The Old Switcheroo

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(above: Haruki Murakami)

There’s really just no way to write this post without spoilers, so be forewarned.

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble deciding what book to start next, I’ll re-read a short story. I was in this situation Sunday and found myself once again turning to Haruki Murakmki’s collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.” Murakami is an author of whom I was wholly ignorant just a few years ago and only discovered after joining the book blogging community (thanks, if I’m remembering correctly, to the blog, Dolce Bellezza). The story I chose, somewhat randomly, was the oddly-titled “New York Mining Disaster.”

I remember the first time I read this being reminded of the old song by the Bee Gees “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” I think we had this single in the house when I was a kid – maybe it was a b-side of something else, I don’t remember. I thought at the time it was a tribute to a real tragedy but, checking today, it seems it was totally fictional. I always thought that was such a weird title for a pop song. It was. It is also a title of a “weird” short story. Weird, but great.

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The story (as it appears in the collection I own) features an unnamed narrator, who starts by describing a strange friend who likes to go to the zoo during “typhoons” and sit in front of the animals and drink beer. We learn this friend is important to the narrator because the friend owns a suit that the narrator (who doesn’t own a suit) has had to borrow in order to attend a funeral. What is odd is that the narrator, being only in his late twenties, has had an unlikely number of similarly-aged friends die recently. It’s an incredible run of misfortune, especially considering their ages. What can it all mean? The narrator apologizes for not owning a suit himself, but rationalizes that he’s afraid “…if I buy funeral clothes, it’s like saying it’s OK if someone dies.” One of the deaths is a suicide, but the others are accidents

“Unlike my first friend, who killed himself, these friends never had the time to realize they were dying. For them it was like climbing up a staircase they’d climbed a million times before and suddenly finding a step missing.”

Another oddity of the narrator’s friend is that he “trades in” his girlfriend for a new one every six months. To the narrator, the new ones are indistinguishable from the old ones. They’re all essentially the same girl. At this point, the reader is surely trying to decide what ties all these things together. I know I was. Another episode involves the narrator and his friend discussing television, and the friend says, “One good thing about television, you can shut it off, and nobody complains.” He does so, and when they switch it back on later, as a man talks on the screen he says, “See? He didn’t even notice we switched him off for five minutes. When you switch it off, one side ceases to exist.”

The final episode involves the narrator at a New Year’s Eve party, where he meets a mysterious young woman who claims that she knows someone who looks “exactly” like him. He says he’d like to meet such a person, but she replies that it would be impossible. The man is dead. She claims she killed him, but is evasive as to how, joking at one point that she threw him into a beehive. She does say, however, that “It took less than five seconds. To kill him.” As their conversation ends, midnight is falling. This is almost the end of the story.

The scene fades out and is replaced by some trapped miners awaiting rescue. They snuff out their lamps to conserve air and struggle to listen for sounds of approaching rescuers over the creaking of supporting beams. Murakami writes:

“They waited for hours. Reality began to melt into darkness. Everything began to feel like it was happening a long time ago, in a world far away. Or was it happening in the future, in a different, far-off world? Outside people were digging a hole, trying to reach them. It was like a scene from a movie.”

I loved this ending. Somehow the trapped miners and the world of the narrator are related, but we don’t know how, exactly. It’s that kind of mystical air I’ve come to expect – and enjoy – in Murakami’s writing. I also enjoy endings that are open to interpretation on the reader’s part, as this one certainly is.

The real shock for me, though, was after reading the story this time, I looked it up on-line and discovered that, when originally published in The New Yorker, the passage with the trapped miners was placed at the beginning of the story. This seems a far less effective method than was presented when he included the story in the “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” collection, where it came to rest at “its proper place” at the end of the story. I’m glad I only read this story after “The Old Switcheroo” had been completed.

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Have YOU read this story? What do you think of Haruki Murakami?

