A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories, Thersa Matsuura, Counterpoint
In a recent New York Times review of Lev Grossman’s new novel, The Magicians, Michael Agger dismisses fantasy as a genre that “affect[s] us most powerfully as teenagers, but then most of us move on to sterner, staider stuff”—the implication being that fantasy and fairy tales are childish and have nothing to teach adults. For the heroes of most modern fantasy novels, especially the new urban fantasy, slipstream, and interstitial stories, this kind of an attitude can get you killed. In real life, it’s not ignoring the existence of fantastical characters and events that’s harmful, but ignoring our need for their deeper meaning and the lessons they have always taught us that can be damaging. Not only does a little magic go out of our world without these kinds of stories, but often they can tell us things about ourselves that no other kinds of stories can. This is something Thersa Matsuura understands very well in the stories she has crafted in A Robe of Feathers.
Matsuura’s raw material is the legends and myths of Japanese folklore and fairy tale: the mountain witch, the bean washer, kappa, oni, sagari, tengu—the same creatures that appear in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movie, Spirited Away. Like Miyazaki, Matsuura uses them in the way that such creatures are used the world over: to tell stories of growth and transformation. These fantastical characters represent our fear of death, our regrets, our sins of commission and omission; they teach us what happens when we forget our place in the social order, when greed displaces love, when we succumb to temptations ultimately harmful to us and others. But be warned: these are fairy tales in the manner of the unexpurgated Grimm brothers: dark, tragic, and sometimes violent, the moral lessons not always clear-cut. The protagonists struggle with demons both personal and supernatural and often lose. The atmosphere of these stories reminds me a little of both Charles de Lint at his darkest and of Angela Carter.
The 17 stories in this volume are set in ancient, modern, and contemporary Japan, their protagonists both Japanese and expats. Most of them are outsiders of some sort: a homeless man, a widow, a 35-year-old man who still lives with his parents, the crippled and disfigured, the very old and the unfinished young. Many of the creatures they meet are tricksters who reveal something these characters don’t know about themselves or their own lives, or who lead them down the path of their own temptations to ruin. Not all the stories end badly and some, like “Mrs. Misaki’s Eyes,” provide a satisfactory sense of comeuppance, but many are also full of regret for chances not taken or sacrifices made unnecessarily. And sometimes, even when they end in death, there is a sense of comfort in the denouement.
For instance, in the title story, a geeky young man who still lives with his parents courts an equally geeky young woman with a grand gesture born out of his grandfather’s story of another misfit’s angelic lover. In this, the stories we tell ourselves and each other are everything: the metaphor, the reason for living, the way we make sense of our lives. “Sixty-two versions of the story would be told by eyewitnesses. There would be other tales, too, by people who came afterwards and children who grew up to remember events differently. But the legend that was told the most, the one that would survive the longest, was the most beautiful one. . . .” This story sets the tone for the rest; expect wonder and tragedy, beauty and sadness, great deeds and great failures—sometimes all at once.
The supernatural creatures in these stories are both a source of trouble and a source of comfort. In “Hate and Where it Breeds,” two young punk rockers—one with a foot-high, baby blue Mohawk,” the other with “a tattoo that resembled shattered glass” on his scalp—a group of high school girls, and a drunken businessman share a train with a herd of mythological creatures, including a tengu, a massive, dignified mountain spirit who takes the form of a red-faced human with wings, inspires great respect, and smells like trickery. In very short order, the cost of conformity, of being the insider, becomes clear. In “Sand Walls, Paper Doors,” those same mythological creatures help a Western exchange student living alone in a traditional house, tending its kamidana or house shrine, feel at home.
In both “Tip of the Nose” and “The Smallest Unit of Time,” coincidences and small catastrophes lead the characters to redemption and second chances, one with supernatural help, and one without. Or maybe I should say that the supernatural element in one story is less obvious than in the other, because its protagonist is subtly touched by the gods the way mystics and holy fools are said to be. But without a mystical framework to make sense of her affliction, she becomes merely a pathetic character until led to the grace of reunion with a long-lost lover.
Not all of these stories are equally successful, but each one is disturbing in its own way. I wasn’t fond of this collection at first; the stories are deceptively simple, and the style is sometimes quirky. But it repays a close and second reading with a sense of possibility and wonder at the world that only fantasy paints so vividly. No realistic story would suggest that a meeting with a huge, ancient, disheveled stranger rumored to eat children would turn your life around, or offer you a glimpse of beauty like this:
Above her hung part of a large maple tree branch. In two months time the star-shaped leaves would wake up in ochre and wine, gold and rust. But right now, for the time being, they remained an intricate filigree of sweet green, layered and shivering, excited to be young, behind them pinpoints upon pinpoints rubbing thin the very ceiling of the world. Hina gasped and wondered to herself when they’d break through and what would come in from the other side. In all her generations of living, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
If nothing else, Matsuuda’s brand of fantasy teaches us to look for the small, magical moments where life pivots easily from joy to tragedy, and with or without the prodding of gods and demons, our choices shape the rest of our lives.
Lee Kottner lives in the Bronx, NY, and is a writer, editor, college instructor, and the owner of Maelstrom House, an occasional publisher of hand-bound artist’s books of poetry and short fiction. Her poetry has appeared in several literary journals and small press anthologies, and in a chapbook from Blue Stone Press. Her artist’s books are part of the permanent collections of both the Museum of Modern Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts.