Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mother by Grace Paley

Mother by Grace Paley 

One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: "Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway." By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year's Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you're seventeen, what time will you come home when you're twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered. 

Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family's position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all. 
At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?
Then she died. 
Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places—in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block, in the country garden among zinnias and marigolds, in the living room with my father. 
They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart. They looked at one another amazed. It seemed to them that they'd just come over on the boat. They'd just learned the first English words. It seemed to them that he had just proudly handed in a 100 percent correct exam to the American anatomy professor. It seemed as though shed just quit the shop for the kitchen. 
I wish I could see her in the doorway of the living room. 
She stood there a minute. Then she sat beside him. They owned an expensive record player. They were listening to Bach. She said to him, Talk to me a little. We don't talk so much anymore.
I'm tired, he said. Can't you see? I saw maybe thirty people today. All sick, all talk talk talk talk. Listen to the music, he said. I believe you once had perfect pitch. I'm tired, he said.
Then she died. 

Saturday, June 14, 2008


In this week's issue of The New Yorker (the summer fiction issue) I read an essay by Haruki Murakami about his start as a writer and his parallel life as a runner. The essay was lovely and 
informative and I'm happy to have read it. But even though I was inspired, I was also envious, a feeling I rarely experience. 

Murakami never wanted to be a writer. He was operating a successful Jazz club in Tokyo in his late 20s when, at a baseball game, he thought to himself, I'll write a novel. He submitted his only copy of the novel, which he hand-wrote in half a year, to a literary competition. Forgot all about it. And won.  How could he have possibly sent his only copy? How could he have forgotten about it? He is one of the most successful contemporary writers and when he began to write, it had meant nothing to him. 

Despite my envy, I continue to love his work. The sparse strangeness, the curious events, the unreal reality, the quirky playfulness and all of the other elements of his work that are truly unique to Murakami, enthrall me. His stories and novels are always challenging and entertaining. However, he is not a writer who's sentences I like to pull out and highlight. (I often wonder how much of this has to do with various translators. For example there is noticeable difference between the translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, which is lovely on every level and Kafka on the Shore, which didn't have the same fluidity). It's the work as a whole and always its magic that stands out. 

Sleep is a longish (35 pages) story in The Elephant Vanishes, his first collection of short stories. Murakami often writes strong, interesting women. Even though sometimes he assigns them stereotypical roles, such as prostitutes and emotional wrecks, they are always fighting something and struggling to survive. They are multi-dimensional, and usually smarter than the men. Though of course, there are plenty of victims, as well. 

In Sleep, Murakami writes from the perspective of a 30-year-old housewife with insomnia. The story begins on her 17th day without sleep and backtracks to the beginning of how it started. She recalls a period in college during which she experienced a month without sleep and tells of how life was when she could sleep. 

Prior to the Insomnia everything was normal. There were routines. She always said the same things to her husband and son and they always replied with the same answers. She cooked and cleaned and ate and swam and spent each day, filling hours full of nothing until night.  

When the insomnia kicks in, the narrator begins to spend her nights reading, drinking and eating chocolate. Things she hasn't done in years. No one notices that she hasn't slept. No one notices anything. 

The interesting aspect of this story, is that after a while, the reader begins to wonder who is really awake. Is it the narrator who is finally experiencing emotions she hasn't previously felt or everyone else who goes through their day, through their routines without noticing a thing. 

The story skirts around life and death, wakefulness and sleeplessness. Murakami's magic and the perfection of his craft come through in that he is able to say one thing, to tell a linear story (for the most part) and have the reader completely flipped upside down by the end.