Twenty Writers: David Kidd, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on the series as well as a list of other reviews and essays.


Peking Story by David KiddDavid Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China has settled into a somewhat unnoticed shelf of American literature: the literary eulogy.

Serialized in The New Yorker in 1955, collected in book form in 1961 as All the Emperor’s Horses, and republished in 1988 under the title it holds today, David Kidd’s book is an underappreciated classic in American nonfiction. Memoir, travelogue, New Journalism, creative nonfiction—none of these terms seem an apt categorization of Peking Story. The book is wistful, mournful, and laced with dry humor—a eulogy.

As the book opens, Kidd is a college student on a foreign exchange trip to Beijing in 1946. There he meets Aimee Yu, one daughter among many in a prominent Beijing family. In the span of a few pages, the couple are married. Courting Aimee is more glossed over than spun out, treated as a perfunctory narrative requirement. Peking Story is not a romantic book in the sense of love and matrimony. It’s a romantic book in the sense of Eastern exoticism and lost traditions. It’s right there in the subtitle: The Last Days of Old China.

As the book progresses, David Kidd the narrator develops as a kind of mystery himself. He doesn’t come off as one would imagine most Americans would talk or act in 1946, especially a college student from the Midwest. There are moments that read like a Graham Greene novel, the world-weary Britisher turning up his nose at the dreary reactionaries and their anti-imperialist manifestos—only Kidd studied at a state school, not Oxford. That’s one of the many mysteries of Peking Story, this American narrator who sounds distinctly un-American, seemingly more comfortable in Chinese silks and soft slippers than sneakers and blue jeans.

The Last Days of Old China

Like Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby, Kidd goes to some lengths to remain outside the books’ lens, preferring to focus on the events and people around him. Peking Story is a public story told by a very private man, and that shapes the book and contributes to its unique form.

Kidd alludes to his private nature (and the burden of telling his story) in his preface:

Only a few Westerners who once lived [in pre-Communist Peking] are still alive today—no more than ten or twenty of us at most, scattered throughout the world. I used to hope that some bright young scholar on a research grant would write about us and our Chinese friends before it was too late and were all dead and gone, folding back into darkness the wonder that had been our lives.

To this day, no such scholar has appeared, leaving me, as far as I know, the lone, first-hand chronicler of those extraordinary years that saw the end of old China, and the beginning of the new.

Author David Kidd

Author David Kidd

With the courtship and marriage out of the way, David Kidd eagerly moves into the opulent Yu family estate just outside of Beijing. (“Beijing” and “Peking” are Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations, respectively, for the current capital of China. As Mandarin is now the official language of the People’s Republic of China, I use it here and reserve “Peking” for the book’s title and quotes from it.)

It is within the Yu family compound that Kidd slides his marriage from the reader’s field of vision. In its place he slides in the colorful Yu family itself and their grand estate, garden, and art collection. Beyond the compound’s walls the Communist revolution begins to encroach on their daily lives. These elements are Kidd’s true focus, with his marriage merely the frame to explain his presence on the estate grounds and in the Yu family’s lives.

The Yu’s are rich beyond the everyday meaning of that word. The family’s history and prominence extends hundreds of years in China’s past. The grandfather was at one time the Chief Justice of the Republic of China’s Supreme Court. The family estate is known for having one the best gardens in all of Beijing, and perhaps China. The Yu’s once held mansions and houses all over northern China, but declining fortunes and currency devaluation have chipped away at their holdings. By the time Kidd arrives, the Yu’s have only the family mansion, a burial shrine outside the city, and a stunning collection of historical Chinese art the family cannot bear to part with.

Arriving in Beijing two years before the Communist Revolution and leaving two years after it, Kidd witnessed China’s transition from a strict traditional society with deep class striations to a country intent on leveling the field and erasing its past. Rather than write this story with a breathless, you-are-there urgency, Kidd describes the changes from the comfort and safety of the Yu estate. Kidd’s encounters with the new Communist regime comes fleetingly, such as when they must register with the local police that the Yu’s intend to hold a costume party. Kidd portrays the revolutionaries as dreary, inconvenient, and déclassé.

I normally hold little interest in British entertainment of the upper-class variety, the rich lolling about on their divans and club chairs, plotting intrigue against each other while servants rush up and down stairs attending their every whim. For all of Kidd’s blind spots, Peking Story works because Kidd plainly sees the Yu’s way of life crumbling beneath their feet. Rather than pick up guns and defend their estate—what an American story that would be—the Yu’s shrug, brew another pot of tea, and reflect upon their garden before its wrested from them. The tension between dynamism and stasis is the backbone of Peking Story.

The bronze braziers

As a fiction writer, what I draw from Peking Story is Kidd’s skillfulness at sketching out characters and painting colorful scenes with graceful economy. Although Kidd comes across as waspy throughout the book (and a bit too blithe to the poverty about him), his education and breeding gifted him with a clean writing style that flows effortlessly. It’s harder than it looks.

Kidd’s narrative construction is as classical as his prose. The chapters are arranged almost perfectly. Early scenes that read as little more than humorous anecdotes are later revealed as precursors of devastating consequences for the Yu family. Kidd neatly sews disparate anecdotes together to craft chapters that compare and contrast China’s culture and the steamrolling revolution. Although “compare & contrast” rings like a English teacher’s tired essay topic, these pairings illuminate the reader’s way through Peking Story like a trail of paper lanterns.

The most memorable anecdote in Peking Story relates to a collection of bronze braziers the Yu’s display throughout their mansion. As Kidd tells the story, the luster of these incense burners is indescribable. They must be continually heated in order to maintain their luster, and so the Yu’s charge their servants to maintain a small charcoal fire burning beneath each at all hours. Kidd tells us the Yu family has kept the fires lit and the braziers hot for hundreds of years.

Then, encouraged by the Communists beyond the estate walls, the servants begin to question the people they’re working for. One morning the Yu’s discover all the charcoal fires are extinguished. The once-indescribable bronze braziers are now irreparably dull and gray.

The tale of the bronze braziers is the most memorable and powerful anecdote in the book. It’s a perfect metaphor for the aristocratic Yu family keeping alive China’s culture and the Communist revolution threatening to upheave it all.

However, the story may be too perfect:

I hope that specialists in Chinese bronzes, and technical experts, will back me up in saying that the story is completely phony—as is, I felt on reading it, much of the rest of the book. That Kidd had married Aimee Yu was plausible, although when I knew him he was plainly gay—he might have changed, or could—entirely laudably—have married her to get her out of China. But the obviously deceptive picture that the book painted was upsetting; this is one of the few books I’ve read that made me angry.

James Cahill’s rebuttal to Peking Story is well worth the read. In particular, he voices here a suspicion I had in the back of my mind the first time I read the story of the bronze braziers. Their sublime beauty destroyed by petty malice seemed a writerly addition by Kidd who (possibly) felt the need to put an authorial thumb on the scale.

I’m torn on this subject. Cahill’s objections are worth any reader’s consideration, but I still find myself drawn to the elegance and power of Kidd’s prose. I don’t particularly care about his sexual orientation, although it certainly would explain why his marriage takes a back seat in the book.

In Kidd’s defense, unlike fabricators like James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and JT Leroy, Kidd’s falsehoods—if they are false—don’t create an undeserved authority or prop up an exaggerated persona. His presence in China is documented, as is his marriage to Aimee Yu. The story of the bronze braziers sweetens the book, the kind of misstep even a seasoned novelist might make to seal a point with the reader.

Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China. Joe Hunt. (CC BY 2.0)

It’s not the first time a well-respected work of nonfiction was revealed to contain fabrications. Questions about the veracity of Steinbeck’s Traveling with Charley have been received with a shrug by Steinbeck fans and academics. If Cahill is “angry” at the “deceptive” Peking Story, he must be outraged at Steinbeck. If not, why? Because Steinbeck’s sympathies are on the right side of history and Kidd’s are not?

(I would point out that if Kidd stretched the truth, it’s conceivable a kernel of truth inspired the story. Even the braziers were not damaged beyond repair, it’s possible the Yu’s kept incense burning day and night through the household, and that one night, due to Communist influence, the servants rebelled, damaging them somehow. The metaphor of an Old China lost is not so strong, but the thrust of the anecdote remains.)

Where Cahill sees deception, I see craft. The reader’s reaction to the story of the bronze braziers is a leading indicator of the way they’ll receive the entire book. Some will toss the book aside, disgusted with Kidd’s approval of Chinese high society and disdain of the servants. Others will sympathize with the Yu’s, for no reason other than their desire to preserve a four thousand year-old culture and its rich traditions. In either case, Kidd’s anecdote encapsulates the entire book and the reader’s reception of it. It’s that kind of skill that encourages me to write a 2,200 word essay on Peking Story.

However, I’m less sure Kidd’s sympathies lie with the Chinese aristocracy per se. Kidd does not hold up the Yu’s as bold keepers of the flame, but rather as eccentrics. Without exception, Kidd’s tragedies are the loss and destruction of Chinese art, culture, and tradition. Kidd mourns for the loss of the Yu collection and estate more than any death in the book. He also mourns the death of common sense. In Kidd’s hands, registering a costume party with the Beijing police is as absurd as proving to the American consulate his wife is Christian to guarantee her visa out of the country.

Then there’s the matter of Cahill accusing Kidd of kowtowing to “anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S.,” guessing Kidd was “encouraged somehow by the powerful and rich China lobby.”

Kidd may be accused of all manner of motivation, I suppose, but Occam’s Razor strikes me as appropriate here. I see Kidd as genuinely upset at the rearrangement of Chinese society. He seems deeply shocked to witness a four thousand year-old cultural legacy deleted in a fit of moral outrage. The suggestion of shadowy, powerful forces funding a book that, frankly, did little to reshape American attitudes toward Communist China is unnecessary to explain the existence of Peking Story.

Fabricator or not, Kidd is forthright with his opinions and biases. When it comes to motivation, it’s simplest to take Kidd at his word. Cahill, on the other hand, appears more motivated by a sense of social justice than he’s letting on in his essay.

