Thoughts on life after the PhD
(Thank you very much to Kathryn at Contemporary Japanese Literature, who introduced me to this collection–you can read her review of March Was Made of Yarn here.)
“In an emergency such as this earthquake, art is useless, to say the least. Our recent experience only helped expose the ultimate futility of all artistic endeavors.”
–Kikuchi Kan, Ruminations on the Earthquake, 1923
I’ll have to disagree wholeheartedly with Kikuchi Kan. An artistic response to the tsunami was exactly what I needed.
There has been a lot of response, of course–essays, newspaper articles, short films, photo collections. But unfortunately much of it has fallen into the realm of disaster porn, the kind of material that can make anyone feel like a voyeur. Since the quake Tokyo’s bookstores have been crammed with books full of photo after photo of physical devastation. These kinds of responses have their value and their purpose, but the sheer magnitude of the disaster also demanded something else. Something absurd. I was reminded of John Whittier Treat and Oe Kenzaburo’s writings on the atomic bomb, and their claim that certain things are simply unwriteable, beyond the realm of literature. The claim of the Japanese protagonist in Hiroshima Mon Amour: “You saw nothing.”
Enter the wonderful short story collection March Was Made of Yarn. Some of the stories are underwhelming, but at least half are gorgeous. The title story by Mieko Kawakami conjures up a potent image: in the days before the quake, a pregnant woman on vacation with her husband dreams of a world made of yarn, one that occasionally disintegrates into a pile of string only to rebuild itself in a new shape.
” ‘When something unpleasant or dangerous happens, things suddenly come apart. They go back to being just yarn, they wait it out.’
‘Interesting,’ I said.
‘They’re yarn, after all. Sometimes the yarn turns into sweaters, or mittens, and that’s how they protect themselves. When something scares them, that’s how they get through it.’
‘And our baby was yarn, too?’
‘Yeah. It came straight out in a long line, as plain old yarn, and then when it was all out it sort of knitted itself into a baby shape, and I was the mother of a yarn baby. You were the father of yarn.’
She didn’t say anything after that. The silence continued for some time. I remembered that her cell phone had rung earlier and mentioned that, but she didn’t respond.
‘Even March was yarn,’ she said eventually.
‘March was yarn?’
‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘In that world, even March was made of yarn.’
‘I don’t think I get it,’ I said after a while.
‘What’s not to get?’ she said.
‘I can see how books and bags and stuff could be made out of yarn, but March isn’t a thing, right? It’s just a name we give to a segment of time. How can you make something like that out of yarn?’
She looked at me like I was talking nonsense. ‘I told you. In that world even March was made out of yarn.’
‘But what does that mean?’ I said. ‘March is made out of yarn?’
‘I told you. It means March is made out of yarn.’
The absurd stories were the ones that resonated the most with me, though David Peace’s more traditional “After the Disaster, Before the Disaster” paints a vivid picture of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, describing scenes that sounded eerily familiar:
“Under the stars, beside his helmet, Ryunosuke lay on the futon between his wife and two sons. He tried to read the Bible. But he could not concentrate. He tried to read The Communist Manifesto. But, again, he could not concentrate. For under the ground, he could feel the earth continue to grind and scream, a gigantic mechanical worm burrowing through caverns and tunnels, pushing the ground up, then pulling it back down in its wake. Ryunosuke imagined the turning gears an spinning cogwheels deep within the metallic body of the beast.”
The real gem in this collection, though, is Tetsuya Akikawa’s “Box Story,” one of the most perfect short stories I’ve ever read. Describing or quoting too much would spoil it, so I’ll just say that it’s about a shortage of boxes and what happens when someone invents a method of breeding them. Seriously, this one story is enough reason to purchase the whole collection. Read it. It’s amazing.
Oe Kenzaburo and John Whittier Treat may be right about the unwriteable nature of certain catastrophes. Some things simply can’t be described, and describing them in detail doesn’t always help. But March Was Made of Yarn reminds me with sledgehammer force of exactly why art isn’t just a luxury or a pastime. It’s a fundamental human response to tragedy, a way of shaping the shapeless and nonsensical into the familiar. Even if the only thing that feels familiar is nonsense.
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