Where do I start with The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl? The latest film from Masaaki Yuasa is a beautifully bonkers, Ulysses-esque
Where do I start with The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl? The latest film from Masaaki Yuasa is a beautifully bonkers, Ulysses-esque
rendering of a single night in Kyoto. Its shapeless, sneaky plot—plot? nested series of absurdities?—follows the titular girl on her quest to drink everything in town. Simple, right? In this world, though, a single night can be turned sideways, shaken out like a picnic blanket, transformed by the light, accordioned out to reveal endless mysteries nestled in the interstices between minutes and moments. The difficulty in describing this movie is that something new is always happening, and it is always happening in vivid color. The preppy director of the school festival runs a complicated surveillance system that follows students’ every action from birth. A man named Don Underwear refuses to change his skivvies until he once again meets the woman of his dreams—with whom he locks eyes at the exact moment apples fall from trees and bonk both of them on the head. A tiny god with an ice cream cone raids a black-market literary auction and frees the books, which take to the air, scatter like pigeons, and alight on the shelves of a nearby used-book fair. I left the theater certain that everything is connected and life is beautiful—the sorts of platitudes you think when you’ve somehow stumbled your way into that rarest of things: a perfect night out. Roll your eyes all you want—you’ll thoroughly understand my joy once you’ve experienced the rush of a single long, short night bouncing around in Masaaki Yuasa’s head. —Brian Ransom
In a 1929 interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dashiell Hammett described his first attempts at “breadwinning.” After dropping out of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute at 14, he worked as a messenger boy for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, then as a junior clerk (“very junior”) in an advertising office, a stockbroker, a timekeeper in a cannery and a machine shop, and a stevedore until it became “too strenuous”—at which point he responded to an “enigmatic want-ad” and was hired as an operative in the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. From 1915 to 1918 and from 1920 to 1922, Hammett worked as an op. Despite the modest pay, he “liked gumshoeing better than anything I had done before” and “sleuthing” even more. In 1921, at 27, he got married and had a child. He needed money, and so he “decided to become a writer,” he told the Eagle. “It was a good idea. Having had no experience whatever in writing, except writing letters and reports, I wasn’t handicapped by exaggerated notions of the difficulties ahead.”
There would be difficulties ahead, one of which would be maintaining that pragmatic attitude towards writing. But when he gave this interview, things were going well. His first novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, had been published by Knopf, and he had turned in a manuscript of The Maltese Falcon, which he told his editor was “the best thing I’ve done so far.” Reviewers praised Red Harvest’s liveliness and dialogue, and The Dain Curse, though not as celebrated, made the New York Times Christmas list. The books were selling well. Hollywood was interested.
In The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, Nathan Ward considers “exactly how he made his famous transformation from Pinkerton operative to master of the American detective story.” Why is equally important. The simple answer is that Hammett was chronically ill and couldn’t do much else. By the age of 28, he had suffered a series of ailments. In June 1918, at 24, he had enlisted in the army and was stationed at Camp Meade, outside Baltimore. In October, he caught the Spanish flu, which caused (or possibly provoked a latent) tuberculosis, and in May 1919 he was honorably discharged. He spent the next year living with his parents, either in bed or out on the town, smoking, drinking, and “helling around.” In a period of good health, he moved to Spokane, Washington, and worked at a Pinkerton outpost before he fell ill again: he was short of breath, and at six foot one inches and around 130 pounds, he was weak and emaciated. He was sent to a Tacoma hospital, where he met Josephine Annis Dolan (who went by Jose), a pretty nurse from Anaconda, Montana. Hammett was transferred to a hospital outside San Diego, from which he wrote her fervent letters: “I didn’t intend doing this—writing you a second letter before I got an answer to my first—but that’s the hell of being in love with a vamp, you do all sorts of things.” Jose soon discovered she was pregnant, and within a few months they were married and living in San Francisco. Hammett went back to sleuthing, but his “health continued to go blooey,” his weight dropped further, and in February 1922, he quit Pinkerton and took up writing.
When the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle was asked whether he read novels, he famously replied, without missing a beat, “Oh, yes—all six, every year.” And without missing a beat, we get the joke, of course, not because we believe that Jane Austen’s novels throw all others into the shadows (though we do) and not because they bear annual rereading (though they do) but rather because we all know—or think we know—that she wrote six of them.
But Austen wrote more than six novels. Along with Love and Freindship and Lady Susan, which enjoy modest fame, Austen proudly subtitled several shorter works as “a novel”—such as Jack and Alice: A Novel and Henry and Eliza: A Novel. But these, though enjoyed by a handful of avid enthusiasts, are mostly unknown to the general public. Written for the amusement of her family, these works belong to the collection of early writing referred to sometimes as the “juvenilia” or “minor works,” both terms being rather disparaging, and most recently as “teenage writings.” Variously described—by Austen herself—as novels, tales, odes, plays, fragments, memoirs, and scraps, the juvenilia consist of twenty-seven pieces written from 1787 to 1793, when Austen was between the ages of eleven and eighteen. Austen was demonstrably attached to these works, in 1793 transcribing them into three stationer’s notebooks and entitling them Volume the First, Volume the Second, Volume the Third, each paginated and each including a table of contents. That Austen esteemed these pieces is proven by the very existence of these volumes, presented as if together they might constitute a magnum opus, a three-volume novel in the manner, say, of Pride and Prejudice or Emma. That she continued to return to these works once she grew up is proven by her emendations in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and by her allowing a niece and nephew to try their hands at finishing some as late as 1814–16. That Austen’s closest relations continued to treasure them is proven by the fact that Austen’s sister, Cassandra, the keeper of Austen’s literary effects, carefully preserved these volumes after Austen’s death, and upon her own willed them to her brothers and her nephew. Read More
The first time my parents read my fiction, my mother had just one comment about the short story, which featured a server at a Chinatown restaurant: “Chinese can be more than waitresses.”
