Evan Bauer, BFR Editor

AMPS paperback cover BFR Blog Post image

Design and Illustration by Sunra Thompson, Courtesy of McSweeny’s Publishing

If you’re fortunate enough to have been one of my victims over the past few months, you’ll already be aware that I’ve been occupying my time with an incessant rampage of recommending All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews to anything with eyeballs and a pulse.

Every now and then, I’ll read a book so magnificently heartbreaking that it seems like the only logical response is to—with tears of hope in my eyes—vehemently campaign for its author’s ascendance to the presidency. And given the current political climate in the US, electing Toews president seems like just the kind of radical intervention we need. (Toews—pronounced “Taves”—is, to the detriment of my cause, Canadian, but I’m sure we can work something out.)

My infatuation with All My Puny Sorrows began (apropos to BFR Managing Editor Clare Suffern’s recent blog post) with the cover. Upon completing an internship with McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco last spring, I was given free rein to choose a stack of their titles from the bookshelves—titles I had eyed covetously each time I walked through the office. If I were to take the liberty of claiming the existence of a core tenet for some sort of underlying philosophy universal to the team at McSweeney’s, it would be that books, with all their potential to be beautiful, should invariably be just that: beautiful, in everything from content to cover design, typography to spine width, and even the type of paper used in printing. And to me, the paperback edition of All My Puny Sorrows represents the pinnacle of McSweeney’s adherence to beautiful design, so last spring, I knew exactly which book to pull off the shelf first.

The cover—designed by the brilliant Sunra Thompson—depicts a bird’s-eye view of a landscape composed of pastel oranges, purples, and metallic gold accents. Scattered throughout this landscape are tiny, stylized humans going about their various enterprises. Closer inspection reveals that this landscape transcends temporal boundaries, for each orange-skinned figure represents a character from the novel; those two boys carrying a golden kayak, those imposing men in suits and ties standing outside their cars, the two old women arm-in-arm looking out over the river—all of these human miniatures receive hands and facial features over the course of the novel.

Thompson depicts the novel’s two main characters, sisters Yolandi (striped shirt, light hair) and Elfrieda (white shirt, dark hair), multiple times on the cover. Elf is depicted in various positions with slouched posture, hiding, it seems, underneath her cascade of dark hair, and she never has anything in her hands. Yoli, by contrast, is drawn in motion, holding a grocery bag or riding a bicycle. The one instance of Yoli standing still with nothing in her hands features her in the lower left corner, arms slung straight at her sides, looking back on the title of the book and the surrounding landscape. Something about the squiggly font of the title, the scraggly branches of the purple trees dotting the landscape, these handless orange humans all enmeshed in their own toils and ruminations—it all betrays an undercurrent of melancholy and existential dread, yet simultaneously communicates an air of bewilderment. So as viewers, before even acquiring an inkling of what the novel is about, we are inclined to empathize with Yoli in the lower left corner as she looks back and tries to make sense of this beautiful, forlorn landscape and her slouched, despondent sister sitting in the center of the title. By nailing this balance between absurdity and despair, the cover serves as a visual taste-test of the most striking aspect of Toews’ fiction: her use of humor as a gateway into difficult material.

At this point, it would be useful for readers to acquire the aforementioned inkling of what this book is about, so I’ll steal from the back cover: “When Elf, a world-renowned concert pianist, attempts suicide just before an international tour, her sister Yoli must keep their family from falling apart while facing a profound question: what do you do for a loved one who truly wants to die?”

With what wisp of a plot there is revolving around a hospital bed and a family member’s sincere wish to die, it’s easy to wonder how this book could be anything but depressing. But thanks to Toews’ keen imagination and knack for self-deprecation, the novel’s frequent bouts of humor serve as a kind of old-fashioned scuba suit for readers to slip on before diving into subject matter perhaps otherwise too suffocatingly tragic.

One instance of such humor (taken from a long list in my phone of page numbers on which this book made me laugh or cry) comes at a point in the novel when Yoli is visiting Elf in the hospital, away from her kids in Toronto, and grappling with the question of whether or not to help her sister access legally assisted suicide in Switzerland. She receives a call from a man with whom she is loosely romantically involved back in Toronto. He asks if there is anything he can do for her. Yoli replies: “I asked him to drive past my apartment in Toronto and see if there were signs of life from Nora and Will and maybe he could knock on the door and ask them if they were okay and why Nora wasn’t answering her phone. Although I already knew why. It was because she had poisoned Will and dragged his body into a closet and was having unprotected sex all over the house with her fifteen-year-old Swedish dancer boyfriend and she didn’t have the time or inclination to talk to her sad old disapproving mother in the midst of it all. Consider it done, he said.”

