equally unimpressed at the violent vandalism. It’s unpleasant and on the verge of being painful—if not, out rightly repulsive. The surface does not betray the unexpected surprise beneath it. Rather it appears normal and even welcoming. It’s only after delving into the item is one met with an offensive surprise.

Mieko Kanai’s short story collection “The Word Book,” is advertised on an interesting concept:

“Like the surfaces of a jagged crystal, each story in this collection shows an entirely different facet when viewed from a different angle. Playing games with the basic units of both life and fiction—the solid certainties of the self, the world around us, and the words we use to describe these things to one another [. . .]”

The short stories housed within “The Word Book,” often feel like a reflected and adjusted version of the/a previous short story. Each short story in this way comes across as a new facet of an already passed phantom. The trick, however, gets old.

Through precise detail Kanai is capable of setting up a mundane and ordinary reality: trains which will arrive on time or slightly late; hotels which are salt and peppered by the sea; billboards advertising medical services and consumer products—it all appears normal; yet through slow progression Kanai works in shifting the perspective towards a fragmented postmodern narrative which seeks to eliminate the illusion there is such a concept of concrete reality and identity. The way this is done however comes across as jarring and more sudden then subtle. The illusion in which the narrative wishes to shatter in itself becomes unreliable, confusing and rather boring. The short stories begin to feel more like rambling attempts to fill space, rather than successfully deliver the intended literary reaction. What should be a dazzling show of a good magician employing the audience to reconsider the ideas and perspectives around time and identity—corner stones of reality—ends up being an insult because someone is just throwing eggs at the audience.

Mieko Kanai is noted as being a Japanese prose writer, film critic and poet, though “The Word Book,” does not showcase any foray or proclivity of lyrical or unique language. Quite the contrary: it’s blunt—extremely blunt—to the point it comes across like being stuck in the face by a lead handed tossed brick. Perhaps a flare of lyrical language could help in delivery; or at least it would make the descent into boredom a little more colourful or pleasurable of viewing purposes; but alas reading “The Word Book,” on its plain language was more reminiscent of being stuck in a plain white/grey doctor’s office waiting room, with the telephone buzzing like a fly, and outdated magazines and flyers covered in a cellophane of dust on nearby tables, while the chairs are so uncomfortable they only prolong the slow progression of time.

“The Word Book,” is supposed to be a collection of short stories, resembling a piece of deconstructionism architecture, displayed in brutal and plain language. It attempts to reevaluate and depict the uncertainty of the world, through dismembering all logical notions of identity, reality, and time. Yet, it fails at doing this. What remains is a shattered plate on a concrete floor, which lacks structure and reason. I had great hesitation with purchasing this book, and continually felt enticed to read it, often playing devil’s advocate with myself. There were comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and Kenzaburō Ōe, but those were cheap selling points; and I fell for them hook line and sinker.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary 

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