What’s more, for Cahill to argue Kidd misrepresented the Chinese Communists as a “mean-spirited movement” is to ignore the crop yielded by Maoism: The Cultural Revolution and its purges, denunciations, historical rewriting, and reeducation tactics. Kidd’s stories, first published eleven years before the Cultural Revolution’s earliest stirrings, practically predicts the furies to unfold. It’s a literary feat almost as impressive as Graham Greene warning the United States out of Vietnam in 1955’s The Quiet American.

The 21st century may be China’s century, but Peking Story eulogizes the price China paid to make its great lurch forward.

David Kidd died in in 1996, leaving behind a life as far-removed from his Midwestern origins as possible. After fleeing Beijing, he settled in Kyoto and founded a school of traditional Japanese arts:

As a tourist attraction, Mr. Kidd did not disappoint. To sit on a cushion before his throne, listening to his erudite patter, and seeing him sitting cross-legged on his kang, a divided Chinese sofa, rustling his silken gown as he gestured extravagantly with his inevitable cigarette, was to be in the presence of a presence.

With China’s role ascending in the 21st century, I would recommend Peking Story to anyone curious to learn about China’s future from its past. For those who want to go deeper, I would pair Peking Story with the superb Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang and Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.

Twenty Writers: Another interpretation of The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See the Introduction for more information on Twenty Writers, Twenty Books. The current list of writers and books is located at the Continuing Series page.


Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

Earlier this year I wrote about “The Flitcraft Parable”, a story Sam Spade tells in The Maltese Falcon to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the novel’s femme fatale. The parable is interesting for a number of reasons, but the central question that’s been attacked by readers and critics for almost a century is the purpose of its telling. Why does Sam Spade tell this odd story to O’Shaughnessy?

The story of Charles Flitcraft abandoning a secure life of money and family, only to return to a similar life in a different city, appears unrelated to the novel’s primary concern, the search for a bejeweled antique statuette. Some speculate Spade tells the story to O’Shaughnessy as a warning, that he knows she’s incapable of change and will continue lying to him, just as she’s lied in every encounter he’s had with her so far.

I don’t think the Flitcraft Parable is so simple. Before, I wrote about an academic connection I thought author Dashiell Hammett was making—that Charles Flitcraft’s assumed name, Charles Pierce, is a reference to philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and Pragmatism, the school of thought Peirce founded. I’m the first to admit, it’s an egghead approach to a novel of murder and corruption, and one that Hammett probably didn’t expect a reader to delve terribly deeply into. That’s why I’m writing this post, a second look at the Flitcraft Parable, one that’s not so dependent on the headiness of nineteenth-century philosophy.

To be clear, I remain convinced Hammett intended to make a connection between Flitcraft and Charles Peirce’s philosophy. What I’m offering here is an interrelated interpretation of the Flitcraft Parable, an analysis that hews closer to the book’s plot and intentions without tossing out my first attempt.

If you’ve not read my first post, I’d recommend at least reading the section titled “The parable” before continuing. I’m not going to re-summarize the Flitcraft Parable here.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. In my prior post I attempted to avoid discussing the conclusion of The Maltese Falcon. It’s impossible for this post to do the same.

“The only formal problem of the story”

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Dr. Samuel Johnson was not Shakespeare’s first critic, but he was arguably Shakespeare’s first preeminent critic. Hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler holds a similar relationship to Dashiell Hammett. In Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944, fourteen years after the release of The Maltese Falcon), Chandler critiques and analyzes Hammett’s body of work, naming him as the one figure who represents the hard-boiled school of writing as its “ace performer.” He praises the forcefulness of Hammett’s prose and, most famously, how “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

Everything Chandler observes about Hammett’s writing can be applied to the Flitcraft Parable. Spade’s sparse language when telling the parable is as direct as darts puncturing a dartboard. The parable is constructed of fleshy people, people who do things for palpable reasons, even if those reasons are mysterious to us and based on an internalized logic we may never adopt.

Then, like Dr. Johnson’s best slicing analysis of Shakespeare, Chandler makes an off-the-cuff observation of The Maltese Falcon, tossing his insight before the reader’s feet as though embarrassed something so effortless must be mentioned:

…in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story), because the reader is kept thinking about something else. [Emphasis mine.]

What Chandler alludes to here is the first murder in The Maltese Falcon. In Chapter One, Miles Archer, Spade’s partner, rushes to take leggy Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s assignment for his own; the kids today would call it a “cock block.” That night—Chapter Two—Archer is found murdered. This is the “formal problem” Chandler draws attention to in-between those parentheses.

More dead bodies arrive in The Maltese Falcon, bullet-ridden corpses shot up like a stop sign outside an Alabama roadhouse, but none of the murders are truly mysterious. The moment cold-fish henchman Wilmer and his pocket .45 cannons are introduced, it’s patent the murders are his handiwork. None of the other characters are capable of it. Dandy Joel Cairo and aristocratic Gutman are too drenched in Old World genteel for the blithe butchery Wilmer is thirsty to administer. O’Shaughnessy may have claws, but her true power lies in charming men to do her killing for her. Chandler’s on the money; the only formal problem in The Maltese Falcon is the death of Archer, a murder not so easily pinned on Wilmer.

Step back and admire this for a moment. Archer is the first murder in a mystery novel—and the detective’s partner to boot—yet Archer’s corpse is all-but-forgotten five pages after Spade identifies the body. Archer’s death remains, at best, a tertiary concern for another 175 pages. With the fluidity of a street con, Hammett misdirects our attention with Istanbul intrigue, the promise of a jewel-encrusted statuette, and hoary tales of the Knights Templar. Papering over Archer’s murder is an audacious and under-appreciated maneuver on Hammett’s part, one that demonstrates the confident control he maintains throughout the book.

Spade’s credo

The mystery of Archer’s murder may all but disappear after Chapter Two, but it comes roaring back in the final chapter. Spade confronts Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom he’d told the Flitcraft Parable to earlier in the book, and states he knows she murdered Archer, pressing her and disarming her lies until she finally confesses.

In my prior post, I concluded that the Flitcraft Parable was a kind of manifesto for Spade, a declaration that he will eke out the truth of the matter, no matter the consequences. I also noted that

…Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it?

Flatly, I believe Spade knows O’Shaughnessy had murdered Miles Archer when he tells her the Flitcraft Parable in Chapter Seven. I believe Spade suspects her as early as Chapter Two, when he views Archer’s body and takes a walk afterwards “thinking things over,” for all the reasons he names to O’Shaughnessy in the final pages.

If you view the Flitcraft Parable as a kind of manifesto or speech Spade is making for O’Shaughnessy, there’s one more speech Spade makes to her in the final chapter:

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. … I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.

There’s a thin, near-invisible length of thread running between the Flitcraft Parable and the above, Spade’s credo.

The Flitcraft Parable, then, is Spade’s soft-sell to O’Shaughnessy. He’s telling her he’s a reasonable man. When Spade hears Flitcraft’s story of the falling beam, Spade agrees it seems reasonable, in it’s own way, for Flitcraft to abandon his wife and family–but he still returns to Mrs. Flitcraft to inform her what has happened to her husband.

Spade is accused of many things throughout The Maltese Falcon, some cold, some sordid, but with the Flitcraft Parable he’s quietly demonstrating to O’Shaughnessy that he will only bend so far. As he says in his credo, letting criminals go free “can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done.” He admits to her that Miles Archer “was a son of a bitch…you didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.” And then he hands her over to the police.

Would he have turned her in if she’d confessed earlier in the novel, after telling her the parable? It’s difficult to say, but the quiet way he tells it to her signals to me that he’s offering her a chance for redemption.

Chandler again, this time from his introduction to Trouble is My Business:

[The hard-boiled story] does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done—unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did … was hard, dangerous work. It was work they could always get.

The Maltese Falcon is not a whodunnit, or a book about a statuette, or even a book about a private detective. It’s about a man who bears the weight of administering justice on-the-fly in a corrupt and mechanical world. Sam Spade holds two lives in his hands, Charles Flitcraft’s and Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s. Hard, dangerous work, work he could always get.

Twenty Writers: Peter Bagge, HATE

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of writers and books is located at the Continuing Series page.


Hate 5

Hate 5

Peter Bagge is my venerated saint. It took me far too long to figure that out.

Back in the 1990s, I stumbled across Bagge’s brilliant HATE comics more than a few times—on a comic book store rack, in a cool barber shop’s magazine pile (not that I spent much time at barber shops back then), stuck in the middle of a friend’s stack of High Times back issues, that kind of thing.

Intrigued by Bagge’s manic, skittish covers, I thumbed through these random issues and chuckled over his taffy-stretched characters, all of whom seemed filled with the same gunk they inject into Stretch Armstrong dolls. They flapped their arms in perfect circles as they spewed venom at each other. Their teeth splayed out geometrically toward the reader when they vented or raged about whatever was sticking in their craw at that moment. Then, after achieving a measure of calm, some new perceived outrage would arise on the next page (“perceived” is the key word here) and their tomato would flame up all over again.

In those early encounters with Bagge’s work, I never read an issue of HATE all the way through. I didn’t have to. All the fun was in watching Buddy and his cohorts lose their minds over things most everyone else would find perfectly innocuous or trivial.

And yet…I understood why they would lose it. Yes, I screen my calls, and so do you, so don’t give me that. Yes, I don’t want you drinking from my private beer stash. Yes, don’t tell me you aren’t dating guys and then start dating my roommate. Buddy’s short fuse made perfect sense to me.

