Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hey, Give Me a Hand with Story # 4!

Eleven posts?! Come on Lisa, I’ve been remodeling my house. I haven’t always had Internet access. I have three kids. I’m in grad school! I’m working on a zine! My house is on fire! My leg is broken! Children around the world are suffering! People are learning how to skydive and then putting those skills into action! Ten strangers are becoming ten friends! The power of friendship! Amazing! I am just swamped with all the things that are going on!
Must you always be so competent?! Must you always set goals and then follow through on them, not all at the last minute as I do, but in a measured and timely manner?!


You have cast down the gauntlet, and I shall accept your challenge. I will read and critique one million stories in one year and write about them. My children will have you to thank for my parental absence. 

Wait, a mere one hundred, you say? Okay, that’s not so bad.

I wrote a review of Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” that I haven’t posted yet, because I thought it missed the point, a point I only realized after writing it. So I’ll rewrite that and post it soon. For now, here’s this.

STORY: “One Arm,” by Yasunari Kawabata.

BASICALLY: A man is allowed to take a girl’s arm home for a night. He does so, spends a romantic evening with it, and then decides to replace his own arm with it.

This is one seriously weird story. I like it. Included in a beautiful paperback-with-a-dust-jacket edition from Kodansha International, with a gorgeous gilt-saturated Klimt-painting cover, this story is sometimes considered a novella, though that’s something of a stretch.

The story begins with an exchange—a female friend offering to loan a man a part of her—her right arm—to take home and spend a night with and even keep if he likes. Perhaps this is a commentary on women loaning some other part of their anatomy while they themselves don’t go with it. Perhaps.
Or perhaps it’s about how romantic even one part of a person you love can be. Again, perhaps.
                   I laid the arm on the bed and sat down beside it. I stroked it gently.
‘How pretty. I like it.’ The arm would be speaking of the bed cover. Flowers were printed in three colors on an azure ground, somewhat lively for a man who lived alone. ‘So this is where we spend the night. I’ll be very quiet.’

In the American movie version of this story, if there ever is one, starring Dane Cook and Michelle Obama’s CGI-altered arm, the script will basically be one joke about hand jobs after another. In this one, there’s no sex, but it’s still kind of erotic in a funny, bizarre way, with descriptions about caressing an arm, that would seem sensual in any story in which the arm was still attached to a woman but that here seems sensual and freaked-out and strangely beautiful.

The arm seems to communicate with the man, sort of telepathically, and as the evening progresses, the man identifies with it more and more as it allows him to access long neglected memories and deeply buried emotions. He identifies with it so much he decides to make it a part of him. Before this can happen, the arm gets pricked by a stray hairpin and bleeds a little and cries out.

Although I think I understand how a woman feels when she gives herself to a man, there is still something unexplained about the act. What is it to her? Why should she wish to do it? Why take the initiative? I could never really accept the surrender, even knowing that the body of every woman was made for it. Even now, old as I am, it seems strange.

They talk as it rains outside. “You were so quiet, I thought you might be asleep.” …Arm. After a time, the man removes his right arm and replaces it with the woman’s.

He loses a part of herself, and the girl loses a part of herself. There is a more perfect union, but individuals are altered forever; pieces of them are gone for good.

In the morning, he rolls over and his old arm startles him when bumps into it in bed. In a panic, thinking of his male blood coursing through the female arm, thinking of the stray limb rolling around in his bed, he rips the woman’s arm from his shoulder, replaces it with his own, and feels it as an act of murder. The woman’s arm turns white and goes motionless and he lunges after it, hoping he hasn’t destroyed it, that it isn’t dead, that he hasn’t done the unthinkable.

This is magical realism, Japanese-style. This is Gogol’s “The Nose” approached seriously, almost erotically. This is perhaps a literary interpretation of that bizarre syndrome where people thing their own limbs aren’t their own. This is…well, it’s just beautiful. Unsettling and beautiful. The aspects of conquest and ownership and effacement that inevitably enter in some form and to some degree into even the best of relationships, laid bare, reduced to even less than to two people. (Perhaps that has something to do with the history male perspective of women as something less, too.) I can’t begin to say that I’ve got this thing completely figured out. I suspect that this author’s views on women could be a book all their own, as this collection’s title story, which I also read, has to do with a whorehouse where the women are all drugged into sleep and old men come by special invitation to be with them—again with the distance.

The writing is beautiful and poetic and imagistic, and page-turning. Kawabata, as translated here by Yukio Mishima, is a gorgeous read, and highly recommended, worth finding, worth buying, worth an arm or a leg.


Lisa Barrow said...

Dude. This story sounds great, and as always, your write-up is fantastic.

But I have to point out something important: MATHEMATICS IS WORKING AGAINST YOU HERE.

I know you'll be all like, "I could've told you that. It is my nemesis!"

But there are 45 weeks left in 2011. You have 96 stories to go. That means you have to post 2.1333333333333etc. write-ups per week to get through the rest of the year. Which is pretty complicated.

And yet, it's no so bad. The goal was 2 per week anyway, right? We're not that far into the year. You're one of the most freakishly voracious readers I know. One of the reasons *I'm* doing this sucker is to make sure I turn off the teevee a little more and do something literary with my brain. Why don't you use it to learn the fine art of doing a literary project consistently, week after week? (Actually, I am also doing that.)

I mean, your plea about the state of the children was pretty haunting. But in the end, blogging is just more important.

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