Monday, January 31, 2011

Authors on the Short Story--Paris Review Interviews: Part I

In preparing for my presentation at the April Angers conference, “The Figure of the Author in the Short Story in English,” I have thought it well that I should consult short story writers who have spoken of their own experience with the short story: their love of the form, their theories about the difference between the short story and the novel, their notions about short story technique.

The Paris Review
, which has been publishing interviews with writers under the title “The Art of Fiction,” since the late 1950s, has been generous enough to post these interviews in an archive online. The URL address is: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews

Although I have been collecting writers’ comments about the short story form for years, I have so far scanned the Paris Review interviews for the fifties, sixties, and seventies, looking for ideas that I might be able to develop and use in my presentation. I list below those writers’ remarks about the short story I think most helpful, followed by brief comments of my own. Next week, I will post a second set of citations, with my comments, of Paris Review interviews from the eighties, nineties, and the first decade of the twenty-first century.

[Side note: I have read Alice Munro’s new story, “Axis,” in the January 31 issue of the New Yorker four times now and think I may be ready to talk about it soon. I have also read Steven Millhauser’s story, “Getting Closer,” in the January 3 issue of the New Yorker five times, and hope to be capable of making some remarks on it soon also. These things take time, you know.]

Truman Capote, 1957
When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium…. I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation…. Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners.

I like Capote’s take on the importance of getting training in writing fiction by first writing short stories—not that stories are mere finger exercises, but rather than they are more demanding, at least on the microcosmic level, than the novel is. I also like the idea that short stories depend on a certain rhythm. Some short story writers think that rhythm is as important as content. More on this later.

Ernest Hemingway, 1958
I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.


This, of course, is Hemingway’s most famous statement about leaving things out. He probably gets it from Chekhov; later Raymond Carver got it from him. More on “leaving things out” later, as I cite other writers who believe in the power of omission.

Frank O’Connor, 1957
[The short story] is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry… A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has…[The greatest essential of a story] is you have to have a theme, a story to tell. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—”and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you've got something to tell, that's a real story.


Frank O’Connor is certainly not the only writer who has said that the short story is the closest thing to lyric poetry, especially in its detachment from circumstances. And there is more to be said about O’Connor’s insistence on the importance of theme—i.e. that the writer has something to say—not just an event, but an event that “means” something.

Katherine Anne Porter, 1963
If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.


The first self-conscious theorizer and practitioner of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, was the first to emphasize the importance of beginning with the ending. There are many important implications of this notion, which I will talk more about later.


I.B. Singer, 1968
In each story, I try to say something, and what I try to say is more or less connected with my ideas that this world and this kind of life is not everything, that there is a soul and there is a God and there may be life after death. I always come back to these religious truths although I am not religious in the sense of dogma.


Singer is not the only writer of short stories who has felt that the form has something to do with the idea that “this world and this kind of life is not everything.” Probably the most famous is Flannery O’Connor, whose work I have reread in its entirely these past few months. Religious truths, in the broadest sense of that term, may have some inherent connection to the short storm form. I have explored this issue in many places and will talk more about it.

John Steinbeck, 1969
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.


This is that idea that Frank O’Connor talked about—the writer’s need to tell the story. It might be called “The Ancient Mariner” compulsion. I have written about this before and come back to it later.

Bernard Malamud, 1975
I like packing a self or two into a few pages, predicating lifetimes. The drama is terse, happens faster, and is often outlandish. A short story is a way of indicating the complexity of life in a few pages, producing the surprise and effect of a profound knowledge in a short time. There’s, among other things, a drama, a resonance, of the reconciliation of opposites: much to say, little time to say it, something like the effect of a poem.


Here is the poem/short story connection again. And Malamud is wise to remind us that the short story can convey the “complexity of life,” can have the effect revealing “profound knowledge” by reconciling opposites.

Eudora Welty, 1972
I don’t think we often see life resolving itself, not in any sort of perfect way, but I like the fiction writer’s feeling of being able to confront an experience and resolve it as art, however imperfectly and briefly—to give it a form and try to embody it—to hold it and express it in a story’s terms... A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story—you can work more by suggestion—than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.


