Hopeful Monsters

Hopeful Monsters coverThe strangest things in Hiromi Goto’s first collection happen at night. The first two stories in Hopeful Monsters are little more than experiments in capturing the distinctive textures of night — the seeming loudness of a stray thought, in the claustrophobic intensity of “Night” (1993), and contrariwise the freeing anonymity of darkness in “Osmosis” (1998) — but they set a precedent for what is to come. For example, it’s in the middle of the night that “Tales from the Breast” (1995), which is for most of its length a relatively uninspiring portrait of the travails of breastfeeding, making in a somewhat laboured fashion the point that just because something is biologically natural doesn’t make it enjoyable, suddenly blooms into an extraordinary image. The baby is demanding to be nursed, and the skin of your breasts (the story is told in the second person, in parts) is so tight that

Like a pressured zipper, it tears, spreading across the surface of your chest, directed by your fingers, tears in a complete circle around the entire breast.

There is no blood.

You lean slightly forward and the breast falls gently into your cupped hands. The flesh is a deep red and you wonder at its beauty, how flesh becomes food without you asking or even wanting it. You set the breast on your lap and slice your other breast. Two pulsing orbs still spurting breast milk. (63-4)

This is typical of Goto’s prose — a cleverly used perspective, short descriptive sentences or sentence fragments, an emphasis on physicality — but what’s really interesting and impressive about it, I think, is the way it mingles horror and release. The separation of self from self should (surely?) be a horrific image, and certainly “two pulsing orbs” is the sort of language you’d expect to see in a horror story; yet the horror is a backnote. Because of the gentle, bloodless ease with which it happens (and the weight of uncomfortableness that has been built up through the rest of the story) the dominant emotion evoked is freedom. What happens next — the wife places her detached breasts on her husband, they “seep into his skin, soft whisper of cells joining cells” (64), and he wakes up in shock — is more traditionally horrific, albeit refracted through the wife’s more sanguine perspective. And, in fact, the story ends with the wife falling asleep, such that if you really want to you can read the entire episode as a dream. But neither of these things, for me, diminishes the power of that initial image, and I think in a way it’s emblematic of one of Goto’s core concerns: to challenge us to reclaim things from which we would normally recoil.

She is, for sure, not always successful. “Stinky Girl” (1996), about a fat, coloured (her terms) 33-year-old woman, wants to be about exactly this subject, but falls flat. Goto goes to some lengths to establish that the titular smell that adheres to the narrator, driving away passers-by, is “not a causal phenomenon”, that it has nothing to do with Stinky’s physique or hygiene. Stinky is not abnormal “medically speaking”, but “not normal in the commonly held sense of the word” (39). And we are told with equal carefulness that none of Stinky’s attributes have any reflection on her character; indeed she is “blessed with a certain higher intelligence, a certain sensitivity which enables me to more than endure the trials of this existence” (45). (The ego probably helps, too.) The coup-de-grace up to which the story leads is the idea that smell is as subjective as, say, visual standards of beauty: “If one were taught as a very small child that roses were disgusting [...] would one not despite the very thought of their scent? It may be that I smell beautiful beyond the capacity of human recognition” (46). The truth of this is apparently born out by an encounter with a child who, unlike everyone else, does not react to Stinky’s stench. But for me, at the very least the ask is too big, and at worst the story is being deliberately disingenuous for the sake of a striking idea. I don’t doubt that there is a socially constructed element of smell, but there are also sound reasons why we experience (or are taught to experience) the smell of rotting meat and faeces as bad, in exactly the way that there aren’t sound reasons for prejudices based on weight or skin colour.

