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Book Review: Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata

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Too often writing that is lumped into the category of “experimental fiction” shouldn’t be. I remember once getting into an argument with someone over James Frey. My point was that I don’t care if the man embellished his memoir, his writing sucks. He can’t even use punctuation properly. And then this person responded with, “yes, but that’s because he’s experimental.” Actually, no. Experimental implies one is trying something truly new — be it through idea or in form, and although neither might succeed, at least there is some attempt at depth, and one is not simply using the word as a code for laziness.

To call something experimental is equivalent to having an educated guess when one performs a laboratory experiment — not every hypothesis proves to be correct, but the areas where it fails can at least teach us something. A good example of an “experimental” novel would be something like Sandor Marai’s Embers, where much of the novel revolves around the dialogue exchanges between two characters (one of which is doing most of the talking). Or even in Japanese literature, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki’s The Key, which consists of a husband and wife’s diary entries and the deterioration of their marriage as each spouse suspects the other to be reading. Neither novel follows traditional “plot formulas.” 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.

The title refers to the miniaturization of the fictional form — for these tales are, in fact, so short (many of which don’t go beyond two or three pages) that ideally they can fit within the palm of one’s hand. I had previously encountered Kawabata when I read his excellent novel Snow Country, and it just so happens that the last story in Palm is a condensed version of Kawabata’s great novel. The condensed story is not as powerful as the entire novel, for Snow Country I found to be the closest thing to a flawless novel, if there is such a thing. In other words, it’s hard to top greatness when you encounter it on the first time.

There are a total of seventy stories in this 259 page read, so it is impossible for me to analyze each one without making this review dozens of pages long. Overall, I will say that Palm-of-the-Hand Stories is well worth the read, especially for those passionate about the shorter fiction form. Kawabata has managed to condense life-sized moments into poignant points, and the tales are perhaps closer to poetry than the novel form itself, even though not every one of these tales is necessarily “poetic.” There are some moments where the language flops and results in dull modifiers and moments of cliché. This was not something I noticed in Snow Country, so perhaps these flaws are the result of a translation issue. (Lane Dunlop, and J. Martin Holman translated this edition).

Yet there are other instances where moments that seem to veer off into cliché are saved by an observation or by use of the factual: “He felt the coldness of the night, getting on toward winter, against his eyelids.” This line ends the tale “Toward Winter,” and the phrase “coldness of the night” paired with “winter” is not the freshest phrasing I’ve encountered, but then the fact that the speaker is referring to the literal cold against his eyelids inverts the expected cliché.

In the story “Makeup,” a man is witnessing a funeral hall through his bathroom window. There he sees flowers that are wilting and ready to die. The man then mutters:

“Although this was a beautiful sight, from my bathroom window I also have to look at the funeral flowers on other days as they rot away. Even now at the beginning of March, as I write this, I have been watching a wreath of bellflowers and red roses for four or five days, wondering just how the colors will change as they wither.

"I wish the flowers were on living plants.”

Then he sees women in their mourning clothes putting on their makeup, and he compares their dark lips to “the bloody lips of one who has licked a corpse.” The tale then ends with a teenage girl entering the bathroom to hide after she’s been crying. After seeing the girl, his “ill feelings” about the women dissipate, and he is left with the image of the girl smiling into a small mirror of her own, before leaving the restroom. Much goes on in this story. On one hand, the tale illuminates ideas about life and death, the young and old, and also the disguises people create, be it through makeup or a girl needing to hide her sadness from the world. The speaker is left “puzzled” by her smile, and it is within such richness of tales as these, that makes Kawabata so rereadable.

Other memorable tales are “Glass,” “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” “The White Flower,” “Photograph,” “Tabi,” “The Jay,” “A Pet Dog’s Safe Birthing,” “The Rainy Station,” and, of course, “Gleanings from Snow Country,” among others. In other words, there is bound to be a story in here for everyone. 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. Yet, moments of over telling are rare, for most of the time, Kawabata is only presenting a scene in which one is left to ponder afterwards.

Other tales are just odd, and read more like fables, as in the strange story “Yuriko,” which ends with a girl “falling in love with God,” and like the yuri in her name, turns into a lily. Not every story is deep per se, the story “Earth” is written in nine short segments, with language resembling the Bible. Again, it reads more like a mythic fable, which isn’t a criticism, just an observation. One reviewer on Amazon referred to Palm-of-the-Hand Stories as “Nobel toilet reading.” 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?)

Most interesting within these tales are the connections that Kawabata is able to make, or those leaps of illogic that few writers in “experimental” fiction, (or much Contemporary for that matter) are able to accomplish. Many of the themes involved are life, death, love, memory, forgetting, age, God, mankind, reason, and nature, just to name some. The tales begin to bleed into one another, making this a collection of subtle yet intense writing, combining fables and old-fashioned storytelling into one rewarding package… toilet or no toilet.

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About Jessica Schneider