Review of Palm-Of-The-Hand Stories

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/8/10


  It is an unusual circumstance that finds me writing not the first nor second, but the third, review of a particular book of short stories: Palm-Of-The-Hand Stories, by Yasunari Kawabata, to appear on my own website. The first two reviews of the book to appear were written by Brent Peterson, in 2006, and by my wife, Jessica Schneider, earlier in 2010. Both were quite positive in their assessments of the stories, and, it’s an interesting circumstance that finds me, basically, not being able to disagree with most of the positive points both made about the book, yet still finding both reviews to be, essentially, wrong in their final judgments. The reason for this is that both prior reviews focused mainly on the book's positives, while ignoring the book’s flaws, which, to me, are quite obvious and many. Not enough for me to toss it onto the same dung heap I would toss most MFA penned pieces of garbage, but enough for me to state the overall book is, at best, a barely passable work, not anything close to being a work that holds greatness. In this sense, I find the two earlier reviews to be disappointing because I think they both ill prepare a reader for the totality of the text they will encounter, for the bulk of the book is larded with rote and formulaic tales. Kawabata seems to have, in these 70 shorter than average short stories, translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman, only about a half dozen basic tales that he offers slightly different (recycled) versions of, spread out over a four decade long compositional range. This repetition is not the good kind, wherein a tale or trope is made anew with each retelling, but the bad sort, because about 80% of the tales that I read, after the first encounter with each of the formulae used, were easily predictable, in regards to their endings, both in terms of literal phrasing and in terms of narrative, dramatic, and character tropes. These overarching structural flaws, again, are glaring and manifest, and contributed to the disappointment the book imparted to me, not only for its artistic lack but for my burden of expectation, due to the two earlier reviews.

  It is also notable that, as of this writing, there is very little written criticism on the book, outside of Cosmoetica and a small number of ‘reviews’ on Amazon. Naturally, the Amazon opinions are mere regurge and critical cribbings repeated ad nauseam. But, since I agree with the positives stated about the book, I have decided to merely allow the two earlier reviews to recap them, and then interject my own comments on the down sides of the book after.

  In Peterson's review he argues the virtues of affectless, or spare, prose, and while Kawabata’s prose is, indeed, spare, it s not affectless, as mentioned, it is an affect when a tale follows a formula. And the most obvious formula that is followed is when a story begins with a phrase or sentence, or two, and that exact run of words ends the story, as well. This occurs in quite a few tales. Another affect that occurs is the revelation that a character is dreaming, or is confused as to whether he or she is dreaming or awake. This is affect, every bit as much as the waving of one’s political, philosophic, or religious, beliefs are. His stories also seem to be laden with sorrow and remorse, so they have an emotional affect that drips through them. The vast majority of tales detail the loss of something, be it personal or even the loss of noticing what has been lost by a character. Thus, when Peterson writes, ‘….he [Kawabata] writes narrative haiku - and if that sounds precious, it should be remembered that his stories and novels are devoid of both sentimentality and bitterness,’ I cannot agree. In fact, one of the most deleterious things that weaves its way through the stories is the sentiment. Yes, Kawabata often tries a feint away from this, by having a sentence or brief paragraph muse on about the wind blowing past the house containing the character, but the characters all seem to be life’s losers, and of the same sort, respectfully resigned to this designation. It may not be the mawkish sentimentality of Western MFA writing, but it is sentimentality, and equally tiresome. I also find the claim that the stories are narrative haiku trite and just wrong. Aesop’s Fables are the closest things I’ve ever read to prose haiku, and Kawabata’s best 10 or 12 tales come close to this effect (not coincidentally, these are among the shortest of the tales, and even these are second rate Aesop, at best- see The Grasshopper And The Bell Cricket), whereas the rest are melodrama, pure and simple: someone dreams or experiences something, they recall a related thing or person from their past, they muse on it, possibly encounter it again- either directly or obliquely, then ruminate on the re-encounter, and the tale ends with  an asides, as the main character is left nonplussed or pained.