Arguably the problem with “Stinky Girl” is that it takes place in a near-vacuum; at least, Stinky doesn’t have much in the way of personal attachments, and the stories that take place within deftly sketched family units are mostly more effective. (I was reminded, occasionally, of the similar care with human relationships in Maureen McHugh’s fiction.) There are still some transferrals that are too obvious, as when the mother in “Drift” (1999), unable to come to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism, ends up feeling like the child in the relationship. But in a story like “Tilting” (1993), in which a young girl, her brother and her father meet their mother and grandparents on their return from a trip to Japan, the faultlines are delineated with a minimum of judgement; the memories of the recent trip provoke memories of earlier trips with not a little elegance. Similarly, “Home Stay” (1999), which describes the odd relationship that develops between an Asian man and the parents of his estranged wife, manages to portray a mutual incomprehension born of imagined difference (which is no less “real” than “real difference”, of course) without condescending to anyone involved. In each of these stories, it’s worth noting, the family is multi-racial; an Asian (usually Japanese) man has married a Canadian woman, or vice versa. It seems only natural. Families, in Hopeful Monsters, are always in flux, always sprawling things without true edges or borders, breeding grounds of hybridity in just about every way; which is why they are natural focal points for the sort of tension between prejudice and acceptance that Goto seems to be interested in.

The fantastic is deployed sparingly and, although it may be dramatic, as often as not (as in “Tales from the Breast”) it’s the questionable, equipoisal kind, where it’s up to you to decide how much really happened. The closest Goto comes to a straightforward horror story is probably “From Across a River” (2001), in which a mother is confronted with an unnerving faceless manifestation of the daughter she lost some years earlier. In “Camp Americana” (2005), we encounter one of Goto’s less charitable characterisations, in the form of a Japanese grandfather, on a camping trip with his wife, his son, his son’s Canadian-born wife, and his two grandchildren. He is not shy about his traditional — which in this story is to say sexist — views, which can make him hard to endure: “His son’s wife wasn’t raised properly, that was obvious [...] the females of this country are uncivilized” (116). The conflict that develops is left unresolved when, on a solo night-time trip to the bathroom, the grandfather falls and experiences a visionary hallucination in which his grandchildren appear with the heads of cats, and his wife’s disembodied head and neck wrap around him like a snake. Once more, the horrific potential of the images themselves is secondary; what’s important is the instability in how they are explained, with a succession of possibilities being quickly raised, each trumping the last — they are creatures that have taken his family’s forms, they are a dream, they are his family having gone through a secret transformation, they are a stroke-vision. I think it’s the impossibility of accommodation that Goto is drawing on here, or perhaps the trauma that results from a rigid mind refusing to bend.

And then there’s the title story, which is the closest the collection comes to science fiction, which is presumably why it’s on the reading list for this year’s Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism (which is, in turn, why I acquired the book in the first place). It’s here, in a quasi-scientific epigraph, that we get a definition of “hopeful monsters” — which turn out to be that small percentage of “macromutations” that can “with chance and luck, equip an organism with radically beneficial adaptive traits with which to survive and prosper” (135). Immediately after this, we encounter a pregnant woman, and so wonder: will her child be such a creature?

The first part of the story is a description of Hisa’s pregnancy, of the support her “sweet” husband Bobby attempts to give her, and of her conversations with her superstitious (but possibly also actually psychic) mother; the second part describes the birth itself; and the third part describes Hisa’s reactions to her child’s unusual physiology — she is born with what the doctors describe as a “caudal appendage”, and what Hisa sees as a tail — and the decision she makes about it. The tone throughout is unsentimental, from the physical and psychological discomforts of pregnancy (“Ridley Scott had a lot to answer for, she thought”, 138) to the more dramatic discomforts of birth (“Hisa pushed and pushed. She held her breath, pushing down with her abdominal muscles, a squirt of residual fecal mater forced along as well, she pushed, pain no longer a sensation but a entity …” 144), and the less cute details of a newborn baby (the stain of bruising, the strangeness of the fontanelle, the unpleasantness of poo). But at times the point seems laboured, as though Goto intends Hisa’s experiences to be as alien to us as detaching breasts; such an aim would fit with the collection’s overarching investigation of what is really alien to us and what is simply unexamined normality, except that I’m not convinced pregnancy and birth fall into either category.