Bagge's rendition of Daffy Duck, Bob Clampett-style

Bagge’s rendition of Daffy Duck, Bob Clampett-style

At age 32, after a few encounters with Bagge’s work, both in the real world and online, I slowly gathered I’d missed out on something pretty damn important. I began seeking out every HATE issue and collection I could lay my hands on. (By that time, Bagge had quit producing monthly editions of HATE and only released annuals for fans starved to keep up with his incredible pantheon of characters.) Over a two-week reading spree—30 issues, published from 1990 to 2000—I dug into his epic storyline of Buddy Bradley’s clench-fisted life and the miscreants, losers, and delusionals surrounding him. With this closer sequential reading of his work, my heart sank. There was so much more to Bagge’s brilliant decade-long narrative than ranting and arm-flapping. I should have been following HATE as it was published, not lapping it up after the fact.

HATE centers on Buddy Bradley, a New Jersey hipster transplanted to Seattle smack in the middle of the grunge era. The early issues circle around the concerns of most any twenty year-old: parties, temp jobs, roommates, looking for sex, looking for authenticity, scrounging for free meals, consuming cheap beer. Buddy’s roommates include paranoiac George Hamilton III and carefree Stinky Brown, one of those guys who manages to get by entirely in the moment and never lacks a girl on his arm. The elliptical orbit of Buddy’s love life has two foci: unstable, abortion-prone Lisa and uptown girl Valerie.

Hate 13

Hate 13

Buddy manages to eke his way through Seattle’s grunge scene (and later, suburban New Jersey) through a combination of entrepreneurship, conning favors from friends and strangers, shoplifting, and mostly-idle threats. Although HATE‘s early issues delve deep into college life sans actual college enrollment, something less remarked upon is the tension in later issues when Buddy swears it’s time to shape-up and grow-up, moving back to New Jersey to settle down with Lisa in his parents’ basement.

Doonesbury‘s Yale hippies and commune malcontents progressed into adulthood in the 1980s, but their outlook (i.e. their politics) shifted not one iota—thankfully, otherwise they might have had to live up to the judgy pronouncements they’d decreed a decade earlier. In the final monthly issues of HATE, the New Jersey Buddy Bradley is but an echo of his Seattle predecessor. He’s like that college pal who swears off pot, buys a tie, and obtains a business loan to start selling water bongs mail-order. What a square.

Hate 15

Hate 15

I do not see myself as a live-in-the-flesh Buddy Bradley, but there is much of him I recognize in myself. His firebrand rant about hating rock ‘n’ roll is one I’d preached as well (almost down to the word) to a San Luis Obispo house full of Generation X hippies. (They never invited me back.) And while I never had a roommate like George Hamilton III, I kinda-sorta resembled him due to my Robert Anton Wilson-inspired pet theories about secret power structures and hidden knowledge. And Buddy drinks Johnnie Walker Red Label. Eerie! (I could go on.) When I reached age 32, I thought I’d been through something unique—as unique as a crushed Coke can, HATE informed me.

Bagge’s genius as a storyteller reflects one of my personal peeves about contemporary fiction—”the cult of poignancy” as editor David Holler dubbed it. That is, the urgent desire of literary fiction to land in a moment of soft, still self-reflection. This desire is simply a rejiggering of Hollywood’s desperate need to reach a concluding morality that assures us there is Good in this world, and genre fiction’s love of pat, satisfying endings.

HATE eschews closing any story with revelation or insight into Buddy’s life, or even a resolution you would call “a resolution.” There’s rarely any forward momentum at all. In almost every issue, Buddy winds up pretty much where he started, albeit bruised or unconscious or a bit richer or poorer for the journey. HATE isn’t anti-poignant, as that suggests Bagge was consciously working against easy pathos. HATE is merely absent of poignancy, or any moral compass for that matter. Buddy Bradley is a vector of force propelled by the rocket fuel of disgust, outrage, and self-interest—and yet Bagge maintains our sympathy for him. Our sympathy for Buddy Bradley parallels our sympathy for Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. We recognize too much of ourselves in them both to toss them overboard.

But that sympathy is never comfortable. There’s an unsettling randomness to the consequences of Buddy’s antisocial decisions. There is no divine thumb on the cosmic scales in HATE. There aren’t even scales. When Buddy screws over a roommate or a girlfriend and comes out ahead free-and-clear, his brash grin for the reader is disturbingly celebratory. Buddy is bragging to us, “I got away with it.” And Bagge, the author, never steps in with a value judgment.

Many writers claim they write amoral or morality-free stories, but few writers have truly shorn our Western value system. Even Seinfeld had a karmic ethos of deserved and undeserved comeuppance. Whether Buddy’s unscrupulous world-view and self-centered priorities are the symptom or the disease—or the cure—I leave that question to others. But I’ll take Buddy’s value system over Holden Caulfield’s cap-wringing and Tyler Durden’s under-microwaved existentialism every time.

Hate 28

Hate 28

For all the praise Bagge’s received for documenting the grunge era in Seattle, I say Bagge actually recorded something more important. HATE X-rays an oft-overlooked segment of the American population, the suburban-bred young adults who didn’t power (or even stumble) through college and upward into the American workforce, nor into the coastal creative classes thanks to a grandmother’s trust fund or their partner’s cushy white-collar income. They’re educated and savvy enough to hold down service work and low-paying professional jobs without falling backwards into poverty, the only possible outcome in the traditional scripts handed down to us. They discovered early on that getting ahead in America is a far more vicious enterprise than it should be. They quit pretending upward mobility is even a worthy goal. Instead, they relented to a daily grind of work, alcohol, sex, and hate.

I’m not playing a violin for these folks. Neither is Peter Bagge. That’s kind of my whole point.

Now an admission: When I was 20 I resembled this guy more than any single figure in Bagge’s epic:

A good (and free) introduction to Bagge’s narrative and artistic style is “The Hasty Smear of My Smile”, an alternate history of postwar America and one of my favorite standalone strips he’s put together. Koo-koo-ka-choo.

More in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.

Twenty Writers: Unstuck in Dresden

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of reviews and essays is located at Continuing Series.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Early one August morning in 2011, I set off for Dresden. I was lodging at a surprisingly spacious budget hotel located in what was once known as East Berlin. I showered, snagged a Brötchen from the breakfast table downstairs, and rode public transit to Berlin’s central train station, the Hauptbahnhof.

The Hauptbahnhof was a modest-sized transportation hub with a grand planar green-glass facade and crystal strands of staircases and escalators within. A number of national and international rail lines passed through the station on all levels.

In contrast to its modernity, the area surrounding the Hauptbahnhof appeared bombed-out. Weedy lots and half-built (or half-demolished) concrete structures of uncertain purpose surrounded the station, even though it was located in the dead center of town, and not the outskirts where this sort of thing might be excused.

In 2011, dereliction was not unusual in the eastern reaches of Berlin. The area that was once West Berlin was clean, modern, bustling—as sleek and efficient as the capitalism it had boasted of to its neighbors during the Cold War. What was once East Berlin was largely a patchwork of low-lying buildings, many redolent of America’s 1970s aesthetics bereft of its most garish extremes. Anything not man-made was lush and overgrown from the humid summer. (Berlin, my travel guide explained, was built on a swamp.) Buildings with blasted-out holes in the plaster stood here and there in East Berlin, the rubble having been hauled off but the damage not repaired. As I learned from the natives, Berlin was still recovering from forty years of Communist rule, where counterrevolutionary ideals like aesthetics and grounds-keeping were not prioritized.

Having visited Munich a few times, I would bet a stein of beer that the meticulous, efficient Bavarians would never have allowed for this situation to sustain. For any undeveloped lot, the Bavarians would have installed a beer garden or a park or some nice shopping. Munich is the neighbor who keeps their lawn trim and packs away the Christmas decorations on Boxing Day; Berlin is the family with the half-built additions and a porch painted a color intended for the whole house, but Dad never got around to finishing the job. It’s for those reasons I found what was once East Berlin relaxed and livable.

Having visited my favorite beer garden in all of Europe the night before, I didn’t wake quite early enough. I missed my train to Dresden by precious minutes, in part due to being lost in the Hauptbahnhof‘s Escher maze of escalators. Running up to the platform for Dresden, the train chugging eastward, I wondered if this was a bit of Vonnegutian fate, the kind of nondescript event that leads to major ramifications for the character later in the book.

Literary tourism

My visit to Dresden bore some emotional weight. It would probably be my only chance to see the city Kurt Vonnegut wrote about so prominently in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Literary tourism is a recurring compulsion in my life. I’ve sought out Hemingway’s Key West house and the six-toed cats who drink from an old bar urinal in the garden; Henry Miller’s ramshackle Big Sur cabin, surprisingly spartan for a hedonist; Beowulf under glass at the British Museum in London, a city practically designed for literary tourism, right down to the pub reproducing Sherlock Holmes’ parlor; even Mark Twain’s cabin in California’s Gold Country where he reportedly penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Literary tourism has even made its way into some of my stories, in particular “A Concordance of One’s Life”, and to a lesser extent Everywhere Man.

With only one more free day in Germany, I woke the next morning even earlier and made it to the Hauptbahnhof with time to spare. As my train left the platform, I was treated to the very European experience of an Italian family arguing with the unflappable German conductor over seats, some business about assigned seating and Second Class. As English was the common language between the two parties, I was able to follow the argument. The conductor eventually conceded and moved on, leaving the Italian family to overtake the compartment. The mother pointed out to me that there wasn’t enough room for all of them, and so I moved to the next compartment.

The train ride from Berlin to Dresden took two and a half hours. If I’d traveled the day before, I had planned to find a cheap room to crash in for the night. Now I had to make the same return trip in the late afternoon via the last train out of Dresden to Berlin.

The Slaughterhouse-Five Tour

In a different book, Kurt Vonnegut wrote

Ah, God, what an ugly city Illium is!

“Ah, God,” says Bokonon, “what an ugly city every city is!”

I was curious to see what had sprung up in Dresden’s place after the end of the war, after the firebombing. I was also curious how Vonnegut’s book was now received by the city. I had it in my mind that Slaughterhouse-Five was a literary gift to the City of Dresden, a rather lengthy handbill proclaiming to a cold and unaware world the war crime they’d suffered. Much like my trip to Hiroshima, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everything I’d read about both cities focused on one subject: utter destruction.