(below: the first couple pages of the story as it appeared in the New Yorker (snapped on my iPad from the digital edition); you can see the part with the miners is placed at the beginning)

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“Look at the Birdie” by Kurt Vonnegut

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(above: Vonnegut pictured in the 2009 N.Y. Times review of “Look at the Birdie”)

From the 2009 NY Times review of this collection:
“For the last many decades of his life, Vonnegut was our sage and chain-­smoking truth-teller, but before that, before his trademark black humor and the cosmic scope of “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-­Five,” he was a journeyman writer of tidy short fictions.”
Full review link:

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(I found the above (Spanish translation) cover of the book online – pretty cool, huh?  Not sure what the significance to the book is, however… anybody know?)

I read this collection for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book Club meeting here in Indy later this week. Just when I think our group has pretty much read everything ever written by Vonnegut, a new book seems to pop up. This collection of stories was probably the weakest (only by Vonnegut standards, though) of the ones I’ve read, but it still contained several gems, some that I will likely re-read someday.

“Look at the Birdie”

“I use the cat-over-the-wall technique, a technique I recommend to you.” – Felix Koradubian, the “murder counselor” in the story “Look at the Birdie”

The title story in this collection was quite humorous. It begins with the narrator sitting in a bar telling “rather loudly” about a man he hates. He unwittingly draws the attention of a self-proclaimed “murder counselor.” Is this man insane, or just a drunken fellow bar patron? A former psychiatrist (albeit one practicing without a license), this murder counselor’s “cat-over-the-wall” technique is quite effective, both for murder AND blackmail, as our narrator finds out.

Another favorite was the somewhat long-ish “Ed Luby’s Key Club.” In it, two honest and hard-working, salt of the earth citizens, Harve and Claire Elliott, run afoul of the well-“connected” Ed Luby. Luby is a former bodyguard of Al Capone who now, for all practical purposes, runs the old mill town of “Ilium” (a locale used frequently in this author’s works). In danger of being framed for murder, Harve and Claire had “only one thing to cling to – a childlike faith that innocent persons never had anything to fear.” Will innocence triumph against the odds in its battle with a corrupt infrastructure? Will Harve be able to get “his side of the story” fairly heard? This story provides a roller-coaster ride on the way to learning those answers.

As a card carrying member of The Rat Race myself, I found the second story, “Fubar,” particularly good. (In the parlance of the story, that’s an acronym for, of course, “fouled up beyond all recognition” (these stories were written with hopes of being published in the popular magazines of the day). The protagonist of this story, Fuzz Littler (yes, that’s really his name) “became Fubar in the classic way, which is to say that he was the victim of a temporary arrangement that became permanent.” A member of a gigantic corporation’s Public Relations Department, (as Vonnegut was himself, during a stint with General Electric in Schenectady, New York) Mr. Littler was the odd man out when his department ran out of room in “Building 22.” Temporarily reassigned to building 181, and later to an office in the basement of building 523 (also known as the company gym!). He labors in obscurity and boredom until one day he achieves the rank of supervisor and learns he will be assigned a “girl” of his own. The young and beautiful Francine Pefko (another name that appears elsewhere in Vonnegut’s fiction) brings some light and happiness into his dreary existence. Whether for just a day or longer is left somewhat up in the air at the story’s end.

The best story, in my humble opinion, was the one called “King and Queen of the Universe.” In it, a young couple, Henry and Anne – seventeen years old – are leaving a dance (at “The Athletic Club”) in formal clothes and cross a city park to the garage where they have parked. Somewhat fearful of running into trouble, they instead run into a man who, though he’s first described as “what seemed to be a gargoyle on the rim of a fountain,” means them no harm, but only wishes them to aid him in perpetrating a little white lie to his invalid mother, in hopes that she will die thinking her son has become a success. The best intentions of both still lead to tragedy, though, and the two youngsters learn something of “real life” and not the sheltered fairy tale existence they have only known thus far. A happy ending is in store though, as after their trouble in the park, “Henry told Anne he loved her. Anne told him she loved him, too. They had told each other that before, but this was the first time it had meant a little something. They had finally seen a little something of life.”

There are fourteen stories and all – the above four were my favorites, though.  Have you read this collection?  Which were your favorites?  What is your favorite all-time story by Vonnegut?

