Reviews / March 2013 (Issue 20)

The Deal with Detail: John Givens' The Plum Rains

by Alice Tsay


John Givens, The Plum Rains and Other Stories, The Liffey Press, 2012. 202 pgs.

John Givens' recent collection, The Plum Rains, contains a story in which two characters named Hasegawa and Oyasu ("the rogue samurai and the pleasure girl") join forces to write a linked poetry sequence. To narrate one of the stanzas, the two invent a speaker called "The Solitary Rambler on the Withered Moor," which gives the story its title. This is "a name they judged suitably exotic," the narrator observes. "Suitably exotic" would be good words to describe Givens' story collection as well, thirteen pieces loosely organised around the celebrated Edo-period poet Matsuo Bashō and his work. Take this piece and this title, which deal in the double pull of proximity and distance, as cases in point. For the English reader, the moniker of Hasegawa's and Oyasu's imaginary poet plays upon familiar yet romanticised themes—solitude, rambling and desolate landscapes have had a firm place in English literature from the eighteenth century on. "The Solitary Rambler on the Withered Moor" echoes the title of Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" ("Behold her, single in the field/Yon solitary Highland Lass!"), and Givens' story of a tentative relationship built around inevitable separation contains some overtones of Wuthering Heights, a novel with its own monumental and signifying moors. Though he offers Hasegawa and Oyasu's strategy to create something "suitably exotic" with a touch of irony, then, their intentions to some degree reflect his.

Though the "Author's Note" deals with this issue explicitly, it also highlights the difficulty of moving fluidly between the goals of both universalising and individuating this collection of stories set in Japan. While Givens declares his hope of creating "a world that while very different from our own, still resonates with the pleasure of what it means to be human," his logic often moves in counter-intuitive fashion. Explaining the particularities of his work, for example, he writes that "The travel narrative is particularly Japanese, and many of these stories portray figures in motion through a landscape." Thus, rather than situating his use of the travel genre as a link to literary history across the world, he treats the appearance of "figures in motion through a landscape" as part of the distinctive Japaneseness of his text. It is an odd stance to take when the story of a voyage is often described as the most basic human story of all, covering territory that ranges from the wanderings of Odysseus and the Israelites in the desert to the classic sixteenth-century Chinese tale Xi You Ji (Journey to the West).

This uneasy tension manifests itself within the stories in Givens' handling of descriptions: his sentences frequently reflect the dual strain of explicating a distant culture and of channelling all this exotic detail toward symbolic fullness. A man can't just hanker after a shave, he must "long for the bite of a fat-bladed razor." In "The Arsonist's Wife," we are similarly told about the predilections of Jirobei, the local executioner and social outcast. As the narrator observes,

Jirobei preferred a stiff blade, heavier than was common, one with an oversized hilt thickened by a layer of horsehide that was held in place by a spiral of sinews wound on fresh than allowed to contract as they dried, creating grooves that improved the gripping surface and also added what he thought of an aesthetic note to the otherwise utilitarian tool.

Givens clearly likes his knives, writing elsewhere about the "great sibilant arcs" that a samurai's sword carves out of the air. Here, though, the utilitarian mars the aesthetic, giving the prose a textbook-like taste. Though interesting, the details of construction lead to a pileup of clauses: "an oversized hilt/thickened by a layer of horsehide/that was held in place by a spiral of sinews/wound on fresh…," and so on, a litany that distracts from Givens' actual purpose of illuminating the unexpectedly refined tastes of a character treated by everyone as crude and rude.

In longer passages, the effect is further magnified. In a section from the opening story, "The Green Summer Wind," the narrator tells us about Chibi-kun, a young companion of Bashō:

Creating solitary sequences was more satisfying for the boy, and what delighted him most was the rapid-fire composition of a single-poet sequence before an audience of admirers. Haikai linked poems were composed of thirty-six stanzas, each building off the one before; but the boy so trusted his own vitality that he would take on the traditional hundred-stanza sequence and even the occasional thousand-stanza effort, audaciously tossing off link after link in a fever of creativity so that even two scribes with quick brushes had to scramble to keep up with him.

Like the didactic description that interferes with the characterisation of Jirobei, Chibi-kun's prideful overconfidence of youth gets mired in jargon and the desire to inform; as in other places, there is so much to cover that we are getting told, not shown. A passage from "Under Blossoming Boughs," in which the narrator describes a range of decorative netsuke owned by flabby merchants, folds under similar literary pressure:

cunningly wrought ivory baubles dangled from silk cords on their sash pouches: a grinning skull, a rat on a rice bale, a sleeping cat, a sack of coins, a snake tied in a knot, and a rare hinged one of a pair of baboons squat-fucking, the realistic action of which was much admired by connoisseurs, who detected in the intricacy of its design and the audacity of its mechanism the epitome of the style of the Edo townsman.

Initially, this catalogue seems to emerge from the observations from Oyuki, a teahouse girl who has "loosened her bodice" and is singing for them. But the description's emphasis on the rarity, the realism and stylistic representativeness of the baboon carving suggests demonstrative rather than acquisitive motives: this object history moves the narrative attention away from the situation at hand, pitching it to an altogether different transactional realm.

If Japan serves as a metaphorical curiosity cabinet in The Plum Rains, however, it is one in which people are frequently objects of spectacle as well. Givens pays particularly close attention to the macabre, from baby mice nestling in the skull of a dead child to mummies of countless "Followers of the Way of Perfected Abnegation" sitting cross-legged in a grotto, "their dry arms and legs little more than sinewy sticks bound within the preservative of death's sheathing." However, in his vision of seventeenth-century Japan it is not only the dead whose bellies have wasted away, and whose bodies alone bear the marks of lack, loss and grotesque suffering. "The Emptiness Monk" contains a character called Earless Gompatchi whose "ears had been sliced off close to the skull, leaving only crimped buds of flesh, pink and shiny as a newborn baby's lips" and a "rascal with a goitre on his neck the size of a summer melon [who] tried to show his penis to a woman who couldn't be bothered to look at it." These images are memorable, but they try a little too hard to be that way.

Givens' choreography of cultural surprise makes the greatest impression when it does so most subtly. Each English title in the story comes with a corresponding Japanese one just below it, and in "The Arsonist's Widow," widow is 未亡人: mibōjin, the person who hasn't died yet. In English, it comes from an Indo-European root word that means "to be separated," suggesting a parity between the two individuals and their beings that in the Japanese becomes a hauntingly one-way orientation, setting the tone for a story full of human dislocation. Givens can illuminate quite beautifully the material process of creation in brief moments, such as when Bashō "fit[s] the cap back onto the ball-onion ink pot" after a bout of writing outdoors or a character called Ox-Blossom "cut[s] a generous strip off the end of his paper roll" to draft a poem in "Lightness," then contemplates his work while downing a jar of barley water. Moreover, there are some genuinely haunting moments in his stories when he hits the balance between capturing the exotic and the familiar, such as in the opening story when Chibi-kun criticises some lines of Bashō's nature poetry as unrealistic, given the season, and the older man simply responds, "Even in summer, mountains feel like a place for winter to me." Perceiving a space for winter within summer, Givens' character of Bashō achieves the task that the author has shown to be so worthy and so difficult: finding the poetry of a precisely-tuned paradox.

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