In an interview for The Guardian, Toews said of her choice to bring so much humor into the equation: “I wanted people to not be afraid of the subject matter, to get the tone right, right off the top, and get the readers’ trust, so we could come out together in some other, less dark place.”

A natural concern with such a strategy is that the comedic moments might, in some way, diminish the legitimacy or forcefulness of a story’s sorrow. In my own writing, I know that a particular sadness can feel so precious that to juxtapose it with humor would be to fail in giving it a faithful representation. However, when done well (and it is hard to do well—thank god we have writers like Miriam Toews), moments of comic relief can, curiously, have the opposite effect. Rather than diminish it, these moments can actually amplify the reader’s experience of a story’s sadness. In reading All My Puny Sorrows, we get the sense that the characters—particularly Yoli—are utilizing humor as a defense against tragedy; by surrendering themselves to the bafflement of navigating human sorrow, they refuse to let it break them. The characters then feel more human and relatable, which makes us feel the weight of their grief all the more.

Another writer (featured in our most recent issue of BFR) who toes this line between tragedy and comedy well is Jonathan Plombon in his gloriously titled short story “Dismantling Modern Residential Architecture Inside the Patriarchal Family Structure: A Proper, Expedited Disposal Technique of a Broken Home and Its Contents, for Fathers Who Have Somewhere Better to Be and Couldn’t Give a Damn, Anyway.” Across twenty-six short (and equally gloriously) individually-titled segments, Plombon’s narrator details a childhood spent in a broken home and a subsequent encounter with a mysterious plant-woman. Unlike Toews, however, Plombon’s humor relies largely on surrealist exaggerations and clever twists on familiar phrases. In section seventeen— “Babies and Ladders Don’t Come with Instruction Manuals”—the narrator exclaims: “I wanted my mother to use me as a crutch… She never clung to my arm, but I detached mine anyway, tying it together with crutches, bars, stools, and a strange man’s shoulders.” The tone of the story is removed from the narrator’s internal strife—emotionless, almost—so somehow this image of him taking off his arm and tying it up in an absurd contraption to prop up his mother impacts the reader even more (and by “the reader,” I mean me).

So what to do with all this? Pick up a copy of All My Puny Sorrows. Pick up a copy of BFR. Let Toews and Plombon slice you open then stitch you back together. Write your own magical-realist tragicomic story about a country-bumpkin-turned-city-slicker old man who wants only to look upon his childhood farm once more but can’t, for the life of him, remember where he misplaced the cord to his rechargeable eyeballs. The world is your miserable, hysterically laughing oyster.

Edward Booth, BFR Staff

I saw an orange cat yesterday, in the field out back. She strolled through the green field with sun shimmering across her fur, with a feline grace that can only belong to satisfaction. Her stride was purposeful, and soon she had walked the length of the field and vanished beyond the horizon.

Looking through my gap in the wooden fence this sight inspired envy. It was true I could never be that cat. She had a natural gift for movement, a superiority that announced itself to the world. I have nothing to compare with that. I’m no golden stallion of a retriever, nor do I have the glow of a pampered dachshund. I have no beauty or strength that would allow me to know the world as the orange cat does, but I still wish to know what it’s like.

The field outside is a place I’ve never been. I know of the outside world. Occasionally I’m allowed to glimpse it on a path chosen by my owner. Those times, though limited, are incredibly exciting. I can feel the presence of other beings. I can sense their auras. That feeling of newness, of novelty is what I desire. In those moments I’m able to touch upon a fountain of teeming life that exists beyond my boundaries — and then I catch myself. The expanse is beyond me.

I can only be who I am. A runty dog, black and white, with no distinguishing features. I sometimes bark at joggers, but they are not intimidated. It sounds more like a cough than a bark, causing confusion more than anything else.

A lot of the time it doesn’t matter. Routine is routine, and eating, sleeping, and playing is enjoyable as it ever was. Sometimes I get new food, sometimes I get different places to sleep, sometimes I get new toys, and sometimes different people bring in smells and experiences. It’s not bad I suppose. It’s just when I walk to the edge of the backyard and look through the hole in the wooden fence I can see so much more.