  In praise of the book, Peterson writes:

  'Glass' concerns a husband and wife who learn the details of a young boy the girl once cared for. When they were younger, the boy worked in a hellish glass factory, and was injured by a ball of hot glass striking his shoulder. The wife, a girl at the time, visited the boy in the hospital and gave him money. Ten years later, the husband reads a story in a magazine and learns that the boy has become a writer and written a story, 'Glass', describing his encounter with the girl, Yoko, now the husband's wife. In the story, the boy explains how he got a job making flower vases, and sent the most beautiful one to Yoko as a present. At the same time, the boy resents 'the blessing of a haunting enemy', realizing the social gap that separated him from the bourgeois Yoko. The boy fantasizes about burning down their house, and imagines Yoko's beauty destroyed along with the vase. At the conclusion of the story, Yoko wonders out loud where the vase went, and the husband thinks that "He had never seen such a meek face on his wife." Yoko's possible involvement with the boy is smoothed over as the husband gives a pious homily, pointing out, as he sees it, the futility of class warfare. The surface awkwardness between husband and wife is resolved, but the status quo is not restored:

  "But this was odd. The man had never once in all these years felt the loveliness and freshness in his wife that he perceived in the girl in the story.

  How could that bent-backed, pale, sickly urchin have this kind of power?"

  In just two lines, Kawabata shifts emphasis from the husband's suspicion and jealousy to a new realization: the power of the written word to transform perception. These reversals are common: you could think of them as plot twists, except that they twist expectation rather than a direct line of external action.

  These are good observations, and Glass was one of the handful of tales that I noted as being amongst the best. I cannot add any more to this without repletion setting in. That stated, Peterson continues:

  Kawabata referred to some of these stories as 'unnecessarily contrived.' But, to my mind, that sounds less like self-criticism than a challenge, a personal bet to see if a two-page story can be anything other than a potted observation or brief glimmer.

  In short, Kawabata- 1, Peterson- 0. More than some, in fact, many if not the majority of the tales are contrived and, as mentioned, quite melodramatic, which, given the repetition of the same tropes, made much of the book both a chore and a bore to read. Midway through the book I found my eyes rolling when I hit a certain sentence or phrase I knew was to be repeated before the story’s surcease (see tales as Thank You, The Silverberry Thief, and Mother, among others).

  Now, here’s another story Peterson is spot-on in his criticism, up until the ending:

There's a nice audacity in having 3-page stories with convoluted plots. This, for example, is the opening paragraph of 'God's Bones':

  "Mr. Kasahara Seiichi, managing director of a suburban trolley car company; Takamura Tokijuro, actor in historical movies; Tsujii Morio, medical student at a private university; and Mr. Sakuma Benji, owner of the Canton restaurant - each had received the same letter from Yumiko, a waitress at the Blue Heron coffee shop."

  Now, keeping that info-dense, potboileresque setup in mind, consider that the entire length of this story is two pages. And yet, it's one of the best ones here, a consideration of loss, responsibility, and nothingness. Yumiko, the waitress, becomes pregnant and miscarries. Not certain which of the four men is the father, Yumiko sends them all a portion of the child's ashes, claiming they are "the bones of God," construing the facelessness of the child as a purposeful imitation of divinity. The story recounts how each of the fathers discounts the bones. Only the managing director visits Yumiko, and the story ends with him asking her to bury the ashes at a temple rather than holding onto them. Yumiko is confused, and states that she has given all the bones away. This last line does not 'resolve' anything (although Seichii's questioning underpins the hypocrisy of the waitress continuing to hold onto and venerate the child she claimed to have given away) but it conveys the moral uncertainty of the story.

