Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fujino Kaori, Tsume to me

The 149th Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2013, went to Fujino Kaori 藤野可織 for the story Tsume to me 爪と目 (Nails and eyes).

The obi blurb calls it "a chilling work of literary horror" (戦慄な純文学的恐怖さく, with 恐怖作 glossed ホラー).  I'm not sure if I'm glad I knew that or not.  Knowing that, I was looking for it to get suspenseful, or scary, or creepy, uncanny, or something somewhat resembling horror.  So when we learn that the mother is dead in mysterious circumstances, cause of death unknown, I automatically suspected the daughter.  And, in turn, that led me to expect something very like the final scene.  
But I get ahead of myself.  The basic story is this:  a young woman, presumably in her 20s, who works at a temp agency, is having an affair with a married man who's temporarily stationed in a different city from his wife and young daughter.  The wife dies (in mysterious circumstances, cause of death unknown), and not long after that the guy asks his mistress to marry him.  She agrees to move in with him for six months on a trial basis.  Most of the story concerns her gradually getting used to being a house-not-quite-wife:  quitting her job, learning to take care of the little girl, furnishing the apartment.  Gradually shifting from a thoughtless floating single existence to an uneasily tethered existence.  Meanwhile, the little girl is, understandably, traumatized by the death of her mother;  this manifests itself in near-catatonic passivity coupled with severe nail-biting.  Eventually the mistress takes a lover;  she also starts haunting homemaker blogs, eventually discovering the one that had been maintained by the mother.  She starts to furnish the new apartment exactly like the old.  This is all interrupted one day when the lover comes over unexpectedly, and the mistress hides the daughter on the veranda, locks the glass door, and pulls the curtains.  This traumatizes the daughter (her mother had died locked out on the veranda).  Later she takes her revenge by placing fingernail clippings on the mistress's eyes while she's sleeping and pressing...  The end.

In literary-technique terms, there's one big curveball in all this.  The story is narrated in what amounts to the second person.  Not a complete second person narration like Bright Lights Big City (the only example I can think of, actually).  It's narrated in the voice of the daughter, who is an adult of unspecified age as she's narrating, and who is addressing the mistress.  But it feels almost like a complete second person narration, because we're not privy to the thoughts of the daughter (despite the fact that it's her narrating), while we are privy to the thoughts of the mistress.  In other words, the main character of the story is "you" (anata), and we're told what "you" were thinking at any given moment;  but although an "I" does show up from time to time, we're not really told what "I" was thinking.  Nor do we know why "I" is speaking at the present moment, nor do we know much about the present moment at all.  This isn't a confession - it's not "I" finally explaining to "you" decades later why she did what she did (either "she").  Curious effect.

As I say, my experience of the story was entirely colored by the fact that it's billed as literary horror.  The death of the mother is presented as a mystery.  Her body is discovered frozen on the veranda, with the glass door locked from the inside and the daughter asleep in the bedroom.  Did she commit suicide?  Accidentally lock herself out - unlikely, from the construction of the lock?  Did the daughter kill her?  The horror-story billing makes us suspect the daughter;  and this, as I say, in turn makes us suspect that the daughter is going to do something to the mistress, and she does.

But just what she does is a little unclear.  Does she blind the mistress?  One of the very few references to the present day in the story makes it clear that daughter and mistress have been living together as mother and daughter, and mentions the mistress clinging to the daughter's arm as an adult just like the daughter clung to the mistress's arm as a child.  So is the mistress blinded by the girl's fingernails?  Or just wounded?  And if she's blinded, why does she marry the guy and stay with the daughter after the six months are up?

One possible explanation for this comes in the way the mistress seems to gradually become possessed by the spirit of the mother through her blog...  No, that's overstating it.  If this had been a real, determined horror story, that's what would have happened.  But we're give no indication that a supernatural thing is happening there.  Rather, it's presented in a literary way, i.e., a suggestion that in her alienation and lostness the mistress is sinking into a traditional gender role with uneasy inevitability, that her identity as an individual is becoming submerged into her role as wife and mother.  However, this role is not presented as one of tenderness or nurturing - her way of dealing with the kid's nail-biting is to give her junk food to nibble on - but rather one of consumption.  Buying things to make the house neat.  Fashionable furniture.  The wife had done that - her blog consisted basically of photos of furniture, as if that were a stand-in for her missing inner life.  

The only moment of tenderness the mistress displays toward the daughter is right before the eye-scratching scene.  The girl has scratched other kids at school with her bitten-jagged nails, and a scolding from the school moves the mistress to give the girl's nails a good trim and paint them with nail varnish.  Is this her finally accepting her role as mother?  So that when the daughter scratches her, the mistress decides to stay and help her rather than flee and leave her to her misery?

May be.  

