People From My Neighborhood: Stories
(Soft Skull, 2021)
How High We Go in the Dark
Each of these books presents a master class in craft while also providing a perfectly honed narrative that draws the reader in and won’t let go. Kawakami’s (Strange Weather in Tokyo) collection features 36 linked “palm of the hand” fictions, all centered in a specific neighborhood outside Tokyo. While none of these micro-fictions is longer than a few pages, as we follow the narrator’s stories of her neighborhood, we move between the mundane and ridiculous to the fantastic, all told with the same measured tone—in this neighborhood, even the strangest events are part of everyday life.
While these stories are often linked by shared characters, there are also some clever segues including hell, dogs, and counterfeits. In “Chicken Hell,” an old man keeps chickens, occasionally harassing them and risking a hell where “a giant chicken comes and spits fire on you, and pecks you, and tramples you with its claws.” In “Grandma,” the narrator tells us she was “introduced to the word hell” by Grandma, who suggests hell smells like cod liver oil. “The Crooner” tells the story of a vicious neighborhood dog, Blackie, who comes to a bad end. The next story, “The School Principal,” is about the “dog school principal” who takes it upon himself to run a dog school at the local dog run. These small links are sometimes subtle, sometimes not, but all help to build a portrait of the neighborhood and the narrator. In “The Bottomless Swamp,” a School of Sweets is built. When students begin to counterfeit name brand sweets, the building melts and becomes “a bottomless swamp,” perhaps a coy commentary on the school system. One of the students, “Rokurō … is himself a counterfeit, baked in the oven by his classmates.” The theme of counterfeiting and falsehood also appears in “Falsification,” where a recurring character, Dolly, has developed “the ability to manipulate people’s memories,” changing people and buildings in the town. But the unnamed owner of the Love café sees through Dolly’s efforts, and we’re told, “All it takes is one individual who remembers the truth, for the whole edifice to collapse.” Through the efforts of the owner of the Love café, “quietly and imperceptibly … things began to return to normal.” The town’s savior, the owner of the Love café, first appears in “The Love,” where she is described as, a “middle-aged woman” with “the face of a demon.” She also appears in the final story in the collection, “The Empress” where she wins first prize (three wishes) in the town’s annual lottery. She wishes for “world domination,” her face is transformed into that of “an empress,” and the world starts “getting along better, and peace reigned.”
Places in the town and its environs also appear in stories, “The Tenement” is home to “an old taxi driver” who goes driving with ghosts who also “live” in the tenement. “Grandpa Shadows” has two shadows and lives “on the outskirts of town” in a ruined mansion. “The Six-Person Apartments” is a public housing development. The townspeople are suspicious of the residents, partly due to “a string of strange events.” While the town deteriorates, the housing development thrives, ultimately seceding from Japan. In “The Shacks,” Kanae’s unnamed sister (a recurring character) claims that shacks on the town’s outskirts are “emotion rooms,” and each will expand if someone experiencing “pure” emotion is in the shack. Kanae’s sister is able to expand the anger shack, but ultimately, the shacks end up a place where no one but the dog principal goes. He trains dogs there and the shack of joy shows “There can be no doubt—dogs’ emotions are pure too.”
Most stories contain some critique of society: a diplomat who’s never seen but is rumored to spend his all his time fishing; two of the narrator’s classmates, Michio and Kanae, who dream of having bronze statues erected in their honor, successfully overthrow the government but eventually return to school; and a “Sports Day,” sponsored by a bank, features events including “best loan evaluation” and “best anti-fraud strategy for direct deposits.” In “Pigeonitis,” the entire town comes down with a disease that turns people into pigeons, mindless and strutting. When they recover, the town keeps quiet “about what had taken place during that time, so that the solidarity of our community was actually improved.” It’s this idea of community that is at the heart of this series of stories: over years and through events both strange and mundane, the narrator shows us the essential interconnectedness of life in her neighborhood and all those who live there.
Sequoia Nagamatsu’s (Where We go When All We Were Is Gone) is an absorbing and heartbreaking contemplation on the very nature of life, death, and what it means to be human. Stretching across eons and worlds, these stories provide the power of short narratives, while each builds on the larger text. The novel-in-stories is a form that many writers attempt; Nagamatsu clearly ranks among the masters. Beyond the sheer joy of reading a well-formed text, this novel also presents massive themes in smaller, intimate stories. This form allows us to become immersed in the details of characters’ everyday lives, individual struggles, and personal grief, leaving us willing to absorb the larger whole rather than being alienated.