Welty emphasizes an aspect of the short story that others have discussed, and that I will return to: that whereas life does not have a resolution, there is something that might be defined as aesthetic resolution—something communicated not by content, but by form. Also important, I think, is Welty’s notion of “mood,” what other writers have called “tone”—a unifying rhythm or glow holding everything together in a meaningful way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Figure of the Author in the Short Story Conference--Issues

It is my honor to have been invited to be the plenary speaker at the conference, “The Figure of the Author in the Short Story in English,” April 8 and 9, 2011, in Angers, France. The conference will be co-hosted by the CRILA short story research group (Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires en Langue Anglaise) of the Universit√© d’Angers and Edge Hill University, England. Primary organizers for each group are: Michelle Ryan-Sautor, of The Journal of the Short Story in English at Angers, and Ailsa Cox, of Short Story in Theory and Practice at Edge Hill. The website address for the conference is:
http://www.univ-angers.fr/ACTUALITE.asp?ID=1087&langue=1

I will be speaking on the topic of why writers like short stories better than readers do. I will be posting my progress on this keynote presentation over the next two months, focusing on issues involving the relationship of the author to the short story form.

The first two issues I intend to explore were suggested to me by two of my readers—Cathy and Dex.

Issue 1. Do young writers write short stories rather than novels, not because they like the form, but because the workshop format of universities compels them to write short stories? If university workshops disappeared, would the short story disappear also? Do writers move away from the short story to the novel as soon as possible because (a) they like novels better or (b) because novels are the only fiction that makes money? Why didn’t Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, or Andre Dubus write novels? Why do Alice Munro and David Means not write novels? Why does William Trevor keep writing short stories?

Cathy has posted a piece on The Millions at http://www.themillions.com/2011/01/the-story-problem-10-thoughts-on-academias-novel-crisis.html in which she argues that most fiction workshop instructors use the short story rather than the novel as the primary pedagogical tool because it is a more manageable form for both student and instructor: The student gets an immediate reward for a completed job, and it is easier for the instructor to critique a short work than a long one. The result, Cathy says, is that a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that really want to be novels, but novels are discouraged from being writing, for the rhythm of school semesters and quarters encourages writing small things, not large things. She concludes: “Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?”

It’s an interesting argument and has received a number of responses on The Millions. I recommend it to you. I responded to Cathy as follows:
“I agree with you, of course, that fiction workshops in MFA programs are more conducive to the short story than to the novel. But I am sure you would agree that the short story does not differ from the novel merely, or even primarily, in terms of length, but rather in terms of technique--i.e. language use, thematic focus, emphasis on the ending, importance of unity, etc. etc. all that familiar stuff. I tend to think that a writer trained in the writing of the short story has a better chance of writing a good novel than a writer trained in the writing of a novel has of writing a good short story. What do you think? I am working on a keynote presentation at a short story conference in Angers, France in April on the topic of why I think short story writers like short stories more than readers do. Sometimes I think writers write short stories because they love the form, but write novels because they have a better chance of publishing them, because readers (and therefore publishers) like novels better than they do short stories.

Cathy kindly replied:
Questions I'm asking myself:

--Some people are saying the short story is a better pedagogical tool, better way to teach craft, because young writers aren't "ready" or mature enough to attempt a novel. Well, then does that mean George Saunders and Alice Munro and Andre Dubus are immature?
--What would happen if the taxonomy of creative writing programs (undergrad and grad) with regards to prose was governed not by genre but by form? Short-form Prose WORKSHOPS (where the essay and short story are studied and emulated) and Long-Form Prose STUDIOS, where process is emphasized over product.
And, rightly, you ask about the practicalities of the publishing market, where novels are preferred, how much that is driving this discussion. As someone who is working on her first novel (not a novel in stories, not a nonfiction novel), I ask myself that question often. Am I writing this book for the right reasons?

I hope Cathy and I can talk more about these issues. I certainly do not think that such writers as George Saunders, Alice Munro, and Andre Dubus (not to mention Raymond Carver, William Trevor, David Means, and many others) wrote short stories because they were not “mature” enough to write novels. Indeed, why they continued to write short stories when their publishers probably begged them to write novels is something I intend to explore as I prepare my Angers presentation during the next two months.

