Futile gestures: William Styron, The Long March

William Styron, The Long March. The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (1999), pp. 71-128. First published 1952

William Styron (1925-2006) is probably best known for his controversial 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, and Darkness Visible: a memoir of madness (1990), about his descent into clinical depression, and subsequent recovery. Like Eudora Welty, whose story June Recital opens this anthology of stories (I posted on it here yesterday), Styron was born in the south, and is said to have favoured a ‘southern Gothic’ style in his fiction. There’s certainly an element of it in The Long March.

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverThe Long March is the second story in Ford’s anthology of ‘long stories’ (I also discussed his choice of that term in yesterday’s post), and one of the shorter ones at just over fifty pages. I had mixed feelings about it. I wonder if the title is intended to echo the name usually given to the series of strategic retreats undertaken by the Chinese communist forces (under the rising influence of Mao) to escape the pursuit of the then dominant forces of their enemy nationalist army.

It’s a grim story about a martinet colonel who subjects his unit of marine reservists, most of them unfit and untrained, to a brutal thirty-mile overnight march in the swampy countryside of Carolina. Far from strategic and, as with the Red Army, militarily justifiable and ultimately successful, it’s what Peter Cook described in his famous, darkly satirical sketch with Jonathan Miller about posh, ‘stiff upper lip’ WWII officers (YouTube clip HERE) from the seminal ‘Beyond the Fringe’ comedy review, as a ‘futile gesture’.

The story opens with an account of an accidental ‘friendly fire’ incident in which a group of young reservists has been shelled by their own artillery as they queued for dinner. It’s told from the viewpoint of Lieutenant Culver, a veteran of WWII called back into service because he never removed himself from the reserve list – a decision he now bitterly regrets as he witnesses the pointless cruelty, stupidity and ineptitude (like the friendly fire incident) of the military regime he finds himself back in. He misses his wife and post-war peacetime life, and despairs as the world lurches back into yet more wars and conflicts in distant lands.

His fellow officers are appalled by the colonel’s gung-ho, macho manner and uncompromising orders. Most notably rebellious is Captain Mannix: he hates the strutting colonel, and his behaviour with him borders on open insubordination. When he begins leading his group of physically unfit men on the pointlessly barbaric, horribly long march, however, he’s determined that they – and he – will complete it, depriving the colonel of the satisfaction of confirming that they’re ‘soft’. It’s a matter of honour for him.

What follows is sometimes almost unbearably grim, but there’s a kind of redemption and softening at the very end in a scene when the march has ended. As the men try to recover from the ordeal, ‘one of the Negro maids employed in the unit’ shows human kindness when she sees the half-crippled Mannix swaying giddily as he limps towards the showers:

Culver would remember this: the two of them communicating across that chasm one unspoken moment of sympathy and understanding…

It’s a moment that almost makes the previous fifty gruelling pages worth enduring.

 

 

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman #WITMonth

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Granta Books, 2019. First Japanese edition 2016

I’ve said here before that Mrs TD believes I read too many ‘morose’ books. I should read something more cheerful.

I emailed David McKay, the translator of Multatuli and J. Slauerhof, whose novels I posted on here recently, to tell him my posts had been published at T. Days. I said I was hoping to read another of his translations, War and Turpentine (by Flemish Belgian author Stefan Hertmans), but was needing something ‘more cheerful’. He recommended this short novel by Sayaka Murata, ‘which has moments of dark humour and sinister overtones but is a very funny, charming character sketch on the whole,’ he wrote.

He was right.

Murata Convenience Store Woman cover Keiko Furukura is 36 and has worked in the same convenience store since it opened in a railway station mall eighteen years earlier. She seems to be on the autistic spectrum; we’re told of some disturbing incidents in her childhood where her tendency to fail to interpret people’s implied meanings, but to take their words horribly literally, gets her into trouble and causes her mother deep consternation.

She feels people don’t think she’s normal, so tries hard to imitate the intonations and conversational gambits of women around her, even the way they dress; that way she almost goes unnoticed.

Only at the convenience store does she feel at peace. She’s in tune with its sounds and rituals. She likes the predictable, unchanging routine. True, the staff and customers come and go, but the pulse of the store is reassuringly repetitive, predictable.

#WITMonth logoKeeping herself fit and alert enough to work there each day gives her life purpose; otherwise she’d be just an animal, and carnal urges slightly disgust her. At the store she can tune in to its mechanistic hum, merge and forget trying to be human.

When an equally strange young man joins the workforce and enters her life, she’s in danger of having to start behaving like a human, not a ‘foreign body’. The store reclaims her.

It’s not what I’d call a particularly cheerful novel. It does have a bizarrely humorous air: that deadpan narrative voice with its lack of affect, the narrator’s baffled fluster at the mysterious ways of humans, places her in the world of AI ‘characters’ in recent sci-fi fiction. She tries to interpret the world, but ultimately prefers the regularity of stock control and parroting the scripted greetings her team are drilled in every morning before they start work.

It’s a satire, I suppose, on the regimented world of Japanese corporate and commercial enterprise, and the strict requirements of a hierarchical culture – especially for women. Keiko is repeatedly reminded that she’s a freak largely because she conforms neither to the economic stereotype that makes other people comfortable: career progression, acquire more consumables (why drudge at a dead-end part-time job in a store, friends and family wonder), nor to the gender stereotype: get married, reproduce, spread her and genes.

She flirts with this last idea, repellent as she finds its animality, but is easily dissuaded from getting pregnant, in one of the funniest scenes in the novel.

Despite the dark humour I found I was most frequently reminded by this novel’s tone and effect of Kafka, and in particular of ‘Metamorphosis’. Keiko’s vague awareness that she’s not like everyone else around her causes her to want to transform and conform, but ultimately she’s only happy to be who she knows she really is – not ‘one of us’.

I enjoyed the book, and zoomed through it in a couple of hours. The translation is deftly done, and reads rapidly and smoothly. It was amusing and diverting to read, and not morose, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

Any other suggestions for something cheerful? Not Angela Thirkell, please.