Love and Disappointment in “Goldfish on the Roof”

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By Marie Schutt

My first unwitting introduction to flash fiction, or something like it, was when I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories as a bored teenager. Though he’s best known for his novels—Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, Beauty and Sadness, among others—Kawabata wrote his “palm-of-the-hand” stories (a term he coined) over fifty-odd years. They span his writing career and are, as is written in the introduction of my edition of the collection, where the “essence of his art was to be found.”

That book changed what little I understood then about reading and writing fiction, and has continued to shape my approach to writing more than ten years later. Most importantly, it showed me how much of a story can live off of the page, even when its printed attachment to this world counts for less than 1,000 words.

Some of the stories are surreal (“Goldfish on the Roof,” haunts with its carp-invaded mirrors and mothers) some are quick “slice of life” vignettes (the autumnal “The Silverberry Thief” is a personal favorite) and others span months or years of characters’ lives (“The White Flower”). They all, in only so many words, project entire worlds of hope, curiosity, dread, regret, and nostalgia, populated by complex and familiar characters.

“Goldfish on the Roof,” written in 1926, is one story I’ve revisited, and grappled with, multiple times in the years since I first read it.

The story’s protagonist is Chiyoko, a young woman whose father is Japanese and whose mother was a “concubine in Peking.” She is haunted by her heritage and an expressive mirror hanging opposite her bed. Distressing visions appear there: apparitions of the goldfish her father raises in tubs on the roof. “Her mind was worn down like a phonograph needle because of the clarity of these visions.”

Those goldfish become a family obsession. Initially a hobby of her father’s, they eventually become Chiyoko’s responsibility. “Growing more and more melancholy by the day, she did nothing but gaze at them.” Suitors come and go, but all Chiyoko asks of them is to fetch her some water fleas to feed the fish:

“‘Where can I find them?’

“‘You might look around in a ditch.’”

When she is twenty-six, Chiyoko’s father dies and disowns her in his will. Upon hearing the news, a few things happen to her in rapid succession. She sees her mother in the mirror, and then runs to the roof to confront her.

“Where had she come from? And when? Her mother was standing by the fish tank, her face dark. Her mouth was full of lionhead fish. The tail of one of them dangled from her mouth like a tongue. Though the woman saw her daughter, she ignored her as she ate the fish.”

What happens next disturbs and disappoints me on two levels: 1. Chiyoko pushes her mother to her death, and 2. Kawabata abruptly follows that powerful passage up with a literal “and then she lived happily ever after” to end the piece:

“With this, Chiyoko was freed from her mother and father. She regained her youth and set out on a life of happiness.”

This tightly written and emotionally complex story deserves a much more effective ending than that. The reader is shunted from a potent and lingering image – “Her mother tumbled against the glazed brick and died with the goldfish in her mouth” – to this bland and unconvincing non-ending, which feels as though it was tacked on as an afterthought. As though, what the hell, maybe Chiyoko deserves a little something for all her suffering, after all.

This is why I love and hate “Goldfish on the Roof.”

I love it for its weirdness, for its tense layering of family dynamics, for its dreamlike descriptions, for allowing Chiyoko and her world to be formed out of a masterful give and take of dark and light rather than hard-drawn lines and character clichés – and for accomplishing all of this in a little over 1,000 words. The same things that I love about many of Kawabata’s stories.

I hate it for that ending. An ending, I feel, that betrays the reader, and undermines everything that the story had achieved leading up to those last few lines.

Kawabata’s stories were my first lessons in economy of language. The “palm-of-the-hand stories” occupy small spaces, but possess limitless expansive power, and that unexpected power of evocation blew open my early notions of how storytelling could—and should—be achieved. This was a precious thing for a young aspiring writer to discover.

But, no artist is perfect. Everyone misses the mark sometimes, and I think the reason that “Goldfish on the Roof” has remained important to me is that it embodies both the best and the worst of what I’ve encountered in flash fiction: captivating storytelling with the power to thoroughly immerse the reader in a small space, and an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to give closure to that story within the same space.

Compressing the space and the time in which we get to tell a story magnifies every stylistic choice, forces us to whittle the story down to its essentials. That is, ultimately, the thing that pulls me to flash fiction: it demands the essentials. Kawabata’s stories make their own demands, and sometimes they aren’t met. But I have learned to value those stories as much as any other, because their imperfection offers a glimpse into the workings of a great author’s craft that no engaged writer can afford to ignore.

Marie_Schutt_HeadshotMarie Schutt is a writer and editor based in Chicago. She edits Liminoid Magazine, which is launching its fifth issue in October 2016. Her fiction can be found in Sundog Lit. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.