Issue 2: Craft vs. Passion—Are these contradictory characteristics in fiction? Can you have messiness and careful control at the same time in fiction? Are short stories too often too well crafted? Is the messiness of many novels more like “real life”? Is it the task of fiction to mirror “real life” with all its messiness?
My friend Dex sent me a recent review of Charles Baxter’s collection Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. The review, by Bart Schneider, was laudatory, but ended with this paragraph:
“Readers will find much to admire in this collection by one of our best storytellers. If I have one criticism, it’s that the stories often wind down in tasteful denouements that come across more as elegant triumphs of craft than satisfying conclusions. The fact that a generation of MFA students have mastered that method inevitably colors my view. As many of the stories drew to a close, I found myself wishing for a bit more messiness, a bit more passion.”

Dex asked me what I thought about Schneider’s comments about passion, messiness, and the MFA story.
As everyone who is kind enough to read this blog well knows, I cannot resist it when someone asks me “what do you think about….?” And I have thought about the issue of craft vs. passion, tight control vs. messiness, and whether the short story can be taught in an MFA program ever since I have been teaching the form. The issue has a history as long as the reach of Edgar Allan Poe, who was the first champion of the short story as a form and the first champion of tight artistic control. I will be coming back to this issue in the next couple of months as I prepare my Angers presentation.

And speaking of a writer who insists on continuing to write short stories, in spite of the accusation that short stories are for the beginning, immature writer, the January 31 issue of The New Yorker has a new story by Alice Munro, entitled “Axis.” I have read it once and plan to read it twice more before posting something about it next week. I guess by this time, Munro’s book publishers have given up trying to talk her into writing a novel.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Huckleberry Finn, the word "nigger," and The Importance of Teaching Reading

What, you might ask, does the current flap about an English professor’s replacing the word “nigger” with the word “slave” in a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn have to do with the subject of this blog—The Short Story? Because, it seems to me, the controversy has to do with the other word in the title of this blog—“Reading.” And the importance of careful and attentive reading is what this blog has always been about.

According to various newspaper reports (and practically every newspaper in America, Ireland, England, and Canada has weighed in on this issue), Alan Gribben, chairman of the English department at Alabama's Auburn University, had become so frustrated teaching Huckleberry Finn because the word “nigger” is used over 200 times in it that he went to a small publisher, NewSouth, with the idea of replacing the word. Gribben told Publishers Weekly, "I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person, they said we would love to teach ... 'Huckleberry Finn,' but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."

The founder of the press immediately saw she could sell a lot of copies with this idea, admitting that “if we can get [Twain’s] book back into American schools, that would be really great for a small publishing company like ours.” Honest enough. However, Gribben’s justification for his decision is more than a little suspicious. He has said that Mark Twain was a notoriously commercial and populist author. “If he was alive today and all he had to do was change one word to get his book into every schoolhouse in America, he couldn’t change it fast enough.” That’s pretty damned presumptuous, it seems to me.

A few days ago, David Ulin of The Los Angeles Times (which is the paper I read every day) commented: “On its website, NewSouth notes that this new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" will not supersede previous editions of the novel: "If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain's works will be more emphatically fulfilled," the publisher declares.

“I don't know how that happens,” Ulin declared, “how debate is stirred by sweeping what disturbs us under the rug. Gribben ought to understand this; it's supposed to be in the nature of his academic work. As for NewSouth, with its politically correct agenda, it might be useful to go back to Twain.” It seems to me publicity and profit is more on NewSouth’s agenda than political correctness.

I grant you that “nigger” is a powerful word that refers to a shameful era in society’s past, not just in America, but in other parts of the world. There is no way to justify the treatment of an entire race that the word reminds us of. And we should be reminded. However, it is not just that horrible treatment the word references, but the taboo nature of the utterance itself.

Several years ago at the university where I taught, an older woman had returned to school to get her elementary teaching credential after the death of her husband, because she said she always wanted to teach. One day while doing her student teaching, she was engaged in a classroom activity in which one student had to be picked out of a group. To pick the student, she used the old counting rhyme, which goes:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a (many variations here, e.g. tiger, monkey, baby) by the toe.
If it hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, you are it!

