Kelly Luce, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail
Publisher: A Strange Object
2013, 135 pages, paperback, $15
It would be too easy to focus on the fantastical elements of Kelly Luce’s first short story collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. The first and last stories are bookends, both exploring the narrative conceits of magical machinery. In “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,” the titular appliance predicts how a person dies through Kanji characters burned onto a piece of toast. The final story, “Amorometer,” features a machine that quantifies the unquantifiable by “measuring one’s capacity to love.” Though most of the stories utilize the medium of magic, what’s more interesting is how Luce grounds them in reality.
Nine out of the ten stories are set in Japan, and the culture comes alive through Luce’s details. “Ash,” the story most grounded in realism, concerns a married mother’s brief stint in a Japanese jail after being mistakenly convicted for bicycle theft. The narrator relates her experience:
I don’t think I slept. Early the next morning, food—overcooked rice, pickles, processed meat sticks the color of Pepto-Bismol—arrived through a doggie door. One of my cellmates showed me a banana she kept hidden in the toilet tank, then motioned to her crotch and giggled.
It’s not so much that the details resonate as individual and authentic, but that Luce funnels them through the narrator’s particular filter to strike a pitch-perfect emotional tone, one that straddles comic weirdness and dramatic stakes. Luce astutely chooses an American expatriate to tell the story of foreign imprisonment. The strangeness of an already strange situation compounds through the narrator’s stance as cultural outsider and mislabeled criminal.
Though Luce proves expert at the heightening of reality, she also knows when to underplay her hand. The story, “Pioneers,” explores the difficulties of marriage and conception between a Japanese woman and her American husband. Having undergone an abortion during her first marriage, Yumiko wonders if the prior abortion isn’t currently affecting her chances at pregnancy. The story sidesteps polemics in favor of ordinary pragmatism:
It wasn’t such a big deal. People had abortions all the time; the local clinic took same-day appointments. Afterward you visited a shrine and bought a jizo, a small cement figurine representing a soul that had not yet found its way to Earth.
Yumiko and Lou pay homage to the unborn baby by lighting incense and saying a prayer during the Obon holidays, the Japanese celebration of the dead. However, the story makes clear that these acts aren’t shrouded in grief. The couple spends the remainder of the night partying at a nightclub with friends. The abortion itself isn’t a point of contention between the couple. Rather, the story emphasizes Lou’s jealousy at another man impregnating Yumiko with seeming ease. Once again, Luce chooses the right filter by which to portray the events. Exploring the emotional ramifications of abortion through the lens of a different culture creates a new dialogue on a controversial topic that doesn’t often appear in literary fiction.
Though the Japanese landscape permeates most of the collection, there’s something particularly special about the lone story set in the United States. “Rooey” follows Maxine as she deals with the death of her younger teenage brother. Grief figuratively and literally transforms her—the more time she spends in her little brother’s room, the more she becomes imbued with his persona. Maxine loses sexual interest in her boyfriend and instead becomes attracted to Rooey’s not-quite girlfriend. Luce risks trodding unorthodox territory. While the aforementioned plot point is enough to set the story apart, what actually elevates “Rooey” is the protagonist’s blatant emotional honesty. On the prospect of perfunctory sex with her boyfriend, the narrator admits, “I slip my hand in his boxers. I could care less about sex with Felix lately and now is no different, but at least it will shut him up.” The character’s grief bestows remarkable clarity, one that penetrates social facades in favor of unflattering reality. The character’s unfettered, stark honesty renders a more significant reading experience than the surreal role reversal that occurs at the story’s end.
Luce draws obvious comparisons to fellow fabulist, Aimee Bender, which makes the collection an easy sell. If you can’t get enough female fabulism, look no further. The suite of stories wears its aesthetic weirdness proudly. The cover art features a bushy-haired woman, her nudity artfully hidden, sporting an equally bushy tail. However, to relegate Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail to the category of New Weird would be doing the stories a disservice. Luce’s characters are outsiders, to be sure, but the true pleasure of this collection resides in each story’s unexpected inclinations. These stories will surprise you—not with weirdo magic but with weirdo reality.