LINE AND PAUSE
by Forrest Roth
BlazeVOX Books, 2007
Reviewed by Elizabeth Switaj
Even without the brushwork depicted on the cover (as well as throughout the text) and the mention of his time in Saitama in the acknowledgments, the Japanese setting, mythology, and imagery of Line and Pause would invite comparison of the work to Japanese literary traditions. Indeed, the structure bears a resemblance to haibun, only instead of haikai prose alternating with haiku, Roth alternates between lyrical prose and prose poems. While some pages might be difficult to categorize as one or the other based on what is written, the differences in layout create a visually simple division throughout the majority of the text: lyrical prose is double-spaced, while prose poems appear single-spaced in a smaller font. This is in keeping with what, in the Response and Bio section of Double Room's Spring 2007 issue, Roth quoted Gene Myers as having said: "The lines are, in fact, getting quite blurred. I almost think that the only telling difference between prose poetry and flash fiction is who wrote the piece. If James Tate wrote it, it is poetry. If Barry Yourgrau wrote it, it’s flash fiction." Here, typography substitutes for different authors and perhaps suggests differing states or portions of mind on the part of the speaker and/or poet despite occasional deviations from the pattern suggestive of the blurry line between narrative and thought.
In How to Haiku, Bruce Ross writes, "If a haiku is an insight into a moment of experience, a haibun is the story or narrative of how one came to have that experience." The lyrical prose in this case tells us of the experiences of a young girl, Kei, as she matures and develops her skills as an augur and artist, a journey that could be described as she describes shohdo brushstrokes: "Solid, undisturbed line-- relentless. Dashing off to the edge." What appears on the other side of the edge may be impossible for those not yet beyond it to understand, otherwise unknown to the author, or simply emptiness itself, a nirvana in keeping with certain Buddhist traditions: that determination is left to the reader to make.
Roth's lyrical prose succeeds not only in narrating the metaphysical aspects of this journey buy also in connecting them to the realities of non-spiritual Japanese life. Thus, Roth avoids one of the major pitfalls of western writers attempting to write about Japan with spiritual themes. Kei's mother insists that she be tutored in calligraphy to improve her misshapen strokes, and during these tutoring sessions, Kei witnesses "[p]ouring water for the peacock's wound," a phrase redolent of alchemy. Young adults' cell phone chatter overwhelms a Coming-of-Age Day on their responsibilities, suggesting an inadequacy of past traditions in contemporary life that might have driven Kei's cloudwatching and artwork. Kei marries Yuji, her parents' choice, in a "faux cathedral" and only later learns what her husband meant by saying marriage is "not any different than remaining single". Even hints of the Kansai-Kanto rivalry (mostly felt by those from the former, smaller area) appear. Not only the dedication of Kei's Jizo but also the abortion that necessitated it are narrated.
Roth also avoids focusing only on those aspects of Japan best known in the West: this is no Lost in Translation rehash. Geishas only appear on TV. No one sings karaoke or spends the night in a capsule hotel or Internet Cafe. Kei does ride the relatively well-known Yamanote line, but it would be essentially impossible, at least highly unrealistic, to set a novella in Tokyo without someone riding this line at least once. Rarely, Roth goes overboard in giving explanations of Japanese place and customs, as in this uncomfortable pile-up of prepositional phrases: "a neighborhood in the vicinity of the address in the letter on the edge of Roppongi ward".
While Roth's lyrical prose successfully narrates Kei's mundane and metaphysical journey through Japanese society and the clouds, his use of prose poems instead of haiku means that these verses lack the sort of verbal economy associated with the latter form, though a heavy use of ellipses may be seen to allude to it. This gives a sense of slight impersonality and abstraction. However, at times, the prose poems still provide a summary of how Kei's various experiences feel to her and how they change her. Such instances represent the closest approach of the work to traditional haiku.
By contrast, those prose poems that lay out the rules and forms of cloudwatching take the first person out of it entirely and even come to resemble instructions (which traditional haiku would be totally inadequate to convey). The prose poems also at times take a historical and cross-cultural view, providing, for instance, a brief subjective history of divination in Rome and Japan or a description of a painting related to Kei's acts of cloudwatching. Another combines the history of fainting with the history of shopping (the former decreasing in frequency and the latter increasing) that concludes, amusingly, "[I]t would be better for women (or oracles at least) if all department stores still used tatami."
By these means, Forrest Roth's Line and Pause presents both a meaningful journey and an intriguing experiment in the synthesis of the western novella and Japanese haibun. The form that results from this fusion fits perfectly the content, a synthesis of metaphysical ideas and keen observation of Japanese life. "I am only experiment and result. / I have not written this."
Forrest Roth curates the COMMUNIQUE reading series for the Just Buffalo Literary Center of Buffalo, New York. His work has appeared in NOON, Quick Fiction, Sleepingfish, Alice Blue Review, Elimae, Double Room, and other publications. His debut novella is Line and Pause (BlazeVox, 2007).
Flash Fiction at the Rooftop Poetry Club
Flash Fiction at Word Riot
Flash Fiction at Thieves Jargon