The orange cat moved from the field into her own lawn. Now it was time for dinner. A push of the head was all that was needed for her to slip inside, and then she was home to comfort. She had the freedom to roam, but rarely used it. It was a routine as soft and simple as marmalade. She had no need for anything else.

Edie Sussman, BFR Staff

The small bell above the door rang sharply as Dr. Magellan and an accompanying frozen breeze swept into the waiting room.

“Sorry I’m late, traffic was hell this morning.”

Her receptionist nodded knowingly. “Have they still not put out that fire out over on the 101?”

“Nope. The pyromancy department has its hands full dealing with it.” She hung up her jacket and scarf and took down a white coat. “Any messages?”

“Nancy Roswell. She wants to talk to you about seeing a specialist for her skin.”

“Who’s my first appointment?”

“Tommy Winters, routine checkup. Trish is in room 7 with him now.”

Dr. Magellan gave a thumbs-up and a thank you, poured herself a cup of coffee, and stepped into her office to pick up her patient’s file.

She sat at her desk, flipping through the reports from his last checkups. Nine years old, third grade, in general good health. He’d first come to her about five years ago, when the cats had started following him home from preschool. She’d diagnosed him with tendencies towards witchcraft and recommended adopting a familiar from a service animal agency.

“Dr. Magellan?” A nurse poked her head into the office, clipboard in hand. “Tommy’s all set to see you.”

“Thanks, Trish.” As she left the room, Dr. Magellan took Trish’s clipboard and started reading through the report.

When she reached room 7, a small sphinx cat was standing in front of the door, blocking her way. It gazed up at her piercingly, and she took a step back despite herself. Familiars were known to acquire magical powers of their own, and she still wasn’t sure what this one was capable of.

“Tommy?” she called out. “It’s Dr. Magellan. Can you tell Svetka to let me in?”

A faint voice responded from inside. “You’re not going to give me a shot, are you?”

Oh no. This again.

“Tommy, you’re due for a flu shot. If you don’t get it, you might get sick. You don’t want to get sick, do you?”

“I’d rather get sick than get a shot!” Tommy shouted back as Svetka hissed.

“Do you remember the last time you got sick, Tommy? You couldn’t play with your friends for a whole week. That was no fun, right?”

No sound came from inside the room.

“It’ll only be a second,” Dr. Magellan continued. “And you can hold Svetka if it helps you. You’ll barely feel a thing.”

Still, Tommy was silent.

Dr. Magellan sighed in frustration. “If you don’t get a shot, I can’t give you candy?”

Tommy didn’t respond immediately, but Svetka stepped to the side of the doorway and began licking a paw, which Dr. Magellan knew meant she was free to come into the room. She knelt to meet the cat’s eyes and whispered, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a treat for you too.”

Fifteen minutes later, Tommy was sucking happily on a lollipop as his father drove him away, and Dr. Magellan was in room 10 finishing her yearly check-up with the Nguyen family.

“So Pamela, how are you enjoying middle school?” she asked as she finished filling in the state immunization records.

Pamela sulked in her wheelchair and refused to answer.

“Are you still on the swim team?”

This time her mother answered for her. “They wouldn’t let her compete anymore because of her… advantage.”

Dr. Magellan shook her head in disbelief. “You should take that up with the school board. They can’t discriminate against merpeople like that. In the meantime, are you still swimming for fun?”

Pamela mumbled inaudibly.

“What was that?” Dr. Magellan asked.

“I said I want to do ballet.”

“Honey,” her mother interrupted, “we already talked about this. The ballet studio just isn’t ready for someone with your condition.”

Dr. Magellan frowned. “I don’t know about that, Amy. You know there’s a wheelchair ballet studio just a few blocks down from here? I could give you their contact info?”

“Well –“

“Yes! Oh please oh please oh please Mom, can I?” Pamela shouted, her face lighting up and her gills flapping excitedly.

“You mean instead of swimming? But is that healthy?”

“As long as she’s still taking a bath once a day and drinking plenty of saltwater, I don’t see why not,” Dr. Magellan reassured them.

Pamela looked up at her with gratitude in her eyes. “Thank you, Dr. Magellan.”

 

It was around 2:00 in the afternoon when a nurse rushed into Dr. Magellan’s office, wide eyed and out of breath.

“You need to come into the waiting room. Right now.”