I wondered if there were Slaughterhouse-Five tours of Dresden. If I ran a Slaughterhouse-Five tour of Dresden, I would dress up like Billy Pilgrim and pretend to be unstuck in time. I would start the tour with this:

“And now our tour concludes. So it goes.”

And end the tour with this:

“Welcome! My name is Billy Pilgrim. Today I’m your guide for the Slaughterhouse-Five tour. On your left is our first sight…”

For all my planning back at home, it never occurred to me to attempt to locate the actual slaughterhouse Vonnegut and the other American POWs huddled in during the Allies’ firebombing of the city, safe while Dresden burned to nubs and ash. I assumed (wrongly, it turns out) that the slaughterhouse had been demolished after the war. I focused on the city center itself rather than striking out to the industrial areas in search of the structure that saved Vonnegut’s life and changed American postwar literature.

On the last leg of my train ride, two young women joined me in the compartment, college-aged summer hitchhikers making their way across Europe. They hauled mountaineering backpacks with sleeping rolls, enough gear to scale K2. Minutes before the Dresden station, we struck up a conversation. They were from Switzerland.

“I’m American,” I introduced myself.

“We know,” they told me. Whenever foreigners know my nationality it’s a little discomfiting, like meeting someone who can read my thoughts.

They told me they headed to Amsterdam. When they said “Amsterdam” they giggled between themselves.

“I’m going to Dresden,” I told them.

“Why?” they asked me, honestly perplexed.

Anatomy of a church

Dresden workers' muralOn my walk from Dresden’s station to its Old Town I passed a reminder of the city’s time under the German Democratic Republic. A broad mural spanned the second story of an otherwise unremarkable building. In the town I grew up, such a building would have been the advertising offices of the local newspaper or something equally mundane. This is what I expected to find in Dresden: postwar Socialist-drab architecture erected in a hurry and on the cheap.

The building was forgettable but the mural was not. Like so much social realism to come out of the Communist bloc, it features idealized caricatures of workers—women in head scarves, men in Trotsky hats—raising their sickles and rifles in a show of unity. The mural stood over a wide walkway, where it could be admired as easily as it could be ignored.

DresdenOnce past the mural and its uninspiring canvas, I discovered Dresden was not ugly. In fact, the city was charming. Although seventy years had passed since the firebombing, plenty of time to rebuild, I did not expect to walk into such a minute jewel. With East Berlin as my primer to post-Communist Germany, I presumed Dresden would be a place of unkempt parks, weedy lots, and an opera house or civic chamber destroyed by the Allies and left as rubble with a statue before it memorializing the carnage.

Strange then to see Dresden work so hard to appear as the city it was five hundred years ago, more medieval than mid-century. Its stout Old Town proudly exhibited a collection of limestone spires and copper-green cupolas. In the Middle Ages, labor was cheap, free when pressed into service by the Church. In the 20th century it wasn’t so cost-effective to refurnish a city to its fifteenth-century original without making do with mass-produced raw material—the financial temptation to erect a Disney reproduction of the original must have been great. There was nothing fake or inauthentic about Dresden’s Old Town as far as I could see.

Dresden churchThe rebuild was so complete, so meticulous, at first blush I wondered if anything remained to mark the firebombing that melted this city down to hot rubble in 1945. I found one, a block of permanently charred masonry standing in a cobblestone platz before a stunning Baroque church, Dresden’s Frauenkirche. A wordless plaque indicated where the block had fallen from the cupola above during the firebombing. In the human anatomy of the Frauenkirche, the masonry block fell from its heart.

(I know now that many memorials for the Dresden firebombing exist, some in the city and others elsewhere in Germany. Some only exist on the Internet as frameworks for remembering. I didn’t visit Dresden to search out statues and plaques and modern art commissioned by governmental panels, but I did expect to more of these markers than I encountered.)

Hundreds of miles from the Berlin swamp, Dresden offered a cloudless temperate day, the air off the river smelling fresh. The church platz was ringed by bistros lively with business. Vendor carts served cold beer as fast as mugs could be filled. Standing aside the masonry block and surveying the scene, I developed a theory: Dresden understood that remembering is different than never forgetting.

Of course

My own failings hampered my time in Dresden. I don’t speak a lick of German. Unlike Berlin, where an English-speaker can manage thanks to a mostly-multilingual population, few people in Dresden spoke my native tongue.

Rendered all but mute, I pointed to the beer tap when I wanted a beer, pointed to the menu when I wanted a brat, and did my best to pronounce Bitte? and Danke schoen for everyone I had dealings with.

At one of the beer carts off the church platz I met an English-speaking couple. Not only did they speak English, they were American. I did not ask the obvious questions. With a beer in hand and the sun on my back, I was incurious to know where they were from or who employed them.

She was talkative. He seemed totally uninterested in conversation. She asked why I came to Dresden.

Slaughterhouse-Five, of course,” I said. That “of course” made me out as a snoot.

She searched the air above her. “Is that a book?” She asked her husband if he’d read it. He murmured “Never heard of it” and drank more beer.

I told her she probably read it in high school. She couldn’t remember.

Fox tossing

When I asked why they’d visited Dresden, she explained it was a layover on their bus trip to Amsterdam. She giggled when she said “Amsterdam.” His attention never left his beer.

“Have you visited the castle?” she asked me. Their package tour included a ticket to Dresden Castle, now a museum. “Their king was the King of Poland. Twice.”

“Augustus the Strong,” her husband said, still not looking at me.

“Why was he called ‘the Strong?'” I asked.

“Because he was strong,” the husband said. “He could dead lift hundreds of pounds.” A bit excited, he finally turned on his stool to face me. “And he was a master at this game called fox tossing.”

“What’s fox tossing?”

“You throw foxes as high into the air as you can.” So animated, his beer was sloshing.

Dresden?

I trudged back to the train station passing the workers’ mural once more. Now I saw how out of place it was in Dresden, this relic of propaganda today apropos of nothing. Like Communism, it was not erased and it was not forgotten, nor was it intrusive or even damned, but simply left to be, a curiosity.

On the train ride back, I experienced a conversation I would have twice more in Berlin, all with Germans. When I mentioned visiting Dresden, the Germans’ response was always “Why?” They expressed in their best English that Dresden was a boring town with nothing to draw a tourist, especially one who’d traveled so far.

I asked each if they’d heard of Kurt Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five. None of them knew of him, which wasn’t terribly surprising. I don’t read German novelists, after all. The name confused them, though, since Vonnegut is distinctly Germanic. I assured them he was American.

I told the Germans Vonnegut had written one of the greatest English-language novels of the past hundred years. “It’s about Dresden. He was there during the firebombing.”

Only one of the three knew of Dresden’s destruction. (They were younger than me, I should add.) All were bewildered at the idea of a novel about Dresden—”Dresden?“—especially a novel important enough to be taught in American schools and universities.

It floored them. “You’ve read a book about Dresden?

Imagine the situation reversed. Imagine learning that every student in Germany read a novel about one of Bokonon’s ugly cities: Illium, or Bakersfield, or Walla Walla, or Duluth. Imagine if Germans eagerly traveled to Duluth because it was featured in a popular novel. Duluth?

The second bewildered German I encountered—”Dresden?“—sat across from me. We were at a picnic table in my favorite beer garden in all of Europe. It was muggy in Berlin and nine o’clock at night, strings of light bulbs threaded through the tree branches. When I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, I went straight to the beer garden.

We were joined by an American who’d emigrated to Germany to marry. He had a wife and a child, and had carved out a rather enviable life in what was once East Berlin. The first time we met he told me he never wanted to return to America.

“What are you two talking about?” He had brought us fresh mugs of beer.

“He went to Dresden today,” the German told him.

“Sure,” the newly-minted Berliner said as he distributed the beer. “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Other books in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.

Twenty Writers: Yoshihiro Tatsumi in retrospect

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.


Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Last night I learned Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi had passed away at the age of 79. Revered as the grandfather of gekiga (a darker form of manga, akin to graphic novels or alternative comics here in the United States), Tatsumi was known in Japan for his urban, noirish comics featuring a gamut of characters, from gangsters and back alley hoods to college students and office workers. Only in the last ten years did he became well-known in the North America (and perhaps elsewhere) due to new translations of his work published yearly by Drawn & Quarterly and edited under the guiding hand of Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Shortcomings).

I don’t think I can express how much I enjoyed Tatsumi’s work or how his comics encouraged and shaped my own writing. I did not come to his work via manga (a form I honestly don’t know much about) but rather by accident while browsing the shelves at a local bookstore. The cover—a lone man in a raincoat receding down a seedy nighttime alleyway, his back to the viewer—led me to pick up The Push Man and Other Stories and read the first story, then the next, then the next. I promptly purchased the copy, returned home, and read the entire collection in one sitting. My only disappointment was that none of his other work was readily available in the U.S. at the time. (My novella Everywhere Man gets its name from Tatsumi’s Push Man, and takes a few other cues as well.)

It was remarkable, this voice from Japan whose stories respected their source culture while also digging up explosive emotional power directed at that same culture. Tatsumi’s minimalist style and quiet stories of “average” people are often compared to Raymond Carver, but they’re also deeply infused with American noir and crime fiction. Themes of sexual frustration and violence and emasculation are rampant in Push Man and elsewhere. His characters often seem like Japanese counterparts to Jim Thompson’s West Texas oilcatters and door-to-door salesmen: disposable men on the edge of breakdown or abandonment, with few choices other than to jump on the accelerator and push through their troubles rather than backpedal out of them. They rarely succeed. Tatsumi’s characters live in cramped rooms, cramped even by Japanese standards, usually only large enough for a futon and a hot plate. They sludge through dead-end jobs while watching from afar Japan’s miraculous economic boom of the 1960s and 70s. They aren’t preoccupied with death, they fear being erased. I have the idea these stories were intended for the same kind of audience Jim Thompson wrote for, young lonely men who felt shut-out from the American—or Japanese—Dream.