Set out like that, the story makes a certain amount of sense to me on both a literary and a horror-story level (as if those had to be opposed;  I don't believe they do, for the record).  However, I feel like in setting it out like that I've made a few connections that I really think the writer should have made.  Leaving things for the reader to figure out is one thing, but let's just say I'm not sure that this reading is justified by what's actually on the page;  and yet, at the same time, it's not indeterminate in a particularly productive or moving way, either.  I keep coming back to this, but if it weren't for the warning that this should be read as horror, I don't think I would have detected any tension at all until the very end;  and that applies to narrative tension, as well.  The story feels trivial and aimless, up to the end.

There's promise here, but I'm not sure there's excellence.  On the other hand as a choice for the A-Prize it seems pretty comprehensible.  This will be much less divisive than the last choice, not to mention much more accessible.

The book contains two other stories, Shōko-san ga wasureteiru koto しょう子さんが忘れていること "What Shōko-san Is Forgetting" and Chibikko hiroba ちびっこ広場 "Kiddy Plaza."  Both share the title story's interest in unsettled minds and unsettling moods, not quite to say horror.

"Shōko-san" is told from the point of view of a woman in her 80s who has had a stroke and is in rehab for it.  Every night in bed she's visited by a mysterious man who does things to her, and every day she forgets it.  Sometimes during the day her daughter and grown granddaughter visit, and the granddaughter takes a liking to a young male patient who's always hanging around.  Can you see where this is going?  At the end Shōko-san seems to realize that it's this young male patient who's been visiting her, and that he's probably been doing sexual things to her.  But the narration is locked into Shōko-san's dreamlike consciousness, so none of the details of any of it are clear.

"Kiddy Plaza" is a little neater.  A young mother is getting ready for a night out with the girls, when her little boy comes home from the playground crying.  She thinks he just doesn't want her to go out, so she waits until her husband comes home and hands him over.  But when she gets home and he's still crying she learns that the kids have told him the playground is cursed.  Anybody who's there at 4:44 will be visited in the night by a girl who invites him to go to the playground.  Finally the mother tells him she'll convince him that it's nonsense.  Come on, let's go to the playground...

That one I kind of liked. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunshine Daydream

We were out of the country for much of July, coming back the day after the Country Fair ended.   So for the first time in three years, I didn't go, and you, Gentle Readers, were spared a long navel-gazing post about hippies.  Time for a break anyway, though.


But then I saw Sunshine Daydream a few days ago.  This is a movie made about a Grateful Dead concert in 1972.  The concert has been legendary among Dead fans ever since, in the sense that it has circulated widely and been widely hailed as one of their best shows ever (The Deadhead's Taping Compendium makes a serious case, over several pages, for it as a religious experience).  The film has also been legendary, but in a different sense:  it was never released, and most Heads have only known it as a rumor, or as a grainy multi-generational VHS dub, or youtube of same.  More myth than reality.  But the Dead's organization have finally cleaned it up, remastered it, and are releasing both the audio of the show and a DVD of the movie, and to plug it they did a satellite simulcast of the film to theaters around the country this past week on Jerry's birthday.

It so happens that this show took place in Veneta, at the site of what was then a Renaissance Fair, which later became the Oregon Country Fair.  So seeing this film in Springfield (at the only local theater receiving it) meant that I was seeing it in the company, not just of a lot of Eugene's trademark hippies, but of people who had been there, and seeing it as close as you could get to where it happened.  And of course I've been to the Fairgrounds, stood on that field, thought to myself, this is where it happened.  Hell, when we moved here I was even excited to realize that Nancy's Yogurt is an actual ongoing thing (and it's pretty damn good yogurt, too). 

So, you know, if I couldn't make it to the OCF this year, this was the next best thing, and maybe in some ways better, in terms of getting my annual dose of hippie wannabe nostalgia...


It turns out to be a pretty great film. 

The actual filming is a little variable - the footage of "Sing Me Back Home," the last song, gets kind of unwatchable because it was getting dark and the filmmakers didn't have the right film or lighting equipment.  The interspersal of 1966 performance footage, and Furthur bus film, is interesting but was utterly baffling to the uninitiated (such as Mrs. Sgt. T), because totally unexplained, just dropped in without warning.  And the animation in the middle of "Dark Star" is interesting, but ultimately not quite as interesting as it would have been to just keep showing us the band.

On the other hand it captures the eventness of the event pretty well (I say, not having been there).  It makes you feel the heat, and at the same time the lushness of the Veneta countryside, and the utter freedom of the scene.  Which is maybe a euphemism for saying it has a lot of naked hippies dancing in a field under the sun near some trees.  A lot.  And when it comes right down to it, if that sounds fun to you, you'll probably like this film.  And if not, not.