Dr. Magellan shot out of her chair and raced to the waiting room, wondering what could possibly have been so urgent. What she saw stopped her in her tracks.

“Frankie? Honey, what are you doing here?”

Her daughter looked up at her from where she lay on the floor, curled up tightly into a ball. There were tears in her eyes.

“I… I don’t know, I was just in gym class and then suddenly it was so loud and bright and now I’m here and I don’t know why!” She began to cry again.

Dr. Magellan knelt to her daughter’s side and held her in her arms. “No, sweetie, you’re going to be ok. I’ve got you.”

“Is—is something… wrong with me?”

“Nothing is wrong with you, sweetie,” she said softly. “Teleportation abilities run in our family, you know that. Remember Aunt Susan? How she would always appear at your birthday parties with all those balloons?”

“I can…teleport?” Frankie choked out between sobs.

“That’s what it looks like,” Dr. Magellan said. She could see her daughter thinking over this new information, realization of a world of new possibilities dawning on her. She smiled. It would take some work for her daughter to be able to control her new powers, but that moment of realization—the sudden understanding that a child had been given a blessing and not a curse—that was why she was a pediatrician.

Jackie Nichols, BFR Staff

To almost all pedestrians, the cobblestone streets were most charming in the lamplight of evening. They were reminiscent of grander cities, or of grander times for the once triumphant city of Sarajevo. But, for Ethan, the darkness could not be illuminated by wane streetlights, and searching for street names and signs of the bus terminal was next to impossible. He used his limited Bosnian vocabulary to try and tell passersby that he was looking for the bus station, but it was useless. This town was not a common tourist destination and the locals were not accustomed to speaking with someone who spoke so poorly. He rushed along the many side streets and, after a number of ups and downs, reached his destination in a huff. He showed the attendant his ticket and boarded the bus.

The bus was mostly empty, and Ethan continued to the back where there was a girl, about his age. He put his coat and carry-on in the seat adjacent, and set his luggage on the shelf overhead. He settled into his seat, and closed his eyes. The air from the vents was cold but he began to fall asleep. The bus driver made some announcements in Bosnian, and the sudden motion of the bus’s departure jolted him awake. He checked his phone again, and saw that the bus had wi-fi. He connected to it and, checking his messages, found he had missed five. Two were from his mom. The first: “Hi Ethan, just wanted to let you know that your dad is in intensive care now. The doctors are doing what they can, but we don’t know much yet.” The second said: “Your father is in an induced coma and we are awaiting further news from the doctors. Hope you are travelling safely. Love you.” Ethan put down his phone. Outside his window the battered streets of Sarajevo passed by. He saw families inside their homes and couples out on the sidewalks.

He thought about what he would have been doing at home, three months ago. His mom would have been making dinner around this time, probably would have asked him to run to the store for the scallions she forgot. And then there was his dad. His dad would be in his recliner, staring gravely at a half-filled crossword. Ethan would hear the intermittent sighs and perplexed mumbles from his own spot in front of the TV, volume half way. He would turn over some conversation starters in his head. “Hey dad, want some help?” No, too belittling. Besides, he had to go get scallions.

He checked his phone again, twenty more minutes on the bus. He looked out the window again, and couldn’t help thinking about his family at that very moment, so far away, in a too brightly lit hospital hallway. Heels, pens, and keyboards clicking loudly, reverberating off the linoleum. They were probably crowded together in the stiff chairs, his mother with a box of Kleenex and cup of coffee idly in her hands. He thought of his dad lying in a room, alone, silent, except for the beeping of the heart monitor and fan of the air conditioner. He wished he could reach out and shake him awake.

He was suddenly alarmed by a shove. The girl adjacent to him was trying to get something from her bag. He looked at her with a surprised look and she apologized. He mumbled some words of reproach to her.

“Oh, you are American?” she replied.

“Yes,” he said.

“Sorry to bother, but I was thinking if you had a light,” she said.

It took him a moment to realize she was holding a cigarette and wanted a lighter. “Oh, no. I don’t smoke. Sorry.”

“It is nothing,” she said and waved her hand. She turned around and continued digging in her bag. A sudden bump in the road caused some articles to fall from her lap. Ethan reached down and gathered the things at his feet. He picked up a worn photo of a small girl in the arms of her father. They were standing in front of a brightly graffitied wall. He realized he was staring and quickly handed her her things.

“Thank you.” She put the things back in her purse and settled in her seat. “So, where are you going?” she asked.