More interesting is Hisa’s arc, from pre-birth nerves to an understandable franticness after the birth (when she senses that something is “wrong” with her child, but nobody will tell her what), to her attempts to come to terms with the abnormality. At times, the story becomes the inverse of “Stinky Girl”: “If she looked at it long enough, would she lose this skin-crawling repulsion?” (153). But here Goto has an extra twist to add, since it turns out that Hisa was also born with a tale, subsequently removed, and thus has to come to terms with the idea that what she perceived as strangeness is also a part of her. The latter is clearly more challenging; there is a dramatic difference between Hisa’s initial reaction to the sight of her child — “Hisa stared. What moisture left in her mouth withered: a bitter dust on her tongue. Her heart boomed inside her ears” (149) — and Hisa’s reaction to the news about her own heritage: “The room ballooned, a sudden vacuum. [...] The fluorescent light buzzed with frenetic electrons. [...] The baby’s breathing split into air, heart, blood, hemoglobin. Hisa gasped. The world cracked. Then the shards slid back to create an entire picture once more” (155). Ultimately, Hisa decides to steal away her child, so that the doctors will not remove the tail; an effective grace note is that just before she goes, worried that she doesn’t have enough practice at being “abnormal” she calls a lesbian couple from her prenatal classes to ask for advice, and is given the short shrift she deserves.

What’s somewhat perplexing is how this story is meant to be understood as in any sense speculative. Caudal appendages are a known phenomenon; vestigial functionality is rare but not completely unknown; so the only point at which the story might cross over into unexplored territory is the suggestion that Hisa’s child’s tale is an inherited feature, not a developmental abnormality. (So far as I know, caudal appendages are always the result of developmental abnormality.) Yet Goto writes in an afterword that the story was inspired by Wendy Pearson’s essay “Sex/uality and the Hermaphrodite in Science Fiction, or, The Revenge of Herculin Barbin”, from Edging into the Future (2002). The parallel, presumably, is intended to be with the way medicalisation of human biology ends up excluding all but the two “true” biological sexes (that is, excludes intersex individuals); thus Hisa’s child is, we are meant to believe, similarly excluded by a medical establishment that doesn’t recognize a true mutation when it’s right in front of them. But as with “Stinky Girl”, the parallel seems to me inexact in ways that undermine the story. A caudal appendage simply is not functional in the way that genitalia are — and if the sfnal point of the story is that this one is, then it doesn’t do the work necessary to make this plain. A reflexive grasp in a newborn is not enough to convince me that a tail would be a “radically beneficial adaptive trait” for a modern human (or that it could be a marker for other, more profound mutations), which leaves the story looking rather hollow. It does occur to me, though, that there’s another possibility: perhaps we are meant to be thinking this way, to reinforce the ambiguity of Hisa’s final decision. Even as she leaves, it’s not clear to what extent Hisa is acting for her child, and to what extent she’s acting for herself. It may be that Hisa is, in a wishful sense, the true hopeful monster, walking away into the night.

12 Responses to “Hopeful Monsters”

  1. Karen Burnham Says:

    Niall, thanks for reviewing the whole thing. I’m afraid I read the title story and skipped the rest. Given your comments, I’m glad I did. Her style is so off-putting to me that I don’t think I’d have gotten much else out of it.

    In “Hopeful Monsters” itself, the thing I couldn’t get past was why the woman was so incredibly freaked out about the tail. Goto seemed to think this would be obvious, that anyone confronted with such a thing would have their world completely shattered. But it’s not something I could relate to: it’s a fact, you’ve got some options, it’s not the end of the world. If you don’t want the tail removed, tell the doctors not to do it. End of story. It ended up seeming hysterical and melodramatic, not my favorite mode of story-telling.

  2. Niall Says:

    I see what you mean, but I rationalised that as part of her general franticness after the birth. She immediately suspects that something’s wrong, so her (over-) reaction to the sight of the tail followed on, to a certain extent. And before she really has a chance to think about it calmly, she’s thrown again when her mum reveals Hisa had a tail as well. But I think you’re right that it could have been better set up, and there were definitely other scenes where I got the feeling that I wasn’t finding what Goto was describing as challenging or alien as Goto expected me to find it. (As the review suggests, to a certain extent I got that feeling from the pregnancy and birth in “Hopeful Monsters”.)

