31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 7: “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” by Haruki Murakami

May 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

In 1903, Henry James published a story called “The Beast in the Jungle,” about a man named John Marcher who is absorbed by an abiding belief that some insurmountable catastrophe will come to define his life. He obsesses over this undefined event relentlessly, never allowing anyone to get close to him for fear that they too will be tainted by the event’s repercussions. At the end of the story, he realizes what the true nature of his catastrophe is: in all the time he has been wracked by a sense of impending doom and foreboding, he has allowed his life to pass him by.

“The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is Haruki Murakami’s take on James’s parable. It is the story of Junpei, who as a teenager is given one piece of life advice by his usually taciturn father: “Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three that have real meaning for him. No more, no less.” Junpei spends his adulthood obsessing over his father’s proclamation, convinced that he has already met one of the three women, who eventually went on to marry someone else:

Whenever Junpei met a new woman after that he would ask himself, Is this a woman who has real meaning for me? and the question would call forth a dilemma. For even as he continued to hope (as who does not?) that he would meet someone who had “real meaning” for him, he was afraid of playing his few remaining cards too early. Having failed to join with the very first important Other he encountered, Junpei lost confidence in his ability – the exceedingly important ability – to give outward expression to love at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner. I may be the type who manages to grab all the pointless things in life but lets the really important things slip away. Whenever this thought crossed his mind – which was often – his heart would sink down to a place devoid of light and warmth.

Junpei’s thought process sets him somewhat apart from Marcher in James’s story; the latter is too egotistical and self-absorbed to have any awareness of his essential plight until it is too late. By contrast, Junpei desperately wants to make a connection with one of the three women who will have “real meaning” in his life and is terrified of allowing the opportunity to pass him by.

Junpei becomes a writer of short stories because, he says, he lacks the patience to write novels: “He simply could not maintain the concentration it took to write a story over a long period of time.” At a party one night, he meets a woman named Kirie, with whom he begins a romantic involvement. (Junpei’s first thought when he sees Kirie is, “Here is a woman with excellent posture.”) In bed one night, she asks him what he is writing and he tells her that he is in the middle of a story about a female internist who is having an affair with a surgeon at the hospital where she works. Out walking one day, the internist finds a kidney-shaped stone, which she takes to her office to use as a paperweight. Each night she leaves the stone in the same place on her desk, and each morning when she returns it has moved to a different location.

The stone that moves of its own volition is the only fantastical element that Murakami allows himself in this story. Fans of his more surrealistic dreamscapes, such as the novel Kafka on the Shore, might find this disappointing, but there is a trade-off here: in place of fancy, Murakami substitutes real emotional heft. The reader gets caught up intimately in Junpei’s dilemma and when Kirie disappears, her absence registers with a pang that is undeniable, even though she has told Junpei that she is not able to engage in a serious relationship: “I want to concentrate completely on what I’m doing now. If I were living with somebody – if I had a deep emotional involvement with somebody – I might not be able to do that.” Kirie is willful and utterly convinced of what she wants; Junpei, who had succumbed to a series of “pale, indecisive relationships with one woman after another,” each culminating in “breakups [that] never entailed any discord or shouting matches because he never became involved with women who seemed as if they might be difficult to get rid of,” finds himself in the unfamiliar position of not being the one to end the relationship. When he is unable to locate Kirie (her phone number keeps returning a message saying that the number is out of service and she has never told him where she lives), he realizes how much she means to him and how bereft he is in her absence. She becomes the catalyst that allows him to complete his story about the doctor and her kidney-shaped stone.

Although he decides to number Kirie as the second woman in his life who has “real meaning” for him, his final epiphany is not quite so pessimistic as Marcher’s. “Numbers aren’t the important thing,” he thinks. “The countdown has no meaning. Now he knew: What matters is deciding in your heart to accept another person completely. And it always has to be the first time and the last.

Davis, Selecky, and Livingston on Frank O’Connor longlist

April 27, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Three Canadians have made the longlist for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Brian Joseph Davis was nominated for Ronald Reagan, My Father; Sarah Selecky for This Cake Is for the Party, and Billie Livingston for Greedy Little Eyes. Each author was recognized for a first collection; Davis and Livingston have been published previously, but this is Selecky’s debut. They are in good company, sharing the longlist with such heavyweights as T.C. Boyle, Sam Sheppard, and Richard Bausch.

The longlist will be whittled down to a half-dozen finalists in July and the winner will be announced in September.

The Frank O’Connor Award is sponsored by the Cork City Council. Previous recipients include Haruki Murakami, Simon Van Rooy, and Miranda July.

The sombreness of the long-distance reader

October 21, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

In her book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Mikita Brottman points to all the various campaigns that have been launched recently to make reading appear fun, then asks why, if reading is so much fun to begin with, people have to work so hard and spend so much money to promote its pleasures to a reluctant public. In North America, publishers, libraries, and governments invest much time and effort (not to mention dollars) on campaigns with names like “Get Caught Reading,” “Live with Books,” and “Books Change Lives.” Each year, the CBC holds an annual week-long “battle of the books” – Canada Reads – which pits five works of CanLit in a Survivor-style elimination contest featuring celebrity panellists. And Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch repeatedly reiterates that for the price of a dinner in Toronto, readers can buy all five Giller shortlisted books. Pace Brottman, the juries have all spoken, and they are unanimous: reading is an enjoyable, enlightening, and engrossing activity.

So why do I feel so depressed at the moment?

I have now finished two of the five books shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, and am well into a third. (Relax: roundups are coming.) And my verdict at the midway point is as dispiriting as it is surprising: I don’t want to read any more. Not these books, nor anything else. The first three Giller contenders have managed to do something I never would have thought possible: robbed me of my delight in reading.

It’s not that the three books (okay, two and a half) I’ve read so far are badly written, or devoid of interest on the level of technique or story. But they all have one thing in common: whether it’s Linden MacIntyre’s sombre meditation on the horrors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Echlin’s painful recapitulation of the Cambodian genocide, or Annabel Lyon’s ardent history lessons about life in ancient Macedon, the first three Giller contenders are defiantly serious, ponderous books about weighty subjects and heavy themes. And they are all devoid of one signal quality: joy.

Now, you will argue that sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are not joyful subjects, and you would be absolutely right. However, I am reminded of John Updike’s comment about Nabokov: he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” Nabokov, no doubt, treated some very dark subject matter in his fiction, but that never prevented him from delighting in the ecstasy of writing, which in turn bled over into the ecstasy of reading.

The enduring writers of the 19th and 20th centuries – Dostoevesky, Woolf, Beckett, O’Connor, Greene, Faulkner, Chekhov, and Joyce among them – all dealt with weighty subjects and posed difficult moral questions, but no matter how depressing their themes became, the experience of reading them was never itself depressing. In a similar vein, 21st century international writers like Saramago, Houellebecq, Murakami, Bolaño, and McCarthy have traced our modern, technologically obsessed malaise in a climate of post-9/11 anomic alienation without themselves becoming forces of alienation. The same cannot be said of the current Giller crop, at least three of which are sober, earnest, and seem intent on proving their literary and intellectual worth at the expense of a reader’s engagement.

What is a reader, looking for the highest achievement in Canadian writing and handed The Bishop’s Man, The Disappeared, and The Golden Mean, to do? Each book has merits, to be sure, but the cumulative effect of reading them is to inculcate the idea that our prestige fiction is portentous, plodding, and grim, filled with dirt and grime and death, and devoid of the vigour and verve that makes the best writing come alive. Any one of these books on its own might be tolerable. Together, they have put me off reading.