Book Review 12: Short Stories on a Long Night

Look sir you’re not going to tell me that! Everyone knows stories! I just told you I slept in the same bed as my wife every night for the last fifteen years in the same bedroom of the same flat in the same suburb of Tokyo – and look at all you different people! You just have to tell me how you travel to work every morning in the place where you live and for me it’s a fable! it’s a legend! Sorry I am tired and a little stressed and this is not how I usually talk but I think when you are together like this then stories are what is required.

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Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta is a modern day Canterbury Tales. A group of passengers get snowed in at an unnamed airport, on their way to Tokyo. They hunker down for the night in airport chairs, surrounded by cavernous, vacant halls. To pass the time, they tell stories.

From there, Dasgupta had a choice. He could have taken us into the passengers’ lives. We could have learned about why they were travelling, what was important to them, how they made the right choices or wrong choices in their lives, and how they came to be stuck at that airport. Dasgupta had other ideas, though. The stories the passengers told were modern day fables.

The book is a collection of thirteen of these fables framed in the overall story of being stuck at the airport. They stories are generally magical and filled with unexpected twists. Dasgupta writes clearly and simply, but still has wonderful imagery. Some of the stories have simple plots, and come to a resolution; others end with more questions than they began. The characters in the stories accept a magical world with few questions.

These are not children's fairy tales, though. In many of them, they characters don’t live happily ever after. There may be morality lessons in some of them, but the lessons, if any, are far from clear. Good isn't always rewarded and evil isn't always punished. And in many cases, there is no good or evil -- just a deep gray. And in this book, Dasgupta finds ways to write about nearly all bodily functions at some point. While not jarringly out of context in the stories, the material may not be appropriate for sensitive readers.

That said, it is a great book to read. The stories are fascinating, and Dasgupta does a nice job of pulling the reader in.

When Dasgupta has a point to make, he usually has one character in a story speak it to the main character in that same story.

For example, one character describes the world of organized crime like this:

‘It’s a scintillating world; it’s a pyramid of mercury: and we have to be standing on top.’

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That’s one of the best descriptions of a treacherous balancing act that I’ve seen in a long time. I can see the poisonous material sliding out from underneath.

We also get this description of the nature of time:

‘For you the present is easy to discern because it is simply where memory stops. Memories hurtle out of the past and come to a halt in the now. The present is the rockface at the end of the tunnel where you gouge away at the future.’

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The idea that the present is nothing more than where memory stops will keep me starting at my lava lamp for hours.

The point of the book may be that the only time things worthwhile actually happen is when something major completely disrupts people’s lives. They sleep walk through their routines, and big adventure like in the stories, or a simply travel mishap like in the framework may be all it takes to live a different life.

Was it not at times like this, when life malfunctioned, when time found a leak in its pipeline and dripped out into some little pool, that new thoughts happened, new things began? Would they look back at this night and say That is when it started?

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Dasgupta takes us into the minds of some of the passengers in between stories. In the early emphemeral stages on infatuation, one man looks at the woman sitting next to him. He subtly glances at here and wonders, perhaps naively, if their paths were to convere.

One man followed the patterns in the hair on the forearm of the woman next to him; he stole glances at the curve of her breast, the shape of her lips; he wondered what life lay behind the strange story she had told. Was it his imagination, or did her body creep closer to his as the night progressed? was there not some significance in the way their eyes had met? was it accident or design that made her hand brush his again on the armrest that lay between them? Where was she going? what was she doing in Tokyo?

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Back in college, I remember working on a paper late at night. The words started to move around on their own. At that point I realized I needed sleep. While I couldn't appreciate it then, over time I grew to understand the beauty that exists in the realm between sleeping and waking -- a beauty that can only be brought on by the tension of tired mind, exhausted body, and stong will tugging against one another. Dasgupta captures that beauty in this passage:

A woman yawned, shifted from her seat to the floor, tried to make herself comfortable, half-lying, half leaning, up against a battered Samsonite cabin bag. It was the dead of night: yesterday seemed weeks ago and tomorrow still many inky aeons in the future. Sleep lapped seductively against the shores of Certainty until its outer reaches crumbled and were submerged in warm, insensible depths. Diminished senses played tricks: were those bats fluttering outside the windows or just the twitching blind spots of minds too slow to render reality in all its detail? A pattern in the brickwork, or the remarkable shape of a shadow, could draw you into a maze of long and ponderous wonderings; and everyone’s face was reminiscent of someone you had known long ago.

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Here's a quick look at the stories themelves.

The Tailor

This is the most traditional tale and yet it has its own twists. It also nicely frames the rest of the stories with its refernce to the "thirteen levels of meaning prized in the greatest of our writings."

The Memory Editor

A fascinating story on the nature of memory and individuality. Is a person better off without negative memories? Or are those traumas important to who we are? And what happens when we commoditaize them?

The Billionaire’s Sleep

A story that touches on sleep, fertility, appearance, obsession, and wealth.

The House of the Frankfurt Mapmaker

The beginning of the story seems unnecesary, but it is well told. The only problem is I have no idea what was going on at the end. It raised too many questions for me. But it was quite a ride.

The Store on Madison Avenue

The orphaned/rejected child is a common theme in the several stories in the book. This story starts with that and goes on to warn of the perils of greed.

The Flyover

A fairly short story of success, failure, and hope.

The Speed Bump

This is the shortest, least magical, and most straight forward story in the book.

The Doll

One of the longer stories in the book, Dasgupta chose to tag the sections of the story like an outline or business plan. The main character does everything he can to fight his own insecurity.

The Rendezvous in Istanbul

This is a story of love and trust.

The Changeling

What does it mean to fight or accept death? In The Changeling Dasgupta explores that against the backdrop of an epidemic in Paris.

The Bargain in the Dungeon

This long, compelling story is the classic Be Careful What You Wish For tale.

The Lucky Ear Cleaner

Here we have simple, beautiful story about knowing what you want.

The Recycler of Dreams

This is a story in a story in a story. It references several others in the book, and has a recursive structure to it that is easy to get lost in. It all about the nature of dreams and reality.

The book is not perfect. I don't think some of the stories needed to be as graphic at they were.

My other concern is the voice of the story. Each story "sounded" like the same story teller. Even "The Doll", with its innovative layout, had the same language-feel as the others. This would not be a problem for me if it was just a collection of short stories. But Dasgupta chose to have passengers tell the stories. And all the passneger tell their stories the same way.

It's still a great novel, though. Tokyo Cancelled is a rare book that calls for a second reading. It's difficult to get everything out of the early stories without having read the later stories. Each story itself brings its own setting, plot, and characters.

Discussing the deeper meaning of these stories would be great way to pass the time with fellow passengers the next time I find myself stuck in an airport overnight.

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