    I actually quite like her style, on a sentence-to-sentence level; it’s the way she builds her broader themes that I thought was hit-and-miss.

  3. Niall Says:

    Also, what order are you reading things in? I was planning to tackle (and therefore post about) the Strahan next.

  4. Karen Burnham Says:

    Well, the order I’m reading things in can best be described as “ad hoc.” I’m currently reading “Stand on Zanzibar” (and enjoying it more than I thought I would), I’m planning on reading “Child Garden” next, and right now I’m in the library to find the “Axiomatic” essay.

    Speaking of which, could you recommend collections that may have Aldiss’ “Supertoys” and Russ’ “When it changed?” Those are the only short pieces I’m missing.

    Actually, I bet I’ll end up reading the Strahan anthology just about last… worst case I’ll be reading it on the plane, although I doubt it will come to that.

  5. Niall Says:

    Who needs anthologies when you have the internet?

    — “Supertoys Last All Summer Long
    — “When it Changed

    I tend to take longer with anthologies than novels, so I want to get the Strahan out of the way!

  6. karenburnham Says:

    Awesome, thanks! That saves me one more trip up to the library.

  7. Tony Keen Says:

    Bugger. Had I know “Supertoys” was on the net, I could have saved myself a 25p reservation fee.

  8. Matthew Claxton Says:

    Hmmm… I was three or four paragraphs into your review before I remembered not only reading this collection but meeting the author (at a Vancouver con about three years ago).

    I’m afraid I’ve shelved Goto’s fiction in that Not My Thing category I carry around in my head. It seems that there are peope who would react with horror to the discovery of the tail, but that I wouldn’t like any of them. There’s a sort of deep-seated horror of pollution, a counterpart to either a deep internalized conservatism, that could easily cause such a reaction. The problem is that it’s not a terribly SFish trait; the average fan won’t sympathize because we’re on the side of the monsters, in general.

  9. Niall Says:

    we’re on the side of the monsters, in general.

    I wish I’d thought of putting it that way! (Of course, at the end of the story Hisa is on the side of her monster, but I don’t think she’s comfortable with it, as such. I think she still thinks of it (and herself) as a monster.)

  10. fameby50 Says:

    A beautifully written, succinct review! A pleasure to read. I must say I am astonished to learn that Hopeful Monsters was on the Science Fiction Masterclass list, in any city, on any world. I can’t see any SF influence at all, and so empathize with all the confusion around this. A mistake has been made; a meager tail does not an SF anthology make, that’s for sure. Yeesh.

    Nonetheless consider this, if you will: Pokemon, the fantastical pint-sized (well, mostly) creatures sprung from the loins of Nintendo, were originally called “Pocket Monsters.” Perhaps the reading list was compiled by someone who’s thinking went something like: Pocket Monster – Pocket + Japanese author x (childhood Nintendo experience) to the power of Hopeful = SF reading list contender.

    One simply cannot say for sure.

    I suggest you toss the title story and keep the title, which is truly worthwhile. So worthwhile, in fact, that I’ve suggested it become the basis for an entirely new poetic form. Check it out: http://fameby50.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/hopeful-monsters/

    Thanks again for letting me know about your review.

  11. Martin Says:

    I’ve just read ‘Tales from the Breast’ and I had pretty much the opposite reaction to you. It’s point about the travails of breastfeeding is not profound but I thought it well executed. I was only brought up short by what I saw as a pointlessly fabulised ending. “The flesh is a deep red and you wonder at its beauty, how flesh becomes food without you asking or even wanting it.” is a good line but the image itself is mundane, made more so by the fact it is telegraphed as wish-fulfillment. I can’t particularly see why anyone would feel the need to reprint it, particularly in an anthology of humourous stories.

  12. Reading List « Torque Control Says:

    [...] received the reading list from this year’s tutors. Last time I attended, I managed to blog some of the reading; this time around I’m going to try to be a bit more ambitious, in part [...]


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