Without even thinking about it, she used the phrase she had heard in her own childhood, “catch a nigger by his toe.” When this was reported to the principal by an outraged parent, the woman was not only jerked from the classroom, but also forced out of the teaching program at my university. I often wonder what happened to her.

Recently, one of my favorite high school teachers, who writes a regular column for my hometown newspaper, which she sends to me, was reminiscing about childhood Christmases, and mentioned that one of her favorite stocking stuffers among the oranges and apples were large chocolate drops, which were referred to as, she could not say it, “nigger toes.” Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I admit to using the same terrible term. My only excuse is the one folks I grew up with often used: "I just didn't know any better." I am sorry for it. We all know better now. But I am not sure it is helpful to be so frightened to admit our past mistakes that it seems as though we are trying to deny that they occurred. We should no more try to change history than to change literature to fit our current notions of what is "correct."

The fact that you cannot even use the word when you are talking about whether you should use the word is illustrated in a recent court case, in which a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that Tom Burlington, a former Philadelphia television news anchorman, can proceed with a lawsuit against WTXF-Philadelphia, Fox29, claiming he was a victim of reverse racial discrimination when he was fired in 2007 for uttering the word "nigger" during a newsroom editorial meeting.

U.S. District Judge Barclay Surrick wrote: "Plaintiff portrays himself as a victim of political correctness run amok, while defendants portray themselves as employers who made the only choice they could in response to an employee who repeatedly uttered 'the most noxious racial epithet in the contemporary American lexicon. Whether plaintiff was a victim of discrimination or his own poor judgment is for a jury to decide."

According to a newspaper account, here’s what happened: A Fox journalist was preparing a report on a local high school chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People holding a mock funeral to bury the word "nigger." Participants at the demonstration reportedly uttered the word "at least a hundred times or more." During the meeting to discuss the story, Mr. Burlington asked: "Does this mean we can finally say the word 'nigger'?"

The reporter said she wasn't going to use the word in her report and one of the three African-American journalists in the eight-person meeting objected to Mr. Burlington's use of the word. In his lawsuit, Mr. Burlington said he argued using the word would add credence to the news report. He said he "wanted to make the point that I felt if we're going to refer to the word 'nigger,' we should either say the word 'nigger' or refer to it as a racial epithet or a slur instead of using the phrase the 'n-word'. "

He later became involved in a heated discussion with Joyce Evans, his African-American co-anchor, who was not at the news meeting. She allegedly told him he could not use the word because he was white. Over the next few days, Mr. Burlington tried to discuss the issue with employees who were at the initial news meeting and repeated the word about a dozen times. In his lawsuit, the TV anchor said he did not use the word in its pejorative sense and had no intention of belittling or hurting anyone. But when he used the word again, when called in by the station's managers to explain himself, he was immediately suspended and ordered to take sensitivity training.

I have taught Huckleberry Finn many times. (N.B.: I wrote an article about the novel several yeas ago in which I tried to defend what critics call the weak ending when Tom Sawyer comes back on scene and trivializes the book’s social message, and I will be happy to send it to anyone of my readers who is interested; it was fun to write because it argues for the fantasy nature of the novel, citing a crypto-masturbation scene that Twain must have known he was creating) Anyone who has read Huckleberry Finn knows that Huck’s central conflict in the book is between his personal loyalty with Jim and his cultural and religious heritage that a slave is the property of his or her owner and that to protect Jim from being captured would not only mean he would be socially outcast himself, but that he would risk eternal damnation. In the most powerful scene in the book, Huck wrestles with this issue, but his friendship with Jim is more powerful than his cultural heritage, so in a declaration, the power of which must be understood in all its Bible Belt force, Huck decides in favor of the person rather than the policy and says: "All right, then, I'll go to hell,"

Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times this morning (January 8, 2011) called Professor Gribben’s replacing the word “nigger” with the word “slave” and the word “Injun” in the name Injun Joe with “Indian” an “offensive idiocy of vandalism masquerading as sensitivity” and said it was one of those ideas “utterly breathtakingly off the mark.”