Ethan sighed to himself, wishing for silence. “Home, to the U.S. To St. Paul in a state called Minnesota.”

“Minnesota? Hm, I’ve never heard of it. Perhaps it is very exotic, yes?”

“Not really, if you live there.” He stopped talking then and looked straight ahead, but she spoke anyhow.

“I am going home also. To a town called Grimauld in France. It is in the south and it is very beautiful there. My mother, and brother, and sister, and grandma are there. They will be very happy to see me,” she told him.

They arrived at the airport in a few minutes and Ethan collected his things and got off the bus. He walked over to the map of the airport and found his terminal. He heard someone walking towards him and the girl stood next to him, also looking at the map.

“My plane is in A. And yours?” she inquired.

“Mine is in A, too.”

“You are stopping in Paris?”

“Yeah, I have a layover there.”

“Me too. I think A is over there.” She pointed to the left. “Perhaps we are on the same plane.”

“I guess we might be.”

So the two walked in that direction and found a sign which indicated they were in the right place. They walked in the direction of an old bench by the windows overlooking the runway.

He put his things down on the floor, and she put hers there as well.

“My name is Nadine,” she said and put forth her hand.

He shook it, saying, “Hi, I’m Ethan.”

They sat on the bench, and, together, they waited.

Moira Peckham, BFR Editorial Staff

It started in her fingers. Marie could feel the joints constricting and solidifying under her skin. With each new day and each new client, they grew tighter, unbearably restrictive. Marie was certain that they would stop working all together. But they didn’t, and when every client inevitably said, “Press a little harder please,” Marie would comply, leeching the tension from their oiled, shimmering pores like soap from a sponge.

From her fingers it moved through her hands, wriggling into the tendons and bones like inchworms through an apple. But her hands still kneaded the backs of strangers until they became as soft and malleable as butter on a warm day. Marie’s joints cracked and rebelled, but still she pressed harder.

The tension moved up her arms, into her elbows, biceps, and shoulders. She hunched. She flexed. She even tried self-massage, but nothing released the ever-growing knots under her skin. Her neck grew so tight that she couldn’t rest comfortably on her bed, every movement of her head, no matter how slight, pulling on the rigid muscles. Every little thing that touched her exacerbated the tightness. Marie tried twisting. She tried writhing. She tried lying very, very still.  But nothing soothed the perpetual aching in her body.

Her back felt like a slab of concrete punctuated with tennis balls but still she had to press harder. Each and every client it seemed needed to be elbowed, crushed and bullied into relaxation, their muscles like eggs waiting to be cracked. And so Marie pressed harder. With every passing day, she bore down with greater ferocity on the backs, arms, legs, and necks of strangers, trying to draw any small semblance of calm out of their taught, abused bodies. But it was never enough. “Harder” they would say, and harder she would coerce them into slackening themselves out on the table.

There was nothing to be done. This was her livelihood. There was no solace in her hours of loneliness for even then she had crush out her own constricting body parts. She was a block of ice. A gnarled old tree. An over-full balloon just waiting for the moment it could pop.

“And I just can’t take it anymore!” Marie cried out, looking to Dr. Meyers for guidance.

The doctor looked up from his notes, nodding, brain on fire, wishing that there was someone there more qualified to handle this situation.

“Marie,” the doctor said, “I know exactly what you mean.”

Brittany Foley, BFR Editorial Staff

Edging her way along the baseboard, the spider looked for a new place to nest. After having her previous home destroyed, she needed a safer location.

She began the ascent up the wall, finding no convenient holes in the corners of the room. Reaching the windowsill, she considered making the space underneath the window her den until she realized how little space she would have. However, before she could continue her search, a blast of winter air blew in through the window and knocked her off the edge of the sill and to what she thought was her death.

Immediately after the realization that she was still alive, she was overwhelmed by vibrations coming from what seemed to be every direction and she scrambled to find safety. Her legs shuffled over the cloth-like material beneath her until it reached a surface that gave way ever so slightly underneath her weight. Scrambling over ridge after ridge, she was nearly knocked away by something that swiped at the ground centimeters away. The world trembled beneath her and began to tilt. She was nearly tossed off if not for the grip the hairs on her legs had on the space beneath her.

After the world settled once again, she walked curiously about, exploring the terrain of her environment. The scent of onions and mint wafted towards her and, filled with curiosity, she walked towards what looked like a hole in the ground. Air moved in and out of it but the winds were gentle enough.