  What is left out is that, come the second paragraph of the tale, which is in missive form, it becomes obvious that the mother of the dead child has not kept any of the ashes. It is not directly stated, but easily inferred from the fact that she claims the child’s ashes are divine, and the letter is an elaborate justification for divesting herself of her error in being a wanton woman. Thus, when the trolley car executive calls upon her one instantly knows that Kawabata is going to have the mother state directly what is easily inferred. Why? Because Kawbata constantly makes ‘revelations’ out of banalities. This is, at its core, melodrama, and, having spent countless hours reading serial stories, watching soap operas, and following the pergrinations of professional wrestling, this story reeked of formula from the opening paragraph that Peterson sees as an interesting feint. I saw it for what it is, an unfortunately noisome soap opera intro.

  Later, of another tale, Peterson writes, ‘Every story has a passage like this, a moment of counterintuitive intensity.’ No, only the best tales do, which are ten or twelve. The rest are not counterintuitive (or Negatively Capable) but melodramatically humdrum. Whereas Peterson found intensity I found possibility leavened with predictability. Perhaps this is because I’m older and/or have read more fiction, but it could also be that, as I was reading this book I was also rereading some short stories of my own, called Scenes From A City, which was also filled with 2-3 page takes of narrative obliquity, and based upon the journalistic technique used by Charlie Leduff in his terrific book, Work And Other Sins. Both LeDuff’s and my tales are vastly superior and achieve a density Kawabata’s tales lack because they do not end in the same ways, and there is a vastly larger scope in both works than Kawabata’s.

  Let me now turn to Jessica Schneider's review. She opens with takes on what comprises ‘experimental fiction,’ then writes:

  Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories is experimental fiction in the true sense of the word, for although not every story in the collection reaches greatness, even the weakest tales do offer something to ponder afterwards.

  Again, I must demur, because truly experimental art does not fall into the easy expectations that so many of Kawabata’s tales do. In comparison to what is churned out in the MFA writing mills of modern America some of Kawabata’s fiction seems experimental, but it’s really not. And Jessica does point out some of Kawabata’s flaws- some moments where the language flops and results in dull modifiers and moments of cliché- that Peterson does not. She also writes, ‘The only moments when the stories are not as strong are those having to do with the description not being particularly compelling in its word choices or when the narrator tells too much to the audience.’ I agree with this flaw she finds, but would add the previously mentioned ones I point out.

  She also writes this:

  Ironically, Kawabata shows he is not without a sense of humor, as revealed in his silly tale “Lavatory Buddhahood,” involving a man who dies in a pay toilet. “The most stylish suicide ever in Japan!” the people chant. (Perhaps toilet literature is what he intended. What could we expect from The Master of Go?)

  What Jessica misses, though, is that this tale is one of the more overtly fabular, in that it is literally not realistic. It is not ‘silly,’ but explicitly allegorical, and its protagonist’s ‘death by suicide’ has meaning beyond merely being about a ‘silly man,’ a label that recall a time when my sister, needing help to pass an English college course, asked me to explicate Herman Melville’s story Bartleby, The Scrivener, which she thought was merely about ‘a dumb guy.’

   Among the best stories (and shortest) are Canaries- about a passive aggressive ex-lover taunting his ex-lover with a former gift’s demise; Harbor Town- another tale on passive aggressive emotions; and the aforementioned Glass. The worst stories, like Love Suicides- an allegorical tale of faux depth about a destructive family, follow the formula of a predictable set up, a brief interplay of familiar banalities uttered, and then a transparent (or at best, translucent) ending that fizzles. Again, Palm-Of-The-Hand Stories is not the worst book of short fiction I’ve ever read, but amongst the most disappointing, especially due to the overpraise it’s received. If all one wants is ‘lite’ fiction that does not tax the mind, this can be a solid read, but don’t expect it to alter one’s soul. My wife tells me, though, that this book is the least among the Nobel Laureate’s works that she’s read, and his longer fiction is his stronger work. Here’s hoping she hits closer to the target with this claim.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Open Salon website.]


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