A review of Little Pieces: This Side of Japan by Michael Hoffman

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Little Pieces: This Side of Japan
by Michael Hoffman
Virtual Bookworm Publishing 
2010, ISBN 978-1-60264-605-6, $12.95, 199 pages

In a short prefatory note Hoffman disclaims these stories of men and women in Japan as being objectively authentic. They are the fictional meditations of a longtime resident of Japan. One would suppose that the six stories in this collection become as real as the author or the reader could wish.

I have read and reviewed three previous books (The Empty Café, Withdrawal, and Birnbaum) by Hoffman with enthusiasm. He was equally adept as a writer of short stories and novels.

In any collection of stories the opening story, the tone-setter, is especially important. This story, First Snow, is brief. A young woman approaches a younger man and claims acquaintance. She was, it turns out, his babysitter. The man is adrift and without purpose. Their meeting flowers quickly into a friendship, a friendship somewhat muffled by her confession that she and the man’s father had been lovers. He awakens in a cold and empty house and flees into an even colder outside where the snow is falling and he is aware of a feeling of contentment that suggests symptoms of hyperthermia. The tone is one of ambiguity and ambivalence.

Dragonflies is a longer story, nearly a novella, and has the richness of a novel. Of two friends who have been friends since childhood, Hiranuma is a writer whose flame has flickered low and suffers the premature onset of old age. His effort to write an essay on Ryunosuke Akutagawa (reminder, he wrote Rashomon) is beyond him, partly because he is unable to reignite the enthusiasm of his adolescence and partly because his wife, unwilling witness to the infidelity of her music teacher, is undergoing a crisis. The other friend Sawamoto also faces a dilemma – he is being phased out as a redundant college literature teacher. Unlike Hiranuma, faithful to his troubled wife, Sawamoto is a dedicated womanizer. It comes as no surprise to Hiranuma when his wife tells him that she slept with Sawamoto thirty years earlier. It is a surprise to Sawamoto since it never happened. As in Withdrawal suicide pacts appear and are rejected. There is a sense that consideration of such a desperate course rejected becomes a springboard to fresh life.

Hoffman’s Japan has – or at least his book has and this theme plays a major part in Birnbaum – men and women who are or are conversant with Christianity. Sawamoto quotes the Bible and the young woman of The Miracle is a Christian, one who is always praying because she lacks virtue. Despite her best attempts, her character defeats her and the miracle of the title can be any one of a number of events, all of them ironic. Hoffman does not feel the necessity of doing all the work for his reader.

A woman, Sonoko – in the story of that title – no longer in the first blush of youth, like the protagonist of The Miracle, has a troublesome and troubling mother. She finds herself smothered by more than her home life. The protagonist of The Miracle prayed for the gift of amnesia to escape: Sonoko has a more pragmatic approach. She tells her mother and her fellow workers that she is going to vacation in France. Instead she goes in the off-season to a Japanese resort where she spends her time reading Genji. She lives between dream – a particularly nightmarish one – and reality. She tempts her destiny by an attempt to unite these two worlds.

Concussion describes the late adventures – he is 87 – of a former criminal. He narrates his own story in his own way, whimsically and out of order as his current experiences dictate. We never learn what crime it was that provided him with a probation officer and an unpleasant notoriety. We do learn of a crime that he committed and for which he was never punished. The story, which he himself tells, is as disjointed and as mysterious as his own quirks and self-deceptions. This story too has a Christian background for, although he is not a believer, his parents were missionaries.

And yet more religion – Christian again – in the last story, which has the same title as the book. A triangle that consists of a man and two sisters – or not sisters depending on which character you believe – careen towards death and disaster. Hoffman gives us fragments of narrative and we must piece them together. It is a stunning performance and ingeniously assembled with an ending that is both chilling and unexpected.

Well, I have to ask it – are there nothing but Christians in Japan? Shades of Flannery O’Connor! Another great teller of tales whose convictions make one – or me at any rate – uncomfortable. There are of course characters in these stories who are not Christian but Hoffman doesn’t feel it necessary to flesh out there ghostly beliefs. Religion is a trumpery thing. Hoffman makes use of it. It is in the final effect a dampness that has to be noted. The religious background unnecessarily undermines his characters and weakens his stories.

That said and frankly acknowledged as a personal response, Hoffman has style and ingenuity that goes far towards compensating for the ubiquity of ghostly stuff. This book is part of the body of work from a distinguished author who deserves all the rewards of excellence. You will not go wrong to read it.

About the Author: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer.