Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, by Kelly Luce. Austin, Texas: A Strange Object. 135 pages. $14.95, paper.
The title story of Kelly Luce’s beautiful, strange, and compact collection lives up to its promise: it’s a weird little thing in three parts, featuring a central character and magic and a Japanese backdrop. It is the oddest of the ten stories, or perhaps one of two that are spectacularly non-narrative. The other eight operate more or less conventionally in terms of story arc. And yet they are anything but conventional stories. What makes them engaging is that it’s impossible to decide whether they are basically normal stories that only feel strange, or whether they are basically strange stories that somehow seem normal.
In “Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail”, which comes in the middle of the collection, each numbered section presents—you guessed it—a different imagining of the magical event. What you might not expect is the impressive development of character that Luce manages to extract from just over three pages. The first scenario envisions Hana Sasaki awaking on her thirtieth birthday, single and a bit lonely, to find a tail growing out of her back. Rather than experiencing horror at the unexpected appearance of this appendage, she feels tenderness for it. Washing and conditioning the tail in the shower, she muses that “[p]erhaps later she can braid it, dress it up with ribbon. She will care for it as only she can.” This generous version of the character is counteracted by the second scenario, which shows her as a child, angry and wrathful that her trip to the Ueno Zoo has let her down. When a rat runs over her foot, she is enraged but unsurprised to find a rat-like tail growing out of her back the next morning. The final scenario presents her at a moment of “in-between”, at the doorstep of adulthood, working at a Mister Donuts in an underground station of the Tokyo subway. From her place behind the counter, she observes minor changes in the faces of the customers she serves, presenting each day “slightly edited versions of the person they’d been the day before.” She wonders if she is undergoing a similar gradual transformation but “feels no evidence of it. Sometimes she gets the sensation that time has frozen for her only, a glitch in relativity, as if she’s observing herself from a great distance.” Of course, we are observing her in not one, but three frozen moments and maybe it is not a transformation we are witnessing at all. These moments present different versions of the character and while any one of them is possible, they seem to be lived out on separate planes of existence. The variations of Hana Sasaki are not only strange, but estranged from one another.
This alienation is reflected and refracted throughout the other nine stories. Sometimes it is enacted between two characters, other times between the characters and their environment. Often, it operates at multiple levels within a single piece, and—as in the title story—involves an alienation of the self that is tied to the passage of time. Indeed, what is most remarkable about Luce’s writing is that she is able to come at this concept from such different angles without its ever becoming stale. Rather, it is what unites the collection.
My favorite story is the other rather diminutive one: “Reunion.” The opening sentences make clear what’s at stake for the narrator in deceptively simple fashion: “Over the course of that interminable weekend after Jun died, Asian lady beetles overtook our place in shadowy Totsuka-cho. Orange, winged bodies coated the ceiling and left yellow stains; carapaces crunched underfoot against the bathroom tile. The air smelled like rancid walnuts.” I say “deceptively” because this four-page story is anything but simple. The narrator moves into her neighbor’s basement apartment, formally introduces herself to one of the many vacuum cleaners in the living room (the woman’s dead husband had designed vacuums for a living), and is then whisked off into a memory/fantasy/dream in which everything she’s ever lost is presented to her at a carnival game. If this summary seems nonsensical, that is only proof that a wonderful story is often resistant to paraphrase. Describing “Reunion” is like eating cotton candy; its strange logic disappears on the tongue, while the sweet taste remains.