But as much as I liked that aspect of the film (and I did indeed, in spite/because of the fact that I wouldn't have had the courage to get naked and dance myself), it's the music, and the way the music is presented, that makes it worth seeing. 

Here too there are limitations - only a couple of shots of Keith Godchaux, for example, which broke my heart because he's clearly audible on the soundtrack, playing brilliantly.  The filmmakers caught the other members, though, and show them playing - long, nicely focused shots of players playing.  Sometimes we get their fingers, and if I was a guitar player I'm sure that would please me;  other times we just get their faces, which in some ways is more interesting, because I can't help but wonder what it would feel like to be able to play like that.  But often we get several members at once, and that's where we get the magic of ensemble playing, right there on screen.  You can see them nodding at each other, grimacing or smiling at what the others are doing, signalling each other.

Or, more tellingly, not signalling each other.  The musical high point is, of course, the "Dark Star," a magnificent piece of ensemble playing.  Utterly musical - if your image of the Dead is of aimless noodling, then, well, let's just say you're way wrong, and this "Dark Star" might show you why.  It's jamming, mostly without vocals, but always with a purpose, always with a direction - they're not just drifting, they're moving through a succession of musical moods and settings with careful attention to what they're doing now, and a good sense of where they might go next.  It's anything but stagnant.

And it's also, in true Dead fashion, anything but lead-and-comping.  They're all soloing at once - Jerry's lines can sound like a lead guitar, but often only in the sense that he's providing the most obvious musical anchor, giving everybody else the freedom to embroider even more creatively.  And when they move, they all move together, without missing a beat or a shade or a grace note.  And that's where the film is so brilliant, because for long minutes of this "Dark Star" (when it's not weird animation), we're watching the band, and we realize that they're not really watching each other.  No one of them is catching the others' eyes, giving directions, signalling.  They're just listening to each other, and that's enough.  It's really phenomenal.  And of course it's something any Deadhead knows the band could do.  But I've never seen it caught visually so well.

I doubt anybody who doesn't already get the Dead could make it through this film.  Which is a shame, because more than any other, I think it shows why those of us who love them for their music (as opposed to What They Represented, or whatever) love them.


So I saw that Thursday night, and most of the day Friday I was still in this great glow, having seen my annual quota of naked dancing hippies, having remembered (after a few weeks of not really listening to them) why I love the Dead, and having come to a deeper appreciation of how very right it feels to me that I've come to live in this place.

And then I read this.  Some background.  That blog is one I read regularly.  It's maybe my third or fourth morning read.  And what sets it apart, for me, is that author's particular point of view - his subject position, to use a dated piece of academic parlance.  He's a solid leftist with a particular interest in and sympathy for labor unions, an interest that manifests itself in his work as a historian of the labor movement in this country but that has its roots, as he frequently reminds us, in his upbringing in the very working-class town of Springfield, Oregon.  To me that's all to the good:  not only does he provide me food for thought from a congenial political point of view, not only does he educate me on aspects of the left that I'm not as familiar with as I should be, but he helps me better understand the community I live in (even though he doesn't live here anymore).  Cool. 

But God, what a dick he's being in that post, right?  And more so in the comments.  Now, I get it:  there are cultural tensions between Eugene and Springfield that pretty neatly mirror the major cultural tensions in the American left as a whole.  Intellectual vs. working class, environment vs. industry, college vs. factory (or sawmill), New Left vs. Old Left.  Spotted owls vs. loggers.  Hippies vs. blue-collars.  And I'm entirely willing to allow that Loomis might have scars from his childhood here;  we all carry that kind of baggage.  So I can forgive him being a dick, a troll (it's his blog, right), and whatever. 

I'm more saddened by how ready we on the Left are to break into warring tribes:  it's the old circular firing squad, the Fractured Left meme, and it's exactly what They want us to be doing.  Which we know - even Loomis knows it, or I should say especially him, because he's out there fighting the good fight, trying to remind the Left what it has spent the last few decades forgetting, that it doesn't win without labor, and in fact that labor rights are human rights.

United we stand, in other words.  But all that goes by the board when there's a chance to point and laugh at hippies.  I've never understood this.  I've seen it for decades, from precisely the people who should know better.  I spent part of my sophomore year in high school in an ongoing argument with a punk girl, trying to convince her that hippies weren't the enemy, that we were all on the same side, had more in common than not, that we'd be better off allying to fight the real enemy.  Never worked.  So we get people like Loomis, who, instead of welcoming people to the Left no matter what their motivation, or failing that, instead of, you know, live and let live, points and laughs.  Like a dick. 

Because that's all he's doing, is pointing and laughing.  There's no reasoned argument in there that X political approach is ineffective, or that Y lifestyle is actually pernicious in some way;  there can't be reasoned argument, because he's not bothering to address any actual thing.  He just says "hippies," and the other bullies all know what he means.