As she sat considering this opening, there was another quake and she sensed something coming towards her. Panicked, she attempted to scrabble away. However, yet again she was engulfed by a strong wind, this time pulling rather than pushing her. Before she knew it, blackness engulfed her and all light was shut out.

*               *               *

The boy sat up in bed. Rubbing his eyes, he felt a sudden tickle in his throat. Impulsively, he swallowed, yawned, and laid back down to sleep once again.

Emily Jean Conway, BFR Staff

Mom is sitting on the couch again.

She’s been doing this lately. “Fishing,” she calls it, as if a little self-reflection is all the rod and line she needs to remember what is—has—been gone, going, for the past five years.

Mostly, she naps.

But when she wakes up, she’ll tell me about the lake again. Those are her favorite stories; it’s what’s made the most impression from her childhood. Lasted the longest, after school and old loves and adventures didn’t. But there’s a little less detail every time, so I remember for her—remind her of the time her uncle fell in the water one spring and kept falling in; when her brother broke a canoe in half before it’d even touched water when he was eight; the year the algae bloom cut the vacation short, the smell was so terrible; and when she was seven, she’d caught two fish with one hook and no bait. She likes that last one the best. There’s even a picture I can bring out for the occasion.

What’s better than me doing the remembering is when she remembers on her own and she tells me something new. A detail oddly specific—maybe too specific, so who knows how real it really is? There’s no one left who can say.

It’s happening less now, the remembering. But sometimes, whatever’s been submerged resurfaces, and the fog of her eyes clears. She calls me the right name, remembers I’m her “little bird.” And then she’ll talk about the news that morning and make a joke I haven’t heard in years at her own expense and it’s almost like having her back again.

More often it is that I walk in and she is staring at the wall and when she looks at me, I may as well be another piece of furniture. It’s these moments that remind me better than a schedule to take my Omega-3 and B-12; anything to stave off this decline.

But today she sees me. She smiles, at least, when I walk in. She stops looking at the wall. “Susan!” she says and beckons me over, patting the seat beside her. “Little bird, I have the best story to tell you. Do you have a second?”

“Of course, Mom,” I say and take the seat and smile. She doesn’t notice that it looks wrong. She would have before; she used to know me so well. Better than I know her now.

“You know that summer house my father, your grandfather, used to take us to? The one with the dock and that lake that looked gorgeous any time of the year? Really picturesque, I’ve heard it called. You remember? I’m sure there’s a picture around here somewhere.”

“I think you’ve mentioned it.”

Well, one of those times, I was out fishing. I was a little thing, so I wasn’t really thinking things through when I took out the rod that morning…”

Two fish this time.

Nika Nabifar, BFR Staff

There is something that happens almost every time I finish a Haruki Murakami story—something that I now feel I have the precedent to call The Murakami Effect. A quick google search has alerted me of the fact that this term has been used countless times before, but it’s fine. Murakami can have multiple effects.

I preface this by saying that I’ve read a very small handful of his novels—After Dark, Sputnik Sweetheart, and I’m currently reading both Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (I don’t know why I’m always reading 5/6 books at once; I feel like I may have a fear of finishing novels but that’s a different story for another time). I have, however, read many, many of his short stories. I most recently finished The Strange Library, which I guess is technically considered a short illustrated novel, but it read like one of his short stories to me. After finishing it, I realized once again that I was hit with that same feeling, a.k.a. The Murakami Effect. It was kind of hilarious to me this time, albeit sad, because I thought I had escaped it, maybe grown accustomed to it, but then the last page happened and it got to me. Again. It never ends.

It’s something that’s hard for me to explain in words. How do you explain the way something leaves you feeling when you yourself don’t fully understand it? The endings are gut wrenching, profound, introspective. Sometimes they literally sum up the whole story in a couple lines; most of the times they’re really just plain sad; but all of the time, they’re beautiful. They always seem to creep up on me and then it’s like one large wave of emotion that I become completely submerged in and can’t seem to escape. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, but a good kind of overwhelming. A kind that makes me seek out his work time and time again.

