Thursday, June 16, 2011

Don't Know Where, Don't Know When

I've been trying to decide just why I am so put off by Karen Shepard's short story, "Don't Know Where, Don't Know When" in the current issue of Tin House (Vol 12, No 4). Shepard is no amateur; she's published three novels (An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy's Wife, and Don't I Know You), short fiction in a number of literary and other magazines, and she teaches at Williams College in Williamstown, MA.

"Don't Know Where, Don't Know When" is set in lower Manhattan (I think) in November 2011 (I know). The POV character is Zizi. "She has a cool nickname and some guy who seems to pay the bills in a pinch. She dresses East Village—extreme (shredded leggings, careless boots, layers and layers); her bangs are Mamie Eisenhower, her compexion is Louise Brooks, her jewelry is vintage. Her body is Japanese-teen, but dark chocolate and single-malt scotch are an everyday thing. It's unclear how she makes a living.... Her father lives in a faraway country and is vaguely famous, but no one can remember for what. Her mother is kind and easy to deceive." She lives in an apartment directly below that of her married lover who bought it for her.

The morning of 9/11 she and the lover have sex (Zizi took his finger, "wrapping it with hers, putting both inside her"); he goes to work at one of the upper floors in the World Trade Center; and Zizi and his wife spend the day together watching television news, "the falling men and women, their business suits flapping like vestigial wings, and both tried silently to pick him out of the flock."

I'm not sure why I found the story so disagreeable. I didn't find Zizi cute or charming or sympathetic or tragic or very interesting. If the author were a man, I would suspect Zizi is the writer's wet dream: passive, compliant, always ready for what she wants. We're told she's twentysomething, but she lives off the lover, allows him to set her up with other men so he can watch them have sex, and, once he's dead, she takes up with another guy.

And what is the story trying to tell us? "...she apologizes silently to the world. She's sorry, she doesn't know any better. She knows this to be both the truth and its opposite." A good trick that. She doesn't know any better but she does know better? I think she should pick one.

And "...if Mabel asks, she'll tell her we can mourn the flawed; we can, and we do." I am afraid that by the time I reached this line, the story's final sentence, I did not even believe such a self-evident truth.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere

John Nathan is a brilliant translator of Japanese and he has written a fascinating memoir, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere. "Carelessly" is a key word here because by his own account he has abandoned or thrown away one opportunity after another. In some ways, I found it a sad book as Nathan looks back on roads not taken--and on roads taken he might have been better off ignoring. (At one point, when he was rolling in money, he and his wife bought a giant white elephant of a house north of Boston; they were saved only because, after an expensive year in the house, a rock band decided they wanted it.)

Nevertheless, if someone is interested in Japan, in Japanese literature, in the Japanese language, or all three this is a wonderful book, very funny in places and lively and fascinating. Nathan was hired to translate an early Yukio Mishima novel. The title in Japanese, Gogo no Eiko, means something like "An Afternoon Tug." Eiko is the verb "to tug" or "to tow a boat." An Afternoon Tug was not going to work for an American edition, and after trying a number of alternatives, Nathan went to Mishima to ask about it. Mishima had a number of suggestions, one of which could almost be translated word for word and became the English title: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace from the Sea.

Nathan has translated a number of Kensaburo Oe's novels and was with him in Stockholm when Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The memoir includes a wonderful scene of Oe and his family with Nathan and his children in the Oe home in Tokyo. Nathan also tells the story of chiding Oe for writing "the sea urchin raised its head" because sea urchins do not have heads. Oe pointed out that Nathan's translation had confused ウ二 uni, or sea urchin with ワ二 wani, or allegator. That one little eyelash at the top of the first character makes all the difference.

It's been a full, rich life and Nathan writes about it with verve and grace. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Character names

It's a perennial question: What do you name your characters? I try to pick a name that sounds appropriate, but of course that begs the question. What's appropriate? Usually, it's a name that sounds "right" to me. It suggests the character's background, ethnicity, race, and personality. I've also been interested in English names that were trade or craft names: Miller, Cooper, Sawyer, Cook, Waller (one who builds walls). My main character is Phillip Fletcher; a fletcher was someone who made and sold arrows. I would like to think of Phil as a straight arrow.

Japanese family names are often based on geography: Tanaka ("within the field"), Yoshida ("ancient field"), Yamaguchi ("mountain's mouth"). In picking names for my Japanese characters, I thought it would be fun to use names that have overtones in English. So a delivery truck driver is Nagamichi ("long road") and the bad guy is Kurotani ("black valley").