The two shortest pieces are both delightful in their own right, but the other eight are equally worth the price of admission. The standout for me is “The Blue Demon of Ikumi.” The second story in the collection, it is by far the creepiest. The main character, Masa, is a man of fifty, recently married to a much younger half-Japanese wife who embraces unconventionality and laughs at tradition. On their honeymoon to a “cheap and tacky” inn in a dilapidated seaside town, he grows increasingly disturbed as he realizes he doesn’t really know Saki very well at all. Masa’s unease continues to grow until one night, while Saki is sleeping, he goes down to drink with the innkeeper. The old man tells him a story about a foreign woman who had washed to shore several generations before. “She was beautiful in a strange way, with eyes the color of the sea,” he tells him. The townspeople had built a shrine to her. But then they’d begun to distrust her; they called her the Blue Devil because of her eyes, and eventually they tried to kill her. She escaped, the innkeeper tells Masa. “There was an old man in town, a hermit, who could understand her language. On the night of her planned execution, the two of them jumped into a boat and drifted away without oars. A storm came up that night, and they were never seen again.” Just then, Saki appears in the doorway, “her voice sliding into the room like a snake, coiling up [Masa’s] leg toward his chest and clutching him there.” The story ends with the innkeeper giving them a bottle of wine, mentioning that a storm is coming, and they’ll need something to keep them busy; then he leaves them alone.
One of the many pleasures of “The Blue Demon” is that it bounces echoes off several of the other pieces in the collection. On the first night of their honeymoon, Saki tells Masa she never would have been working at the art gallery where they met if she hadn’t had to quit her job at a department store when she grew a tail. This allusion to the title story is both obvious and sly: if Hana Sasaki and Saki are the same character, no other proof is given. Another echo—even more subtle, but satisfying nonetheless—is the description of a “persimmon moon…[q]uick to ripen, quick to rot”, which is picked up much later in the collection, in a story called “Wisher.” This one, about an old man who has continued cleaning out the wishing well at a park even after officially retiring, plays with fantastical elements as well, introducing a ghost in its final pages. It contains a scene at the festival of Obon, which is already familiar to readers from the fifth story in the collection, “Pioneers”, where this festival in honor of “spirits return[ing] home” is a centerpiece.
Boys who meet their death in the water, relationships between Japanese and foreign characters, karaoke bars and bike-riding and magical possession of ordinary objects (such as the soothsaying kitchen appliance in “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster”)—these are just a few of the other threads that tie the remarkable stories in this collection together. But the common current sweeping them all along is the theme of alienation. Against the backdrop of modern Japanese society—only one of the ten pieces takes place elsewhere (and even that one features a character obsessed with Japan)—the men and women and children in Luce’s book fail to connect with one another, or with the culture around them, or even with their own stories.
All three of these variations are explored in “Ash”, the eighth piece in the book and another of my favorites. At the start of the story, a volcano showers ash onto the Japanese town where the American narrator and her family are temporarily living. The unexpected event brings a holiday atmosphere that breaks through the isolation she has been feeling: “We steered our bicycles through the fine dust and joined other families making ash angels in the park; we communicated through exclamations and gestures, and in that bizarre world I felt, for the first time in three months, part of something.” This sense of unity is quickly undone when the narrator is thrown into jail—falsely accused of bike theft—without being able to speak to her family. She is released only after writing a false confession and in the weeks that follow, she retreats into herself: “I stopped seeing people altogether. I started a journal and found excuses to stay in the apartment.” She and her husband stop having sex. Outside, the yellow ash continues to rain down and at the behest of the government, the town’s citizens collect it so it can be used to make bricks. The joyful and unquestioning sprit of collectivity alienates the narrator further, both from her neighbors in the town and from her own family.
The ending of “Ash” delivers a final twist on the theme of alienation. Jumping forward in time, she describes her family’s relationship to the events rendered so vividly in the preceding pages: “We talked about Japan less and less, and in time my prison story became nothing more than a tale for dinner parties, evidence that my life had been somehow extraordinary.” Estranged now from that time—and from her own story lived within it—she goes on to imagine how her son must remember it now: “[O]ne year when he was little we lived in Japan, and once yellow ash had buried the city, and then things were kind of strange, and then they were okay again.”
The last part of that quote is a pretty apt description of the experience of reading this collection. Indeed, the one relationship that suffers from no sense of alienation here is that between Luce and her very lucky readers. This is a book you’ll want to crawl inside—and, judging by the everyday magic it posits, that just might be possible.
Molly Patterson’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The Iowa Review, and Image, among others. Winner of a Pushcart Prize this year, her debut collection, Just Because You Can, will be published by Five Chapters Books in 2014.