On a visit home, in my early thirties, I’d given them a copy of the literary magazine that had published my story. I’d recently quit my newspaper reporting job, taken the leap into an M.F.A. program, and for the first time, I was showing them the result of my labors. Of all the reactions I might have anticipated—pride or excitement or maybe boredom or disappointment—I hadn’t foreseen that one. My mother seemed to feel that I should portray Chinese Americans only as model minorities, highly educated engineers and doctors who live the American Dream.
She didn’t know that for a time, I’d stopped writing about Chinese Americans at all. For a year or two in college, I had convinced myself that if I wanted to be considered a real author, all my characters had to be white—as if those were the only worthy stories to be told. After all, that’s what I’d grown up with and what I’d studied in school.
Even though we didn’t share the same race or place, I’d recognized myself in feisty aspiring writers in children’s literature: Jo March in Little Women, Laura Ingalls of the Little House series, and the titular Anne of Green Gables. As a girl, I also read and reread Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings—published the year I was born—about the Chinese immigrant son of a master kite maker in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early twentieth century. But I didn’t identify with the main character, even though we were both of Chinese descent; he was a boy, and he spoke often of demons, which my scientist mother and engineer father never mentioned. Read More
In the winter of 2015, Ben Lerner wrote a short story, “The Polish Rider,” incorporating fictionalized elements of the life and work of the artist Anna Ostoya, who had recently lost two of her canvases in the back of an Uber. As the narrator of the story helps the artist search for the missing canvases, he fantasizes about “recuperating the lost paintings through prose,” about how the verbal might take the place of the visual. After the story was published in The New Yorker, Ostoya painted the painting Lerner had invented based on her earlier work, transforming the fiction without changing any of the words. Ostoya went on to produce a series of compositions that respond to the story she’d helped inspire. In the essay below, Lerner describes how Ostoya’s actual body of work catalyzed the fiction.
That winter, a small pneumonia bloomed in his left lung. He’d embarked on a second course of antibiotics, the first having proved insufficient. He was getting better but was weak, and by about eight o’clock each night, profoundly so. Still, he wanted to see Anna and her opening in Chelsea. They made a plan to meet for an early drink downtown; they could catch up a little, then head to the opening together in a cab. He would look quickly around the gallery and rush back to bed in Brooklyn—another cab. (As long as he had an infection in his lung, it seemed, he could pay for private transportation without guilt. Taxis were on his mind; maybe he wouldn’t have otherwise written “The Polish Rider.”) But he’d take the B train into Manhattan.
Stepping out of his apartment was like stepping out of a darkened theater; he had that feeling of supersensitivity that attends a reemergence into public after a period of seclusion, streetlights startlingly bright, a nearby siren startlingly loud. Would he have written the story if he hadn’t met Anna in that condition? Over his soda water and her wine, he asked Anna how the installation of her show had gone, how she’d ultimately decided to hang the sequence of paintings she’d composed based on Artemisia Gentileschi’s monumental Judith Slaying Holofernes. He’d seen a few early versions of these paintings in her apartment (and studio) at 203 Rivington, on the Lower East Side. (The first few times he visited Anna’s place, he had a sense of déjà vu; finally he remembered that he and his wife had spent a couple nights at 203 Rivington—in a friend of a friend’s apartment, whose layout was identical to Anna’s—some years before. If not for this coincidence, he might not have, et cetera). Read More
When Joyce Carol Oates’s canonical story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” was made into a film in 1985, the author mostly approved. Of its lead actor, Oates says, “Laura Dern is so dazzlingly right as ‘my’ Connie that I may come to think I modeled the fictitious girl on her, in the way that writers frequently delude themselves about motions of causality.” Oates writes this in the New York Times in 1986, but I didn’t read it until this year, after I’d written my own story modeled on “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” “Rabbits,” which appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The Paris Review. As Oates observes, writers writing about why they wrote something are not especially reliable.
The original story was based on a Life magazine article about the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” a psychopath who seduced and sometimes killed his teenage female victims; his story later inspired two novels and four more films. Oates says she never read the complete article about the killer because she didn’t want to be distracted by the real-life details: “I forget his name, but his specialty was the seduction and occasional murder of teenage girls.” This casual statement gets at what is so dazzling about Oates herself as a writer: the ability to treat graphic and even lurid material in a way that is not at all graphic or lurid. She doesn’t attempt to conceal violent or perverse behavior—on the contrary, she often emphasizes it—but she is interested in those details only for their potential to reveal surprising human truths. In an Oates story, there is no contempt for people who are down and out, nor is there any false lionizing of struggle (that flip side of contempt). If Oates has scorn for any class of people, it’s for the judgmental mainstream—those “who fancy themselves free of all lunatic attractions.”
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” made a huge impression on me when I first read it as a teenager, and I suspect it still has that effect on high school students today. I’ve read the story several times since then, but like Oates (probably like most writers), I didn’t reread my source material before starting to write. I knew I wanted my story to begin with an older man, dressed as a younger one, approaching a teenage girl in a playground, and that the tension between his appeal and the pull of the girl’s family would be what propelled the story. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Read More