(below: The Indianapolis Athletic Club – likely the basis for the club described in “King and Queen of the Universe.”  There IS a park across the street from it, but I doubt today’s ‘inhabitants’ would be as friendly with a young couple late at night as those in Vonnegut’s story were)

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“A Perfect Opportunity to Say Nothing”

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“Foster” – a short story by Claire Keegan

I just read the charming short story, “Foster,” as part of my 2013 short story reading project. I drew the four of diamonds, and diamonds is the suit for new or “unknown” (at least to me) authors. I found this story in my anthology “The Best American Short Stories of 2011” edited by Geraldine Brooks. The inclusion of this story is somewhat confusing since Keegan is an Irish writer. It was further confusing since it was published in the February 15, 2010 edition of The New Yorker; maybe being in The New Yorker qualifies it, but what happened to 2011? Weird, but not the point.

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***Spoilers Follow***

The story “Foster” (later expanded into a short novel) is told from the perspective of a young girl from a poor family. For primarily economic reasons she is sent away for the summer to live with a childless aunt and uncle on their farm. At first, she is very nervous about her new surroundings but grows to love her time there and her temporary “foster” parents.

She learns bits of wisdom from the couple. Early on, the wife tells her’ “…there are no secrets in this house. Where there’s a secret there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without.” She also learns to speak properly, and that the couple had a son of their own who had died after falling into a well.

The husband is a man of few words who, when told by another woman who watches the girl for them that “She’s a quiet young one, this” curtly replies “She says what she has to say, and no more. May there be many like her.” One time when talking with the child, he senses that she doesn’t know how to answer him and says, “You don’t ever have to say anything. Always remember that. Many’s the man lost much just because he lost an opportunity to say nothing.”

Though young, this advice must’ve sunk in, for later in the story and near the end of the summer tragedy nearly strikes as she herself falls into the well. Though quickly rescued and no real harm done, her “foster” parents are understandably concerned (how could they let this happen? Again!). She catches a slight cold and is still coughing and sneezing a little when she must be returned to her actual parents – something she is not looking forward to.

The remnants of the girl’s cold are of course noticed by her parents, who are not wholly satisfied the foster parents’ explanation that “nothing happened,” and that she “just caught herself a wee chill.” After they leave, her true parents question her further:

“What happened at all?” Ma says, now that the car is gone.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Tell me.”
“Nothing happened.” This is my mother I am speaking to, but I have learned enough,grown enough, to know what happened is not something I need ever mention. It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing.”

I liked this story a lot. At 27 pages it was longer than most of the stories I’ve read for this year’s project, but once I started reading, I hardly noticed. Are you familiar with Claire Keegan? What have you read by this author? Any subscribers to The New Yorker out there? I’ve thought about subscribing in the past since I know they publish short fiction regularly, but have never followed through.

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Zenia: Aphid of the Soul

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I’m a “play by the rules” kind of guy. Always have been. I was raised that way. I think most people are, and it’s a good thing, too, as I think that having a convincing majority of us willing to abide by the rules of society provides a necessary kind of “herd immunity” for civilization to work. Sure there are outliers, but as long as their numbers are few, civilization can tolerably survive. That’s for most of us. Some of the more unfortunate among the rule-followers, however, have a non rule-follower that is part of their lives, wreaking the havoc that “their kind” predictably cause. Zenia, the infuriating villainess of Margaret Atwood’s “The Robber Bride” doesn’t follow the rules…

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Do you know what an aphid is? If you’re into gardening or botany you certainly do. Aphids (pictured above) are sap-sucking pests that cause more damage to domestic plants than any other species. Even if you’re familiar with them, you may not have ever seen a picture of them. Most are hard to see with the naked eye unless you look very close. I remember (long ago) whlen I was young, I learned not to harm ladybugs. I didn’t know why then, but it is because they dine on aphids. The three main female characters in “The Robber Bride” could have used a friendly ladybug in their lives since, in my favorite quotation from the story, Atwood describes her character as “Zenia, aphid of the soul.” I loved that.

