Joseph Edwin Haeger

Book Review: People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami

Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Ted Goossen. (Soft Skull Press)

 

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School. It was built of short-short stories that focused on one kid at a time from the top class at Wayside School, a building that was constructed sideways; so instead of having all the classrooms laid out on a single floor, it was 30 stories tall—each floor is its own classroom.

Sachar created a surreal and often absurd universe for these characters to interact and exist in. There was a ruthless teacher who turned children into apples; a kid who was cloaked in layers of coats only to disappear when the teacher took all the coats away; a girl who thinks toes are useless so she’s intent on selling hers for 5¢ a piece. I loved (well, still love) how odd these stories were and how quickly-paced it was.

Reading the new collection of short stories People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami reminded me of Sideways Stories from Wayside School in the matter-of-fact way these absurd stories are told. It’s like my childhood reading preferences primed me to immediately glom on to and love Kawakami’s collection of short-short stories.

 

Kawakami’s stories work—she isn’t trying to convince us these strange things are possible, she’s simply letting us in on the secret. … I wanted to start re-reading the entire collection the moment I finished the last story.

 

People from My Neighborhood is far more interested in the “what” as opposed to the “why.” As the stories unfold, there is never a moment where Kawakami tries to convince us that an odd situation is feasible, but rather she gives us real-time action that makes us subconsciously believe that nothing is ever amiss. I think that’s why Kawakami’s stories work—she isn’t trying to convince us these strange things are possible, she’s simply letting us in on the secret.

A small sampling of the stories goes like this:

 

  • One is about a disease that runs rampant through the neighborhood, basically turning people into pigeons. It’s highly contagious, and along with a distended belly and enlarged eyes, the victims develop a taste for grubs.
  • Another follows neighborhood kids playing a game called baseball (that has nothing to do with actual baseball). It’s a highly addictive game, but since they’re children with no money, the way they pay for it is to let a bird with human hands peck at their butts.
  • There’s a great one about a no-gravity alert going off. If you think that’s code for something else, you’re wrong. It’s a moment where gravity literally lessens, and people can float through the air. The school kids are supposed to go straight home but decide to run for a thicket of trees instead. They spend hours hovering above the ground, some of them clutching trees in fear of floating away forever.

 

These are the stories I’m drawn to.

Finally, there is a story toward the end of the book called “Fabrications” about how one person is effectively changing people’s memories of things, like where a door is on the front of a shop. Since everyone collectively remembers things in a new version, no one notices the change until one person undoes the spell. This really is the crux of the collection because it examines how memory changes. This idea is explored in the form of a short story, which is interesting because we get to see it play out on a collective level.

 


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Then, on top of that, this is what we do as storytellers. We play with the perceptions of our readers, giving them exactly what we want with the hope that it will influence the way they feel about a certain subject or theme. In the end, I can’t help but feel like this story is pulling the curtain back a few inches and letting us see behind the scenes. It’s a great layer to paint on top of the book and adds a lot to think about everything we’d read previously.

It’s impressive how quickly Kawakami can connect with the reader. Most of the stories are no more than three pages, and yet the world she creates feels so incredibly rich and deep that I wanted to start re-reading the entire collection the moment I finished the last story.

People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami is now available in both paperback and e-Book formats from these booksellers.

 

Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim, a memoir published by University of Hell Press.

 

Joseph Edwin Haeger

Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim (University of Hell Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in The Pacific NW Inlander, RiverLit, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. He lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife and son.

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