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

When recommending Tatsumi to friends, my trouble has always been what not to recommend. Of Drawn & Quarterly’s offerings, perhaps only the autobiographical A Drifting Life and Black Blizzard (penned when Tatsumi was 21 and the source of some embarrassment for him when reprinted) are reserved for Tatsumi completists. Otherwise the English editions we have available represent an impressive body of work which, as I understand it, remains an incomplete record of his full output.

In Push Man‘s stories, each limited to eight pages, Tatsumi deftly compresses grim situations down to their bare minimum and yet manages to leave himself the occasional panel for bleak panoramas of late-1960s Tokyo, its late-night bars and red light districts and walk-up ramen stands. The artwork is sometimes cartoony—even clunky—but the emotional force of his characters’ desolation carries through page after page. In later collections (Abandon the Old in Tokyo, Good-Bye, and Midnight Fishermen) the young men’s magazines Tatsumi was writing for opened up more pages for his work. His pen improves in these collections, trending toward photorealism and employing heavier use of shadow and contrast. These tightly-wound tales sometimes suffer from the breathing room four or eight additional pages allowed, but each collection stores more than a few gems.

A Drifting Life (2009)

A Drifting Life (2009)

Tatsumi’s autobiographical A Drifting Life is his most ambitious work translated to English, and perhaps his most ambitious work of all. Intense but careful to withhold the most personal details of his life from the reader, Tatsumi lays out his formative years and how he entered the manga field while in elementary school. Each stage of his life is a new round of jousting with manga as an art form, tackling a narrative outlet he found liberating and yet restrictive and overly commercial all the same. I wish more time was spent on the side story of the manga rental industry in postwar Japan and its power to create and demolish artistic reputations. Some of the editors and publishers Tatsumi fought with sound straight out of Hollywood’s star system, right down to the shoddy treatment writers on both sides of the Pacific endured to produce consumable work week after week.

Still jousting with the strictures of manga at the age of 74, Tatsumi published Fallen Words, eight “moral comedies” inspired by rakugo, a venerable form of Japanese performance where a seated speaker narrates a story with a fan and a cloth as props. Rakugo performers will often tell stories that have been repeated for over a hundred years; the art is in the retelling and voices and mannerisms and novel uses of the props themselves. Tatsumi took this verbal art form and produced visual versions that depicted them in their original Meiji- and Edo-era settings: “I attempted to take rakugo, where laughter is supreme, and to tell the stories in the visual language of gekiga,” an art form not known for its comedy. Some stories rely on twist endings that don’t quite work, some on puns that only makes sense to Japanese speakers, but the book as a whole demonstrates the kind of experimentation Tatsumi was willing to engage in right to the end of his career.

Fallen Words (2009)

Fallen Words (2009)

When I was a graduate student teaching undergraduates creative writing, I included one story from Push Man as required reading. “Make-Up” remains my personal favorite of his work. It involves a young office worker living with an older woman, a bar hostess. When she’s gone at night, the young man dons a kimono, applies her cosmetic, and takes to downtown Tokyo passing as a woman. Not only is it remarkable the ease with which Tatsumi tells this nuanced story (another woman falls in love with him as a woman), it’s also surprising the sensitivity and compassion he offers his main character without falling into bathos. Some of the students tripped up on the simple lines of Tatsumi’s pen, some had trouble with the quietness (entire pages lacking a line of dialogue), but many gripped that something interesting and surprising was going on, right up to the ambiguous ending that opens up rather than shuts down the story.

Tatsumi’s work is often criticized as heavy-handed, cliched, and moralizing, which is arguable for his earlier output (such as Push Man) but is not so easily asserted with Drifting Life or Fallen Words. My response is to look at the boldness of the subject matter, the narrative distillation of complicated situations converted to deceptively simple panels on the page, and his early mastery of story structure. Each page of “Make-Up” is a self-contained scene, as perfect as a zen koan. It’s harder than it looks. That’s what I think Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s detractors are missing. This was not a natural talent who slipped into the form with ease, but one who struggled with it and attacked its firmaments, sometimes with mediocrity, sometimes brilliantly, but always thinking of his next push forward.

More on Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s passing: Adrian Tomine, Paul Gravett, Bleeding Cool.

Twenty Writers: Dashiell Hammett, The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.

Update:
Another interpretation of “The Flitcraft Parable”


The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell HammettDashiell Hammett was a prodigious writer, but in the most lopsided kind of way. He wrote north of a hundred short stories in less than five years, grinding out stories every month for an insatiable readership thanks to a plow horse work ethic the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s demanded of their writers. In 2011, a researcher going through Hammett’s papers discovered fifteen short stories that had been overlooked, all but lost. There are big-name published authors who’ve not written fifteen short stories in their career. For Dashiell Hammett and his peers in the world of pulps, fifteen short stories was getting your foot in the door.

It’s striking, then, that after all this output, Hammett was later unable to produce more than five novels, and after those did not produce anything publishable for twenty-five more years, until his death in 1961.

Like his short stories, Hammett’s five novels are of mixed quality and yet all impressive in their staying power. In Red Harvest Hammett created the “man in the middle” genre that directors Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, and many others would borrow for their own uses. The man-in-the-middle story is a structure Hammett seemingly cut from whole cloth, as no one seems able to point to a true antecedent. Hammett’s genteel, Fitzgeraldean The Thin Man spawned a slew of successful Hollywood pictures. Its form—a fashionable society couple solving murders between martinis and canapés—may sound dated, but judging from the success of Downton Abbey, I bet it could stage a comeback at a moment’s notice. The Glass Key‘s story of a political boss’ right-hand man smashing down rivals rings familiar to any fan of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (although Coen Brothers’ fans should also read James Cain’s mostly-overlooked Love’s Lovely Counterfeit for another important influence). Hammett’s books echo in all manner of 20th century entertainment, here and abroad.

Then there’s The Maltese Falcon, the most widely-known novel in the bunch. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, its title alone is a signifier: fog-soaked San Francisco, the statuette of a solemn stiff-winged black bird, back-alley shootings and mysterious packages arriving by ship from Hong Kong—John Huston knew a great novel when he read it, and he knew better than to monkey with a winning story. If you view the movie immediately after reading the novel, you’ll wonder if there was even a shooting script. Huston’s adaptation hews that closely to the book.

One omission in Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a brief story Sam Spade tells to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale. Spade’s story has nothing to do with finding the Falcon, nothing to do with the motley assortment of characters searching for it up and down the streets of San Francisco, nothing really to do with anything in the novel. The story is a mystery all right, but not in its elements of detection, which it has none of, but what the story means and why Spade is telling it to O’Shaughnessy.

The Maltese Falcon is a model of brisk pacing and efficient writing, a novel of sensation and suspense, and so the digression stands out all the more for it. Spade’s brief tale, two and a half pages long, is one of the most mysterious and puzzling aspects of The Maltese Falcon. Although never referred to as such in the book, it has become known as The Flitcraft Parable.

The parable

Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy of a well-to-do family man in Tacoma, Washington named Flitcraft. In 1922 Flitcraft left his office for lunch and never returned, missing the four o’clock tee-off he’d reserved a mere half-hour before. He also abandoned a good family and $200,000 in the bank, leaving behind no indication of another woman in his life, or any kind of double-life at all. As Spade says about Flitcraft’s disappearance, in what may be the absolute best of Hammett’s prose:

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”

Five years after Flitcraft had vanished, Spade was working for one of the larger detective agencies in Seattle when

Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles—that was his first name—Pierce. He had an automobile business…a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.

Although not told in-scene, it’s easy to envision Spade’s visit to Flitcraft not so much as a confrontation but a tense social visit. For a tough-guy book, there are no threats or intimidation in The Flitcraft Parable, no car chase or running down dark streets with revolvers unholstered. The parable reads like Flitcraft and Spade were drinking coffee while discussing the situation. But it is tense, as Flitcraft must attempt to explain the logic behind his actions, if any.

After all, what has really changed for Flitcraft? Once again he holds an office job, has a wife and child, a house, even that four o’clock tee-off, all in Spokane, a mere three hundred miles away from a near-identical life in Tacoma.

What precipitated his flight? While going to lunch that day in 1922, Flitcraft passed a high-rise construction site:

“A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. … He felt like somebody has taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Realizing that his life had been randomly spared, Flitcraft decides to randomly upend his life. Like the prince Buddha shedding his family and power and worldly possessions, Flitcraft abandoned his comforts to wander the world. He drifted until he wound up in Spokane, a four-hour drive from his family, and settled into a situation indiscernible from his original:

“He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

The story ends there. Unimpressed, Brigid O’Shaughnessy shrugs off the parable and changes the subject. To the casual reader it appears as a digression from the thrilling search for the Falcon, and not a particularly relevant digression at that. What’s more, Flitcraft’s explanation does not satisfy. There must be more to his story, but Flitcraft is not mentioned again in the novel.

One cannot imagine The Flitcraft Parable finding a place in pulps like Black Mask, magazines that instructed their writers “When in doubt, throw a dead body at ’em.” No gun is leveled, no whiskey is poured, no dame is saved. In The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett crafted the most iconic private detective novel ever, the singular representation of an entire form, and yet in it he wrote the most unorthodox story of detection ever.

Charles Flitcraft

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

It can be overemphasized that Hammett was, prior to taking up the pen, a private detective. Too often his experience as a Pinkerton agent is treated as a trump card by his proponents, proof that Hammett’s work is authentic compared to the detective fiction of “amateur” hardboiled writers.

It’s important to state: The Maltese Falcon is not a work of hard realism. Hammett understood how to give people what they wanted to read, hence his success in the pages of Black Mask. He also had a preternatural gift of vivid and bold writing. Raymond Chandler asserted Hammett did “over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” That’s why, unlike most of his peers at Black Mask, Hammett is still studied and marveled over today.

But Hammett was a private eye and he knew the ins and outs of that profession. He knew that such work did not always involve reaching for one’s revolver to get answers. He knew sitting down and talking frankly will sometimes get all the information one requires. No hot lights, no pounding on the desk, no good-cop/bad-cop.