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I don’t remember exactly how this book found its way onto my reading list. I do know that – after reading Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, last year – I definitely wanted “some more.” (Yes, I’m picturing Oliver Twist meekly holding out his porridge bowl now – as you should be!) 🙂

The Robber Bride follows the lives of three women: friends Charis, Tony, and Roz. The lives of all three have been scarred by an association with Zenia, a mysterious woman for whom it’s difficult to know which of her many accounts of herself are true – if indeed ANY are. One of Zenia’s apparent hobbies is “stealing” the men of other women, even her “friends.” Her interest in these men is fleeting however, and it seems her real reason for stealing them might be “just because she can.” It’s a way to show her ’dominance’ I think. It reminded me a little of that old Dolly Parton(!) song, Jolene:

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I’m begging of you please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don’t take him just because you can

Are you old enough to remember that one? (Oops! My research just turned up the fact that Miley Cyrus did a cover version of the song more recently, so maybe “everyone” remembers it!)

Anyway, this novel was a great exploration of how good people (the rule-followers) struggle to deal with bad people (the rule-ignorers). After a dramatic beginning, where the three friends are eating lunch at the trendy “Toxique” restaurant only to have Zenia “return from the dead” and re-enter their lives, I was off and running and thoroughly enjoyed the book, even though I expect most readers of this book are women (indeed, one blogger mentioned that “you’d be hard-pressed to find a male fan” of Atwood’s work). I’ll happily count myself among that minority!

What have you read by Atwood? I’ve read the aforementioned The Handmaid’s Tale and a short story Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother, which I loved and mentioned previously on my blog here. Any recommendations on what I might read next? As always, I’m willing to be guided…

(below: gratuitous insertion of an illustration from Dickens’ Oliver Twist – “please sir, I want some more.”)

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“Nemo me Impune Lacessit”

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(above: Honore de Balzac)

You might think Edgar Allan Poe’s spine-tingling tale of horror, “The Cask Of Amontillado,” set the precedent for all future stories of “entombment.” You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

Poe’s story was published in 1846 (it may be read for free online here if you’d like to revisit it). It was pre-dated, however, by some fourteen years by Honore de Balzac’s story, “The Mysterious Mansion.” Balzac’s story, included in my anthology “Great Short Stories of the World,” found its way onto my list of 52 stories for my 2013 Short Story reading project. This weekend I drew the seven of spades, which was the card to which I had assigned this story…

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The Mysterious Mansion begins with an almost two page exposition on the titular dwelling and grounds. This may be one of literature’s best descriptions of the effects of nature reclaiming property from the prior ownership of man. The mansion captures the imagination and curiosity of the story’s narrator, who learns of its tale from a woman, Rosalie, who played a small part in it.

If you’d like to read the story before proceeding, it may be found online here.  (It’s only about eight pages long) Otherwise – MAJOR spoiler alert! 🙂

The cruel Monsieur de Mellet suspects his wife has become involved with a Spanish grandee. One night, upon returning home early, he knocks on the door to his wife’s chamber and thinks he can hear the door to her (conveniently-sized) “walk-in” closet close before he enters, finding his wife across the room by the fireplace. At first he gives her the benefit of the doubt and rationalizes it must be the maid, Rosalie. This hopeful explanation is immediately shattered however, when Rosalie enters the room from the same door he did.

He quickly puts two and two together and makes known his intention to throw open the door to the closet and reveal the proof of his wife’s infidelity. She protests vehemently even threatening, “If you find no one in there, remember this, all will be over between us!” and eventually he says. “No, Josephine, I will not go in there. In either case it would separate us forever. hear me, I know how pure you are at heart, and that your life is a holy one… Here, take your crucifix and swear before God that there is no one in there.” (did I mention he was cruel?)

She, somewhat reluctantly, swears. He promptly sends for a mason to seal up the closet with bricks and plaster. The mason is clandestinely bribed by Josephine (via Rosalie) to leave a “crease” that will allow Josephine to later free her lover. M. Merret leaves for awhile but purposefully returns before she can have time to free the Spaniard. She feints upon his return, and he repairs the damage, staying then with her in her room for twenty days. The chilling finale:

“In the beginning (of the twenty days), when there were sounds from the walled closet, and Josephine attempted to implore his pity for the dying stranger, he replied, without permitting her to say a word: ’You have sworn on the cross that there is no one there.’ “

This final scene also reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” (yet another “literary entombment” – how many are there, I wonder. Do you know of any?”)

What about you? What, of Balzac”s works, have you read?What do you recommend?

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