Rutten then cited a Twain scholar, Judith Lee, who was this week quoted as saying she found nothing objectionable about the change, arguing that Twain’s use of the term was meant to be read ironically, but that an appreciation of irony was an advanced interpretative skill, and that for a general audience a bowdlerized versions would do just fine. To which Rutten rightly replied: “In other words, reserve the classics for sophisticated readers and give the masses Twain-lite. If you can’t imagine what Mark Twain would made of that dichotomy, you’ve never read him.”

Rutten also discussed a similar censorship issue at Monrovia high school, which has a highly regarded drama department, directed by a professional actor and teacher Marc Segal. This year Segal proposed the students put on Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Rent” as their spring musical. Last month, the school’s principal asked to see the script and then consulted with the district’s superintendent, after which she told Segal that “Rent” would have to be cancelled because: the play was not “family friendly” because it features “characters who have some dark issues they were dealing with.” Rutten, of course, pointed out that such a criteria would eliminate just about every play from “Oedipus Rex” (incest) to “Romeo and Juliet” (teenage sexuality). We can’t have students reading literature that deals with “dark issues.” Let them read about Lindsay Lohan and watch reality TV.

In the kind of newspaper serendipity that I love, The Los Angeles Times also ran a story this morning on the current meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) the largest professional association of literature and foreign language teachers in the world, 8000 in attendance this year). Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA noted that the humanities are under greater pressure right now than they would be in economically better times. The problem may partly be the result of the misconception, she added, that English and foreign language studies do no prepare students for a range of careers, arguing that humanities are just as practical as any other major, especially during hard times when people need to be nimble about switching jobs. Well and good, but I agree with a Dartmouth American literature professor at the conference who argued that literature classes should not be justified only with arguments about student employability. “If you don’t begin with the assumption that literature itself is a repository of human values that human beings need, then we lose everything.” I would add to that, if we don’t begin with the knowledge that reading literature is a powerful skill that enables us to see through the superficiality and silliness of much of modern culture, then, yes, we could lose everything.

And then one more bit of serendipity, A few days ago, the LA Times ran a review of John Lithgow’s one-man show currently running in Los Angeles entitled “Stories by Heart.” In the show, Lithgow reads and “acts out” two stories: P.G. Wodehouse's funny bit of fluff, "Uncle Fred Flits By" and Ring Lardner’s darker satire “Haircut.” I discussed “Haircut” many times in my classes by way of teaching the concept of irony, a concept that critics of Twain’s use of the word “nigger” should be aware of. I wrote a short article about “Haircut” several years ago in which I tried to argue for the importance of a careful reading of the deeper irony in the story. I suggested that Lardner’s story is even more savage than we have heretofore thought, that his attack is not just on the horrible practical joker Jim Kendall and a small town’s lack of moral sense (as represented by the narrator, the barber), but even more on the reader’s willingness to approve of the extreme penalty for Jim as his just deserts for his practical jokes. The reader becomes as morally implicated in the death as the barber and the townspeople by accepting what was obviously their own use of the feeble-minded Paul to rid themselves of a troublemaker and prankster that they hated and feared. It is unfortunate that so many high school teachers fear they do not have the ability to teach irony to students, it is doubly unfortunate that a university professor would be willing to cater to that fear.

In my opinion, reading good literature is not easy, nor was it meant to be. Because literature is not life, but an artificial construct that makes use of language conventions to create some understanding of life, reading it carefully and correctly requires some training and knowledge of how language and literature work. To change a great work of literature because it makes some people uncomfortable is, of course, absurd. Literature should make people uncomfortable, and if high-school teachers are afraid to teach a great work of literature, then we should change the teachers, not change the work.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Haruki Murakami's After the Quake

One of my readers, who just happens to be my daughter-in-law, Ean, asked me if I had read Haruki Murakami and, if so, what I thought of him. She also asked me about a Colorado science fiction writer, whose work I have not read. I am always happy to respond when readers ask me, "what do you think about....?" So here is a post of a review I wrote several years ago of Murakami's collection of stories After the Quake.