The novel opens in 2030. Dr. Cliff Miyashiro has traveled to the Batagaika Crater in Siberia to continue his daughter Clara’s research. Clara fell to her death just as she discovered the 30,000-year-old remains of a young girl, “Annie,” who died of an unknown virus. This virus becomes the Arctic Plague – a pandemic that will rewrite human existence for generations. We’re carefully given clues that become connectors through the rest of the text: a tattoo on Annie’s skin, a crystal pendant Clara wore, the climate disaster represented by the Batagaika Crater, and Cliff’s efforts to come to terms with his personal grief. Although this is a plague novel and reads as prescient, it is not a COVID novel, instead written over the space of a decade rather than in the shadow of our current pandemic. Still, the themes of survival, compassion, possibility, and hope in the face of catastrophic loss are particularly resonant.
There are also brilliant riffs on late capitalism—the death industry has expanded to meet the demands of a pandemic. As one character, Dennis, explains, “something snapped in us when the dead could no longer be contained, when people didn’t really get to say goodbye. Cryogenic suspension companies proliferated, death hotels, services that preserved and posed your loved ones in fun positions, travel companies that promised a ‘natural’ getaway with your recently departed.” In “City of Laughter,” a young man takes a job at a “euthanasia park,” an amusement park designed to “gently end children’s pain—roller coasters that lulled their passengers into unconsciousness before stopping their hearts.” His job is to guide children onto Osiris, one of the roller coasters. When he meets Dorrie and her son Fitch, part of a drug trial, he finally makes a human connection which, in turn, forces him to confront his grief.
In “Elegy Hotel,” Dennis works disposing of bodies after they’ve spent time with loved ones. He muses on life during the pandemic and in among the business of death is a moment that resonates, drawing out the beauty and pain of our own pandemic moment, “I … gazed at the city trying to resuscitate itself—a blimp floating over the bay, an ad projected onto its side for a new school of mortuary science, the bells of cable cars running up and down Powell Street for the few tourists brave enough to visit, someone playing a saxophone down below.” It’s a moment that is both poignant, specific to the character, and universal.
In “Through the Garden of Memory,” Jun presents a first-person account of his hospitalization from the virus. He slips into a coma and wakes in a sort of afterlife where strange orbs of light containing memories or stories appear along with an important clue to the larger narrative. There are others present in the dark, conversations focus on “getting out” and avoiding “the fact that in the real world, our bodies are inhabited by an impossible virus.” Just as other characters throughout the novel, Jun suggests, “Perhaps we all need to believe in second chances.” When they hear a baby’s cries in the darkness, they form a human pyramid to lift the child up toward the light.
In “Pig Son,” we meet Fitch’s father, a research scientist who grows organs in pigs for use in humans. When one of the pigs, Snortorious, begins to speak, a bond forms: the doctor brings the pig Fitch’s books and toys, and eventually takes the pig outside to experience, all “the tiny little things we take for granted that he’s been deprived of—fresh air, the feel of grass on bare feet.” But, of course, this is an animal in a research facility and although Snortorious is conscious of the sacrifice he’s making, it’s not less horrifyingly heartbreaking to know that he never had a chance and is killed and harvested for his organs. In another type of harvesting, “Songs of Your Decay,” a forensic scientist who works at a body farm falls in love with Laird, a man who has volunteered his body to science. He’s dying from the virus and while they share music and grow closer, she studies his failing body, “The part of me that’s spent hours listening to music with him late into the night wants the drugs to work, but the scientist knows that studying the contagion…during decomposition will help us gain a better understanding of how the virus functions in the body’s ecosystem.”
In “A Gallery, A Century, A Cry, A Millennium,” the U.S.S Yamato heads out with a group of scientists and military and some passengers we recognize: Val (Dennis’s girlfriend) and Dorrie (Fitch’s mom), and Cliff’s widow/Clara’s mom Miki along with Clara’s daughter, Yumi. Later, Dorrie and Miki paint murals of their fellow passengers’ plague dead on the walls of the spaceship and Miki reads from Cliff’s journal words that describe the core of the novel: “It’s strange how the discovery of an ancient girl in Siberia and viruses we’ve never encountered before can both redefine what we know about being human and at the same time threaten our humanity … There is still hope.” For Miki, their lives “ran toward possibility because we saw no other choice.” Miki dreams of finding a new home, waking up in a place “where we can properly remember you and everyone that ever was.” This is not a book to read straight through (as I did) – it will make you weep – but it is a book as full of hope, humanity, and possibility as the grief and loss of climate disaster and pandemic laid unflinchingly bare.