I want to speak for Murakami’s corpus as a whole, but I cannot, so bear with me. Murakami seems to consistently write and grapple with the inevitable state of human loneliness. In fact, every Murakami piece I’ve read has to do with it (that and the moon are the two most consistent symbols I’ve registered in his works, but the moon is something that needs a piece of its own). I think the fact that his works affect me so deeply is because many of the protagonists have been in their 20s, or reflect on their time in their 20s, and Murakami writes specifically about a kind of loneliness felt by young people. His short story “Yesterday” deals with this most prominently–“But when I look back at myself at age twenty what I remember most is being alone and lonely.”

I don’t think I ever experienced The Murakami Effect as strongly as I did after reading “Yesterday.” Maybe it was the timing. I was in a new city. I barely knew more people than I could count on both hands. I also hadn’t read Murakami in a while. I think, though, it’s just him. His writing is so accessible, it’s easy and clear and doesn’t take much effort to comprehend most of the time, which is a nice break. But most of all, it’s lovely. He writes in a way that is poetic and the effect of it reflects that.

A bit of a tangent, but still related nonetheless: I recently read an article that was about the effects Marcel Proust had on Virginia Woolf and her writing. While yes, I understand Woolf when she speaks this way about Proust as I am also reading Proust at the moment (another one of my started-but-haven’t-finished attempts), and while I agree with her whole-heartedly, I also couldn’t help think about Murakami –as I always do. Woolf says, in a letter:

“My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped— and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical— like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”

This “Proust Effect” Woolf felt is exactly like my Murakami Effect. The first time I ever finished a Murakami piece, I couldn’t imagine even bothering with another contemporary author, and felt like asking Woolf’s “what remains to be written after that?” question. I was desperate to discover the authors that influenced him, the people he drew inspiration from, anything and everything that brought me closer to his work. I couldn’t and still can’t get enough. There is something about him that seems so otherworldly, sometimes I can’t believe someone even has the capacity to write the way he does, but also completely relatable, making it so that every time I read a new piece of his, it’s like I’m conversing with an old friend.

 

Side Note: I wrote this while listening to a playlist of the musical references Murakami mentions in his works which is pretty entertaining on its own – https://open.spotify.com/user/sdmeslow/playlist/6pEMWyjkKbufHyRZ7QZiaS

 

 

Caeli Benson, BFR Staff

I have a talent for recognizing faces in the crowd while remaining a face in the crowd. They stand out more than I do in my tie-dye and Hawaiian shirts or my Frida Kahlo socks. I see the flags flying over their heads; the staff marks where our paths have crossed, and the colors mark our memories. There’s Marge from Beverly Cleary, the girl who defends R-Kelly when she’s drunk. And there’s Nick from Latin American Studies, the lacrosse player who pronounces Chile like “chili.”

I relive these experiences constantly with different people all the time. I’m the only one who recognizes the other person, but it’s not like I do anything about it. I don’t say hello or wave frantically to get their attention. But with her, I did.

 

Dorothy sits with her feet crisscrossed, her fingers interlaced in her lap, and her head bowed low. Before I approach the green bench she rests on, I see how much age has withered her. The clothes she wears—her light pink plaid shoes, dark grey slacks, white dress shirt, and the black North Face jacket—hang loosely on her. Her hair is completely white, whiter than the dress shirt she wears on a daily basis. It seemed like only a few years ago that she was the woman who protested eating hamburger after the Mad Cow epidemic hit the US, who told me when I was eight years old that I’d never be a better writer than her, and who drove both of her Volvos into two different telephone poles.

I walk slowly to the bench, the dry grass and wood chips crunching under my feet. She looks up and the sun hat shifts on her head, “Well hiya, kid!”

“Hey, Grandma. How are you?”

“I’m good. Just resting.”

“That’s good. Can I sit here?” I point to the seat next to her.

“Oh, sure.” She grabs the small purse sitting next to her and sits it on her lap. It’s a new purse that she’s used the past two years. She never opens it, but she always fidgets with its zipper.

I sit next to her and we watch the families flooding out of the dining hall. I watch their every move, hoping that one of them will help spark a conversation between us. We used to talk a lot more than we do now, but it’s been six or seven years since it happened.

“What’s… that thing over there?”

I look in the direction she’s pointing. I tell her that it’s some sort of pipeline that firefighters can use in case of an emergency. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but she gives me a small shrug saying, I’ll take your word for it. She looks up at the sky, staring at the tops of the trees. I follow her gaze, trying to see what she’s seeing.

I flip my phone open to check the time. “My dad wants me to take you up the hill to take your meds. You almost ready to go?” I ask, predicting the answer she’s given me every time I’ve asked.