Look again at the subdued language when Spade is hired by Flitcraft’s wife:

Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right.

No leggy femme fatale arriving at the detective’s office wearing a mourning veil with a slit up her dress. Mrs. Flitcraft’s entrance has all the dramatic effect going to the phone company to request a change in service. The weary acknowledgement—”It was Flitcraft, all right”—indicates Spade knew all along it would be the same man, although his reaction later tells us he’d never seen a man skip town for quite the same reasons as Flitcraft’s. The subdued language is echoed in Flitcraft’s tepid attempt to explain those reasons to Spade: “He had never told anybody his story before…He tried now.” This is not a parable of a man making a considered choice. Flitcraft up and left with little self-examination at all, compelled, it seems, by cosmic forces beyond our ken.

Passivity is the standard in The Flitcraft Parable. Even Mrs. Flitcraft shrugs and lets it go when told by Spade of Flitcraft’s bigamy:

“She didn’t want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her—the way she looked at it—she didn’t want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.”

The parable is built from the elements of scandal and recklessness and infidelity, but like tightening your grip on bread dough, Hammett lets the gooey salaciousness squeeze out and fall away. The three characters—Spade, Flitcraft, and his wife—simply give in to what has happened without complaint or fuss.

It’s not just an usual detective story, it’s an unusual story, no qualifier required. Hammett offers no hero or victim to identify with, no epiphanic moment, and no moral at the end, as most parables would conclude with. The tale has all the trappings of a Cheever story, but it never sneers down on the suburban way of life Flitcraft abandons and returns to. (Keep in mind that Hammett was an urban sophisticate in this period and sympathetic to the Communist Party and socialist movements; he would maintain strong leftist beliefs the rest of his life.) Flitcraft’s escape from domesticity to male freedom also sounds like the setup for an Updike novel, but again, the escape is not truly escape for Flitcraft, just as his return to Spokane is not a return to domestic imprisonment.

For a writer whose stock-and-trade is hot lead and wisecracking gangsters, Hammett tells The Flitcraft Parable with light, oblique touches. One is left with a sense that the falling construction beam shook up the cosmos and dislodged something vital, propelling Flitcraft out into the world. By the time Flitcraft’s orbit returned to domesticity in Spokane, that dislodged piece had slipped back into place and was wedged in tight. The dust settles and little has changed.

Charles Peirce

An important detail in the parable is Flitcraft’s assumed name when he settles in Spokane: Charles Pierce. This is most likely a reference to the American philosopher and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse”), the father of Pragmatism and one of the great thinkers of the 19th century. There is indirect evidence that Hammett knew well of Peirce’s work. In a letter to his publisher, Hammett describes The Maltese Falcon as the most “philosophical” work he’d produced to date. Peirce’s essays were published in popular magazines and his books were widely read and studied. The question then is why Hammett would namedrop one of the most important philosophers of the prior 100 years into a detective story about locating an old statuette.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

A clue may lie in Peirce’s work in philosophy. Peirce’s Pragmatism was multifaceted, but one of its concerns was the relationship between doubt, belief, and truth. Peirce was also fascinated with randomness and how it shaped history.

Peirce argued that the universe is not entirely deterministic, that an element of chaos exists, and that this chaos is necessary for variations to form and evolve. He dubbed his theory Tychism. Peirce saw Darwinism as just one example of Tychism at work. Peirce didn’t say that the universe is pure randomness, just that by the injection of a small amount of uncertainty—call it a seed of chaos—variations and change sprung forth, and from there true growth.

Regarding doubt, belief, and truth, Peirce expressed the role of imagination on the search for truth in an 1878 essay he wrote for Popular Science, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”:

…[Doubt] stimulates the mind to an activity which may be slight or energetic, calm or turbulent. Images pass rapidly through consciousness, one incessantly melting into another, until at last, when all is over—it may be in a fraction of a second, in an hour, or after long years—we find ourselves decided as to how we should act under such circumstances as those which occasioned our hesitation. In other words, we have attained belief.

According the Peirce, doubt is the key component to fruitful inquiry. Not just garden-variety doubt (as in “I doubt I can make the party in time”) but the kind of doubt that “stimulates the mind to an activity.” The stimulating doubt forces the mind to engage with the question and come up with an alternative that we believe is the truth. Our decision on how one would act is, in effect, how one did act—”in other words, we have attained belief.”

Putting it all together, the sound of the steel beam hitting the sidewalk, the fleck of concrete striking Flitcraft in the check and scarring him there (“He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it”), the sudden question of why he had not been killed: This random accident and chance survival introduced a seed of doubt to Flitcraft’s ordered, static life. It caused him to consider an alternate reality—a reality without his family or fortune. When he could see his life without them, it was just a few more steps to actualize that belief.

Flitcraft’s snap decision seems monumental from our external viewpoint, but for him it was nothing more than a slight shift: “Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.” Flitcraft goes out of his way to point out to Spade the “reasonableness” of this decision. Stepping back, maybe it does seem reasonable. It was also unsustainable—but no matter.

The reason for the telling

While Spade tells the parable, he and O’Shaughnessy are waiting for Joel Cairo to join them. Brigid O’Shaugnessy has had dealings with Cairo in the past and has come to Spade for protection. But O’Shaughnessy has lied to Spade already (her first words to him were lies) and he expects her to lie again. This is the commonly offered reason for Spade telling her the parable: Spade is indirectly informing O’Shaughnessy that he does not expect her deceit to end. Like Flitcraft, the thinking goes, she too will not change.

It seems too straightforward a decode for me. Sam Spade is not one for long-winded oratories. It would be much more in character for him to say, “You’ve lied to me before and you’ll lie to me again.” Done and done. In fact, he does tell that to her elsewhere in the book. There’s no reason for him to cloak it in a parable about a man in Spokane.

It’s worth noting that Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it? When it comes to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, I think Sam Spade has her pretty well figured out, much like he knew he would find Flitcraft when he traveled to Spokane. (“It was Flitcraft all right.”) Spade will work with O’Shaughnessy, but only to find the Falcon and to dig out the truth about her…even if that truth confirms what he already suspects.

I also refuse to believe that The Flitcraft Parable is about a man who does not change. Flitcraft’s beliefs are challenged by the chance accident of the falling beam. His travels—his search for some sort of truth—lead him back to his original beliefs. That does not mean his travels were wasted. Flitcraft has no regrets for what he did. His travels—his inquiry—made him a different man, even if he seems to be the same man as before, which he is not.

Spade uses The Flitcraft Parable to issue a statement, a personal credo. He’s saying there is a truth out there and it’s worth looking for it, even if you wind up confirming what you already knew. What’s more, randomness and chance stir the pot, make things happen, creates possibilities. Spade is not Sherlock Holmes. He does not see the world as orderly deductions, one fact leading unquestionably to another. Spade gambles, he take risks, he bluffs. (He’s named after a suit of cards, after all.) Later in the novel an adversary compliments Spade: “There’s never telling what you’ll do or say next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.” It’s as concise observation as any written about Sam Spade.

Peirce wrote “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Is there a more concise statement of the worldview of Sam Spade? Or, for that matter, the detective novel?

Or of Dashiell Hammett, a man whose left-wing beliefs led to his imprisonment at the age of 55, assigned the duty of cleaning toilets, all for believing that doubt and inquiry could lead to a better society?

November 13, 2015: Check out “Another interpretation of ‘The Flitcraft Parable'”

Twenty Writers: Haruki Murakami, Underground & Studs Terkel, Working

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.

On sale now! My short story collection
A Concordance of One’s Life and novella Everywhere Man


UndergroundHaruki Murakami is the enviable writer who, in certain circles, has become a canon unto himself. Murakami is often compared to many different authors—Kafka, Carver, Brautigan—but the list is so diverse it’s difficult to pigeonhole his body of work as one style or another. Just about everyone I know has a favorite Murakami book, usually Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-up Bird Chronicles.

I’ve read only two of his fictions. The first, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, was not nearly as hardboiled the title suggests and not nearly as cyberpunk as the book blurbs led me to believe. The other was After the Quake, a short story collection I consumed in ryokan and on various train trips between Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. It too left me cool. It was After the Quake that led me to understand why Murakami is so often compared to Raymond Carver. His stories were of “average” people in modest circumstances pushing back ever-so-lightly on pressure applied, all told in unadventurous language. Quiet conversations around beach campfires and characters wandering city parks recalling painful memories are the norm in After the Quake. It’s hardly fair for me judge his work as a whole from these two books, but they left me scratching my head wondering about his glowing reputation.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche changed that. The book is brilliant in its foundation: give the victims of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attacks an opportunity to tell their stories of that crazed rush-hour morning. Murakami the novelist takes his hand off the rudder and lets those victimized assume control of the conversation, and the results are gripping. Thirty-two victims, mostly commuters and subway workers, discuss the morning’s events and the aftereffects of exposure to the nerve agent. More importantly, they reveal (sometimes subconsciously) their attitudes toward work, career, family, friends, and country.

It’s a backhanded compliment to tell a fiction writer that his best work is a collection of interviews, but as any journalist knows, an interview is not merely recording what was said, it’s shaping what was said. Murakami may be the best writer imaginable to shape these stories and present them internationally: a Japanese native conversant in Western-style writing who’d lived abroad for nine years before returning home to interview the sarin gas victims. From studying Murakami’s biography and reading his comments in Underground as the interviews unfold, Murakami was obviously attempting to come to grips with the mentality of his countrymen as well as the attackers, the Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult led by self-described Christ-figure with political ambitions.

