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).