“You know, I think I’m going to sit here for a little while longer.” I nod, and we return to our silence.

For the next hour and a half, I ask her icebreaker questions that I already know the answer to. How has the weather been in Berkeley? Really… cold. Have you been going to the Happy Hours at Amy’s cabin? Yeah… Lars brings me some wine and crackers. Have you written anything new recently? Well, no. I haven’t had time. I’ve been… busy lately. (I call my Uncle Lars every night who responds, “Oh, we just watched TV.”)

She swatted an ant that was crawling up her leg. She let out a laugh, “That was huge!”

“I never knew ants could be that big!” I joke.

I was thinking of another question when she asked, “Have you seen my mom?”

I don’t let the sigh leave my chest. I know that I should tell her the truth, but what’s the point? I remember the lesson I learned at Miller’s Place, when the patients would ask the head nurse where their husbands and wives were. “I haven’t seen her around in a while. What does she look like? I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

“Oh, yeah okay.” She chooses her words painstakingly, fitting each into her narrative. She tells me how her father, a Portuguese butcher, left my great-grandmother when he found out she was older than him, how they sold produce on the side of the road, and how her mother would only smoke two cigarettes a day—once after breakfast and the other after dinner. The more she talks, the longer it takes for her to form her story. I let her struggle through it because I’ve never known much about her or her family. She never liked talking about her life, but she showed me the diaries and bundles of old envelopes she wrote in for most of her life.

I hardly recognized my dad walking down the hill. “Hey Mom.” He said, waving at her.

“Well, hi…” She nodded, trying to remember the name she gave him.

“Let’s go take your meds.”

“Oh, okay.” She struggled to get up from the bench, so I gave her my hand. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I whisper.

We begin the trek up the hill, stopping every five or six steps to let her catch her breath. As soon as we get to her cabin, my dad asks, “Do you know who this is?”

She looks up at me, “Well, no.”

“She’s your granddaughter.”

She looks up for the second time, “Oh!” She shines a smile up at me, and I smile down, trying to hold back my tears.

Margaret Chen, BFR Staff

In supplication the queen and king had knelt at the bottom of the steps, their foreheads pressed against the cold floor. But now their heads were lifted, their necks cranked back. The queen’s heavy crown sagged into her nest of dark hair, her face appearing all the more ashen. In the king’s arms, the baby shifted sleepily to the side. Below the statues of gods, the priest stood in his ivory robes between two columns of billowing curtains, as silent as the rest.

The frieze held for no longer than a second. Having no part in the prophesy, the queen moved first, extending her graceful arms to tear past the space between her and her husband, to grab at her child. The king turned away on instinct, and the queen collapsed at his feet, anchoring herself to his leg. Her sobs echoed the hallowed room.

Ceremonial blankets shrouded the baby’s young frame. The king parted the fabric where it covered the young, squirming creature’s face and then watched it with some morbid fascination, as one would stare at a fly caught in a web. The queen’s pleas he ignored, perhaps thought them to be a crow’s call. When she clawed at his thighs and gouged out flesh, he did not flinch.

Of course, the king looked and felt disgust at the existence of such a creature. Meat wrapped in bone, more liquid than bones—human children were such soft beings. One slip of the hand: one splotch on the ground. It would not be difficult to do, not at all—the man could feel his own grip slacken then, no doubt, to a point where he could not stop the child from falling even if he tried—give in, let temptation take him by the hand, let gravity guide it to its course—let this small sacrifice secure his own mortality—

The baby must have been feeling quite chilly at this point, because it cried. The wail stuttered at first, then lengthened, piercing through the infected air. It would be surprise, more than anything, that forced the king—clean, smooth-faced, and beardless; altogether shockingly young—to wind his large hands around the baby’s delicate waist. To hold the little thing, gently, against his own chest. To listen to the boy’s screaming declaration of his own life. To feel his son’s small chest flutter with his first intakes of the world. To continue himself of this little soul’s continued existence.

Then, gone.

Then, the queen rocking the baby to her chest clear against the other side of the room—mother and son, both, sobbing blindly. Her fingers shone, wet and red, and bloody little ovals dotted all over the baby’s blanket.

Shame battered the king to the floor; he sank into his pile of white robe. The corrugated curtains above them twisted and sashayed like the dresses of those mad maidens who lived their days in the ancient legends. Together, the humans in this house of the gods breathed, in and out, in and out.