It’s one of the real strengths of Underground that the author finds himself questioning his cultural and social affinities with his subjects when by all rights he should in a comfort zone no non-Japanese could claim. Murakami speaks the language, he was educated in the same educational system, he was raised on the same cultural and media diet. Murakami knows the unwritten norms of Japan, yet he is as amazed as any gaijin about the interviewees daily schedules, perceptions, and reactions to the attacks—and the way they’re isolated from their social circles after the attacks. Books about foreign lands tend to enjoy a boost from the exoticism of it all: different food, misunderstood customs, language troubles, the country’s history as backstory. The exoticism in Underground is different. It’s like humanistic science-fiction or Borges, where alien norms and mores are treated as everyday and commonplace by the characters and the narrator, leaving the reader to tease out the logic of an alternate universe. It’s the tingle of decoding what’s really being said, of detecting what’s being eluded to and what has been elided, that makes Underground an open rather than a closed text.

“A grumble under the breath”

In Underground‘s Preface, Murakami relates that some time after the attacks he was flipping through a Japanese popular magazine when his attention was caught by a letter on the letters-to-the-editor page:

It was from a woman whose husband had lost his job because of the Tokyo gas attack. A subway commuter, he had been unfortunate enough to be on his way to work in one of the cars in which the sarin gas was released. He passed out and was taken to hospital [sic]. But even after several days’ recuperation, the aftereffects lingered on, and he couldn’t get himself back into the working routine. At first, he was tolerated, but as time went on his boss and colleagues began to make snide remarks. Unable to bear the icy atmosphere any longer, feeling almost forced out, he resigned.

…As far as I can recall, there was nothing particularly plaintive about [the letter], nor was it any angry rant. If anything, it was barely audible, a grumble under the breath.

Like a well-crafted novel, this opening grumble (and Murakami’s reaction to it) foreshadows almost everything that is to follow.

First, it’s difficult to imagine this work situation being tolerated in the United States—it sounds like grounds for a lawsuit, one that many tort-minded Americans would be happy to pursue. There’s not a hint here of such thinking. Then there’s the letter-writer herself, the wife now emotionally shredded by the double-blow of a bizarre physical assault on her husband followed by the isolation by her husband’s work unit. If the perception of Japan is one of efficient and cohesive group dynamics, how did this family wind up in this situation?

And then there’s Murakami’s reaction: equal parts confusion, despair, and frustration. As a Japanese native speaker, he detected the grumble from language nuances I suspect an outsider might not have noticed. But that’s as far as his insider status allows him inside. Like Valentine in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Murakami is the alien who returns to his birthplace unable to recognize the land from which he sprung.

This barely audible grumble was the impetus for Murakami to interview the victims of the Tokyo subway attacks, and so Underground is as much a way for Murakami to understand his own country as it is to explain it to those outside of Japan, us gaijin. Murakami also designed Underground as a mirror for him to hold up to his countrymen and ask them to consider fully the way of life they’d carved out for themselves. How successful that enterprise has been, I do not know, but I am not optimistic.

Working

There was one other element of the Preface that captured my attention. It’s in a footnote that’s literally attached to the word “Preface” at the top of the page:

I would like to make clear that I borrowed useful ideas toward the composition of this book from the works of Studs Terkel and Bob Greene.

Studs Terkel, WorkingI’m unfamiliar with the work of Bob Greene but I’m very much a fan of Studs Terkel, in particular a book he wrote in the early 1970s called Working. Unlike Underground, where Murakami’s subjects are intertwined by a single defining event, Terkel’s subjects in Working have only the barest of commonalities: they live in America and they are employed (and for some, not even formally employed). Studs Terkel interviewed more than one hundred people of all walks with the old-fashioned joy of a sportswriter in the baseball bleachers alongside dockworkers and plumbers gathering their expert opinions of the game for his next column. Terkel’s ability to capture natural language and paint it on the page is legendary, and Working is his masterpiece toward that end.

Terkel documented the travails and mundanity of employment as a hotel doorman, a strip miner, a receptionist, a cabbie. Pauline Kael is interviewed here, as is Rip Torn, jazz musician Bud Freeman, and a handful of sports figures. Otherwise, the remaining 130-odd people are not those who would be called “of note” although they are now immortalized in this classic of American journalism, even if their immortality is near-anonymous. (Fortuitously, as I was writing this post Longform reprinted a selection from Working on their web site.)

For me, a fiction writer, Working is a kind of master class on capturing attitude and character through voice, of revealing psyche and spinning out personality on the page in a flowing, natural manner. Any class on first-person narrative should be reading from this book. Terkel records so much more than the words of his interview subjects, he preserves their essence in a way that captivates rather than categorizes, much like Quincy Troupe’s masterful preservation of Miles Davis and his voice.

Terkel is beautifully invisible in Working. In the interviews themselves he’s barely present. Whole pages of confessions and revelations emerge from his subjects without a single question or prompt from Terkel himself. Of course this is not how interviews pan out—people rarely talk openly and cogently about a single subject, unprepared, for two hours. Given free reign, most people will talk themselves into mundane subject matter and personal minutia, like water seeking the path of least resistance. Terkel stitched together what must’ve been numerous false starts and meandering discussions into pitch-perfect exegeses on the nature of life as a farm worker, a desk receptionist, a realtor, an auditor, and so on.

Studs Terkel proves the American language as practiced is unique, controlled but not stiff, and perhaps most vital of all, so very tied to our professions. In other parts of the world people identify with their family and their family name, the town they came from, the place they were born, the religion they were raised in. In America, people identify by their jobs. It’s why when Americans first meet we ask each other what we do. Working is almost encyclopedic on the subject, categorizing subjects by their fields (“Working the Land”, “Communications”, “Brokers”, “Bureaucracy”) as well as their positions in society (“In Charge”, “Cradle to Grave”, and perhaps reflective of the rise of feminism at the time, “Just a Housewife”, a section featuring two women who are so much more than housewives). The book’s organization is democratic and pluralistic, just like the society Studs Terkel himself strove to see America progress toward.

Working is the kind of book you can dip into randomly, just flip to a page and start reading. Here’s Terry Mason, an airline stewardess:

We had to go to stew school for five weeks. We’d go through a whole week of make-up and poise. I didn’t like this. They make you feel like you’ve never been out in public. They showed you how to smoke a cigarette, when to smoke a cigarette, how to look at a man’s eyes. Our teacher, she had this idea we had to be sexy. One day in class she was showing us how to accept a light for a cigarette from a man and never blow it out. When he lights it, just look in his eyes. It was really funny, all the girls laughed.

…The idea is not to be too obvious about it. They don’t want you to look too forward. That’s the whole thing, being a lady but still giving out that womanly appeal, like the body movement and the lips and the eyes. The guy’s supposed to look in your eyes. You could be a real mean woman. You’re a lady and doing all these evil things with your eyes.

This is why I react with suspicion when I read a contemporary American short story or novel of literary ambition that is praised for capturing the voice of the “average” American. Terry Mason is about as down-to-earth as I can imagine, but as the above selection reveals, she’s not dim or easily impressed by authority. That’s often what I find in contemporary American fiction when the setting takes place outside of urban centers. A character watching an Olive Garden commercial in their McMansion arise from their barcalounger like a Manchurian Candidate, jump into their SUVs or minivans, and then drive to the nearest Olive Garden (flanked, as the author can’t resist, by a Chili’s and a Fresh Choice). They flatulantly squeeze their overweight body into the booth and order an absurdly large meal. Studs Terkel doesn’t need to supply his interview subjects with dignity, they already possessed it, if only someone would listen. Terkel did just that.

The discussions often turn wonderfully philosophical. Vincent Maher, a police officer:

When I worked as a bartender, I felt like a non-person. I was actually nothing. I was a nobody going nowhere. I was in a state of limbo. I had no hopes, no dreams, no ups, no downs, nothing. Being a policeman gives me the challenge in life that I want. … I don’t think it’s necessary for a man to prove himself over and over and over again. I’m a policemen, win, lose, or draw.

This trifecta of occupation, identity, and one’s future is a core preoccupation with Terkel’s subjects. Barbara Terwilliger:

I really feel work is gorgeous. It’s the only thing you can depend upon in life. You can’t depend on love. Oh, love is quite ephemeral. Work has a dignity you can count on.

Terry Mason again:

A lot of stewardesses wanted to be models. The Tanya girl used to be a stewardess on our airline. A stewardess is what they could get and a model is what they couldn’t get. They weren’t the type of person, they weren’t that beautiful, they weren’t that thin. So their second choice would be stewardess.

What did you want to be?

I wanted to get out of Broken Bow, Nebraska. (Laughs.)

That’s the Midwestern honest-speaking that I’m familiar with. I’ll never forget a Minnesota cousin of mine working at the movie theater food concession one summer. Reflecting the exorbitant food prices, she called it the “chump counter.” It’s too bad Studs Terkel didn’t get a chance to interview her.

Underground

As joyful as I find Terkel’s Working, he makes it clear in his introduction that he does not view what follows as a celebration:

Something unreal. For me, it was a feeling that persisted throughout this adventure. (How else can I describe this undertaking? It was the daily experience of others, their private hurts, real and fancied, that I was probing. In lancing an especially obstinate boil, it is not the doctor who experiences the pain.)

Something similar is echoed by Murakami in his epilogue:

Eventually I stopped making judgments altogether. “Right” or “wrong,” “sane” or “sick,” “responsible” or “irresponsible”—these questions no longer mattered. At least, the final judgment was not mine to make, which made things easier. I could relax and simply take in people’s stories verbatim. … Especially after conducting interviews with the family of Mr. Eiji Wada—who died in Kodemmacho Station—and with Ms. “Shizuko Akashi”—who lost her memory and speech and is still in the hospital undergoing therapy—I had to seriously reconsider the value of my own writing.

What Working does not have that Underground has in spades is a nucleus of violence, sacrifice, and above all, lingering confusion. It’s why Underground at times reads like a suspense thriller, although one that twists your stomach rather than elevates the senses. There is no pleasure in reading about the station workers who, resolute that the subway trains spend no more than sixty seconds unloading and loading passengers, get on their hands and knees to mop up the liquid sarin thinking it was some kind of spilled oil or paraffin.