AFTER THE QUAKE: STORIES
First Published: Kami no kodomo-tachi wa mina odoru, 2000
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

In the early morning hours of January 16, 1995, a 7.2 earthquake hit the port city of Kobe, Japan, killing over five thousand people, causing billions of dollars worth of damage, and putting 300,000 out of their homes, including the parents of Haruki Murakami. Two months later, the radical Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a gas attack on the subway system in Tokyo, killing eleven and crippling many others for life. Because of these twin terrors, Murakami, who had lived in the United States for several years, returned to Japan to research and write a nonfiction book entitled Underground: The Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (2001) on the terrorist attack, filled with accounts of the lives of both survivors and cult members. In Murakami’s book, after the quake, (the small case letters of the titles of the book and the stories) are intentional) six stories explore the seemingly tangential, yet very real, effect of the earthquake on several Japanese characters in February, 1995, the month between the two disasters.

The first story, “ufo in kushiro,” begins with a woman who has spent five days after the quake in front of the television. On the sixth day, when her husband Komura, a salesman at a hi-fi-equipment store in Tokyo, comes home, she has disappeared, leaving him a note saying that although he is good, kind and handsome, living with him is like living with a “chunk of air.” As usual with Murakami’s characters, Komura does not make any emotional reactions to his wife’s departure. When he takes a week off from work, one of his colleagues says that if he will deliver a small package for him to his younger sister in the city of Kushiro he will pay for his airfare and hotel.

When the sister, Keiko, along with a friend Shimao, meet Komura at the airport, he has the strange impression that he is witnessing some moment from the past. He also feels he has not come far even though it was a long journey. These impressions create a transition from everyday life into a mysterious realm of reality typical of many of these stories. When Kieko says he does not think his wife’s departure had anything to do with the earthquake, Shimao says she wonders if things like that aren’t connected somehow. When Komura and Shimao try to have sex, he fails several times because he has been seeing images of the earthquake. He tells her about his wife’s note, and she asks if it is true that there is “nothing” inside him. When he asks what “something” inside of him could be, she tells him that the box he brought contains the “something” inside of him and that he will never get it back. At the end of the story, the most pessimistic in the collection, Kieko understands the emptiness inside himself.

The second story, “landscape with flatiron,” focuses on Junko, a young woman and an older man named Miyake building bonfires on the beach. As Junko watches, she thinks of Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire,” about a man traveling alone in the Alaskan wilderness who cannot get a fire started and freezes to death. She is convinced that the man actually wanted death, even though he had to fight to stay alive. Junko has always felt a “certain something deep down” as she watches the bonfires. Miyake, who is obsessed with the fires, tells her that if you get such a feeling while looking at a fire, it shows the deep, quiet kind of feeling inside you.

Like Komura in the first story, Junko says she is empty, to which Miyake replies that he is an expert on emptiness. After talking about committing suicide together when the fire goes out, Junko goes to sleep and Miyake tells her that when the fire goes out she will feel the cold and wake up whether she wants to or not. In spite of the sense of emptiness, characteristic of other stories in this book, there is also a sense of communion, between the two characters at the end. This mutual understanding thus suggests that it is possible that when the fire goes out, the two will still have each other.

“all god’s children can dance” begins with a man named Yoshiya following a mysterious man with a missing earlobe. Interspersed with accounts of Yoshiya following the man are flashbacks to his childhood, when his mother told him that his father was the Lord, and that one day he will show himself to him if he keeps his faith. Yoshiya is convinced the man with a missing earlobe must be his biological father. When the man gets off the train in an industrial area, he walks like a mechanical doll being drawn by a magnet. The fact that there is no sign of human life and the place looks like an imaginary stage set in a dream is another indication typical of these stories that the main character has entered some alternate dream reality. When Yoshiya follows the man into an empty baseball field, he disappears, and Yoshiya’s acts seem to have no meaning to him; in fact, meaning itself seems to have broken down, never to be the same again. Kneeling on the pitcher’s mound, Yoshiya gives himself up to the flow of time, saying aloud, “Oh God.” Once again, Murakami’s story ends with a sense of emptiness and loneliness; however, because Yoshiya calls out the name of his absent father at the end, there is some ambiguity about whether his discovery is positive or negative.

In “thailand,” a woman named Satsuki goes to a professional conference in Bangkok, Thailand and decides to vacation there for a week with the help of a limo driver and guide named Nimit. The alternate reality theme is introduced when the limo arrives, looking like an object from another world, as if it had dropped from someone’s fantasy. When Nimit asks Satsuki if her hometown of Kyoto, which is not far from Kobe, was much damaged by the quake, she thinks that an unnamed “he” lives in Kobe.” Nimit takes Satsuki to a poor village to meet an eighty-year-old woman fortune-teller who tells Satsuki that there is a stone inside her body and that she must dream of a snake that will remove it or she will die. The old woman also tells Satsuki that the unnamed man in Kobe, obviously a man who has jilted Satsuki in the past, is not dead. Satsuki now recognizes that it is she who is headed toward death. She even thinks that the earthquake may be her fault because she wished for it to kill the man who. As she flies away, she sits in the plane wishing for sleep so her dream will come. Once again, a character is reminded of the emptiness inside the self, but once again also there is some ambiguity about the implications of this realization. If Satsuki has her dream, will she be saved from the hardness of her heart?

The most surreal story in the collection is “super-frog saves tokyo,” which begins Kafka-like with a man named Katagiri finding a giant frog in his apartment who tells him he has come to save Tokyo from destruction from an earthquake. Frog says that he and Katagiri must go underground to do mortal combat with a creature named Worm that gets larger as he absorbs hatred. Frog, quoting Nietzsche, says Katagiri must cheer him on, for fighting is not something he likes to do. When Katagiri tells Frog that he is even less than ordinary and does not see how he can help save Tokyo, Frog says he is trying to save Tokyo for good, ordinary people just like him. However, on the day they are to go underground Katagiri is shot by a man in the street and wakes up in a hospital only to find out there has been no earthquake and that he was not shot at all. Like other characters in these stories, Katagiri has no idea of what is true anymore. When Frog comes to the hospital and tells Katagiri that he did a great job in his dreams, the strange creature begins to break out in boils, out of which come maggots, centipedes, worms and bugs, which fill the room and crawl all over Katagiri. When he wakes up, he knows that Frog saved Tokyo at the cost of his life, for he went back to the mud and will never come again. Then Katagiri falls into a restful, dreamless sleep. Although this is certainly the most Kafkaesque story in the book, it is also one of the most optimistic, for it ends with Katagiri no longer troubled by strange dreams, peaceful in his very ordinariness.

“honey pie,” perhaps the most hopeful story in the book, begins with a man named Junpei telling a story to a child named Sala about a bear named Masakichi, who has no friends and is especially hated by a tough bear named Tonkichi. The child’s mother Sayoko has called Junpei, a writer and a friend, to come and help her because Sala has had another hysterical fits because she believes someone called the Earthquake Man is trying to put her in a little box.

When Junpei, Sayoko, and her husband Takatsuki were close friends at university, Junpei felt that Sayoko was the girl he had been looking for, but because he could never bring himself to express his feelings to her, Takatsuki was the first one to declare his love. After graduation, Junpei becomes a successful short story writer, while Takatsuki gets a job with a newspaper and marries Sayoko. Just before Sala’s second birthday, Takatsuki and Sayoko get a divorce, and Junpei thinks about asking Sayoko to marry him but cannot make up his mind. When Junpei and Sayoko take Sala to a zoo to see the bears, he tells her a story about Tonkichi who trades salmon with Masakichi for his honey, eventually making them best friends. When the salmon disappear, Tonkichi ends up being sent to the zoo.

That evening after dinner Junpei and Sayoko embrace as if nothing has changed since they were nineteen. During the night Sala comes into the bedroom and says the Earthquake Man came and told her that he has a box for everyone. Junpei sleeps on the sofa and looks at the TV, thinking they were inside the TV waiting for the box to open. He thinks that as soon as Sayoko wakes up he will ask her to marry him. He also thinks of a conclusion for the story for Sala; he has Tonkichi bake honey pies, which Masakichi takes to town and sells so they can live as best friends forever. Thinking he now will keep watch over this woman and little girl and never let anyone put them in that crazy box, not even if the earth should crack open, Junpei decides he wants to write stories different from what he has written so far; he wants to write about people who dream and wait. And indeed, this final story in Murakami’s collection is precisely that kind of story--a story that ends with fullness and unity instead of emptiness and separation. Thus, although these stories seem distinct entities, they are interconnected not only by the effect of the Kobe earthquake, but also because they move from meaninglessness to final hope.