The crime blotter details of the attack go like this: On the morning of Monday, March 20, 1995, five teams from the Aum Shinrikyo cult boarded separate Tokyo subway trains during rush hour. Each carried plastic bags of sarin, a nerve agent developed during World War II that is usually aerosolized and deployed in gas form. (Aum Shinrikyo had failed to perform this final step.) While in transit they punctured the bags and exited the trains, leaving the liquid sarin to spread on the floors and evaporate into inhalable vapor. Some 6,000 people were wounded, many permanently. Thirteen people died.

I recall the day of the sarin attacks; my first reaction was What—Tokyo? Japan’s culture of security and safety is legendary to the point of absurdity. That these attacks could be orchestrated by a charismatic cult leader with grandiose political ambition, a man who’d attracted not only the poor and the depressive but also academics and business leaders, sounded straight from the California playbook circa 1969 to 1979—Charles Manson, The Source Family, and Jim Jones all wrapped up in one. Even with my limited understand of Japanese culture, nothing of the attack’s reports in the American media sounded likely, and when I spotted Murakami’s book I picked it up to satisfy this long-standing itch. I now feel like Murakami gave me so much more.

Unlike Working, Underground is not designed to be dipped into randomly. It’s important for the interviews to be read sequentially, evidence of Murakami’s hand guiding the narrative, if only loosely. The overall organization of the material does reflect Terkel’s strategy to some degree. Instead of consolidating interviews by jobs, Murkami groups the interviews by train lines and stations. Since the release of the sarin gas was more-or-less simultaneous across Tokyo, this might seem counterproductive to a writer attempting to shape a narrative out of these interviews, but Murakami sets the right stories in the right places to achieve some devastating effects.

Beyond Murakami, the one work of Japanese literature most Americans are familiar with is Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashomon”, although that’s mostly due to Kurosawa’s film and not the story itself. What’s lesser-known is that the film is a commingling of two Akutagawa stories, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove”. The Rashomon effect is a partial misnomer; it’s “In a Grove” that regards the contradictions in multiple attestations of the same event. (There’s a kind of irony that the Rashomon effect’s misnaming is due to people hearing the story secondhand.)

So it’s interesting to me that this misnamed effect is in play in Underground as well. The first interviewee, Kiyoka Izumi, offers in her story a broad on-the-ground retelling of the attack on the Chiyoda line and the resulting chaos. Izumi discovers difficulty breathing while en route to her job. When she emerges from the Kasumigaseki station she walks into the chaos of commuters passed out, gasping, blind and staggering for the exits—”‘hell’ describes it perfectly.” She leverages her prior experience as a Japan Railways (JR) employee to offer assistance with the trains and the sick. (By doing so she increased her exposure to the sarin gas.) Her opening interview is perhaps the perfect choice in terms of giving a matter-of-fact account of how the attack turned the station, and all of Tokyo, upside-down. She is also one of the more frank storytellers in the book, a Japanese who is acutely aware of her culture’s nuances and curiosities.

The Rashomon effect comes to play in the interviews which follow, as the very JR workers Izumi saw and coordinated with now tell their stories. Unlike “In a Grove”, where the conflicting accounts are unworkable toward puzzling together some kind of truth, these stories complement Izumi’s and flesh out further the morning’s events. To read four separate accounts of station attendant Takahashi’s death is particularly heartrending. Perhaps it’s a kind of rebuttal to Akutagawa that when four stories offer strong agreement, not just the truth but a greater truth begins to emerge.

With the basics laid down in these initial interviews, Murakami opens the book up to the other victims. Here Underground begins to feel more like Working in that we meet individuals from various backgrounds and livelihoods, not just the JR workers and TV crews who descended on the spectacle. Often those interviewed in Underground sound as American as anyone in Working:

…we must make every effort to ensure that this prosperous and peaceful nation, built on the labors of previous generations, is preserved and passed on for generations to come. … I can’t see any future for Japan if we blindly persist with today’s materialistic pursuits.

Here Kozo Ishino is joining a broader discussion in modern Japan, a caution that has been expressed from as diverse figures as the Heisei royal family to Hiroo Onoda, the World War II army officer who lived in the Philippine bush for thirty years fighting a war that was over. And then Ishino admits:

I’ve just turned 40 and up to now I’ve been living carelessly. It’s about time I took control of myself, gave some deep thought to my own life. … I’ve been concentrating on my career all these years, so I’ve never known real fear.

These words would have found in a comfortable home in Terkel’s Working, where so many of his interviewees are surprisingly philosophical about their lot in life.

“To the spirit as well as to the body”

Murakami admits (bravely I think) that at first he was not terribly affected by the Tokyo gas attacks. That morning in 1995, lacking a television or radio, a friend phoned him with the news and advised him to stay out of Tokyo for a while. “I went back to sorting [my bookshelves] as if nothing had happened.” I’ve read and seen too many recollections of 9/11 where the author or TV host manages to crowbar into the narrative their personal experiences of that day. They are gripped by what they see on television; they weep; they phone loved ones; they are moved; they are beside themselves; they must control their rage. Murakami acknowledges that innumerable tragedies pass by us every day, and that his cup of humanity is no larger or smaller than our own.

Photo from the morning of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway.

Photo from the morning of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway.

Much has been made of one commonality Murakami highlights in his Japanese subjects, namely the way so many of the workers were going to work an hour or two early to look good for the boss—”brownie points,” as Kiyoka Izumi calls it. Then, blinded and lungs scorched by the sarin gas, they fervently attempt to reach work on time rather than lose face among their coworkers. Like other Western images of Japan (the stark rock gardens, the anime stocked with cute magical creatures), this image of obedient workers putting job and company over their own well-being locks comfortably into Western views of the Japanese people as a cohesive unit.

I think it’s unfortunate, perhaps even racist, to box up these accounts as traditionalistic reactions to a modern kind of violence—as though insular Eastern Japan is still catching up to the gritty, authentic Western world Americans are so accustomed to. Murakami offered the victims of the gas attacks a chance to speak out and they delivered up something not enclosed by borders or defined by nationality or hemisphere. Kozo Ishino’s reflections on turning forty and needing to take control of his life are surprising considering he’s an air commander in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, hardly the kind of career Americans (including myself) associate with deep inner soul-searching.

I wish I could say there was a similar kind of soul-searching in America after the Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11, but such introspection is hard to locate. When the Murrah Building was bombed in Oklahoma City one month after the Tokyo subway attacks, it did not take any time at all for Americans to suspect terrorism—the surprise for us was that it was homegrown and not from abroad. Some compare the Tokyo gas attacks to 9/11, but I suspect psychically for the Japanese it was closer to the Oklahoma City bombing, that is, the kind of event thought to happen in other countries, certainly not here, and not by their (or our) own.

In contrast to many Americans’ reactions to 9/11 (and even to the Oklahoma City bombing), of the Japanese Murakami interviewed, few expressed anger at Aum Shinrikyo. Kiyoka Izumi confesses,

As to the criminals who actually planted the sarin, I honestly can’t say I feel much anger or hatred. I suppose I just don’t make the connection, and I can’t seem to find those emotions in me. … The fact that someone from Aum brought sarin onto the subway…that’s not the point. I don’t think about Aum’s role in the gas attack.

Some reason it out (“I don’t feel especially angry toward the individual culprits. It seems to me they were used by their organization”) while others confess to rage and a desire for violence against the perpetrators. Most admit that they’ve shut out Aum Shinrikyo from their lives, even turning off the television when any news about the group comes on. These rather human and revealing inner tensions stand as a rebuttal to the predominant image received by Western reviewers: the Japanese dedicated worker-ant I mentioned before, an unfortunate and flattening stereotype perpetuated by people who should know better.

But this “shutting out” of the attackers also plays into one of Murakami’s questions in his epilogue essay, “Why did I look away from the Aum cult?” Unlike the Hare Krishnas, Murakami writes, he found himself actively turning his gaze away from the Aum cultists when they paraded on the streets of Tokyo or campaigned for election. Murakami’s reason for looking away is that the Aum cultists were a “distorted image of ourselves.” I think the word Murakami is looking for is uncanny. It would be helpful if he could’ve pinpointed what was overly familiar about the Aum cultists rather than tiptoe around the presence of some unnamed familiarity. Aum Shinrikyo is never really explained satisfactorily, merely eluded to as an organization of promises for those Japanese in need of promises. (Murakami admits as much in his introduction to part two, calling Aum the “black box” of Underground.) It’s unfortunate that the cult’s allure couldn’t have been enumerated for foreign readers, no matter how phony it may have been.

As a book, Underground wound up having a life of its own. The Japanese edition included sixty interviews, but that number was whittled down to thirty-two for the English edition. Murakami also received substantial criticism—unfair in my eyes—for not interviewing members of the Aum cult, although he never claimed Underground was a work of objective journalism. Interviews with eight cult members are included in the English edition; I did not find them particularly edifying. For that matter, I’ve never found any explanation for Jim Jones’ hold over his church members to be all that educational either. In both cases the cultists seem unable to verbalize what drew them in, no more than a shipwrecked passenger can explain the lunar forces that washed him up on an island.

The Japanese media’s insistence to characterize—as Murakami puts it—the “moral principles at stake in the gas attack” as good versus evil, right versus wrong, pure versus impure, sounds like the framework for every debate in contemporary America. Murakami frets that the sarin attacks have been packed away by his countrymen and left to gather dust, and that Japan needs “another narrative to purify this narrative.” I question the word purify. Purification usually means subtracting from the original substance but leaving it largely the same. The word I would suggest is distill: to reduce the substance to its base essence, removing not merely impurities but benign additions as well. I’m not certain Underground is that narrative. It’s not a distillation of the issues, and I don’t even think it’s a purified form of the narrative Murakami objects to. Perhaps it will be the impetus or grist for another more distilled narrative for Japan to ponder over, the raw data for someone else to mine and develop into that alternate narrative which I’m sure is sorely needed.

Let that new narrative open with these lines from Studs Terkel’s remarkable introduction to Working:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. … It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.