The Sound of White Ants


I have just received my purchased copy of


Stories of Modern Japan

by Brian Howell

Elastic Press 2004

My recent review of this author’s THE STREAM & THE TORRENT.

My previous reviews of Elastic Press books.

I intend to conduct a real-time review of this book in the comment stream below as and when I happen to read it in the normal course of my life.

18 thoughts on “The Sound of White Ants

  1. The Sound of White Ants
    “Then she picked up a bar of ‘Vessel in the Fog’ chocolate, and took it to the till.”
    A mixture of deadpan horizontality and a meaningful print, prestidigitation within a frame, of a castle with tassels and appendages, as the tenanted backdrop to a family-disowned Japanese man/boy who lives within the soft-edged, symmetrical contiguities of neighbouring flat abodes…Mishimic: mimic.
    Deadpan, too, while swaddling (contrastively amid images of synaesthesic crepitating sounds like that imagined from white ants) a porn fantasising that had me at one moment wishing I hadn’t started this book and the next moment hypnotised by something beyond the words, beyond their contiguous oubliette or cupboard… reaching conspiratorially into a sort of deadpan or blank ending (no comeuppance, no satisfaction, but a fleeting brothership), a blank ending with one contiguous white page in the book to hold it…

  2. The Tower
    “The horizontal barrier came down softly, from perfect ninety degrees to wavering zero,…”
    I sense that Howell is the master of the ‘wavering zero’, as this story, like the previous one, ends with what I see as one.
    I decided to read this book, as I was very impressed with this author’s novels about Western painting, Vermeer in ‘The Dance of Geometry’ and Torrentius in ‘The Stream & The Torrent’, and I sense this is a British born author who is channelling his experience of Japan through such an artistic sensibility – but, perhaps more importantly, vice versa.
    This story even exceeds all my hopes – about a Japanese woman whose husband’s job has taken him away from her and their two children to another city – but there is still a dream thread of ‘genius loci’ between them. Wonderful sense of deadpan dread. Words forming insects but in this story bicycles are also seen as insects…
    “She liked the idea of reversing or fast-forwarding action, of sliding space back on itself, or pushing it through some other dimension.”

  3. imageimage2.20 pm
    Scale Model
    “What was this Japanese obsession with Hawaii, anyway?”
    Temperaments and unwelcome desires, reversing or fast-forwarding, as in the previous story, and here that happens in the dated text (overflown or criss-crossed by “discrete squadrons of insects”) as well as the fearful or revelling vulnerability of small and large vehicles of travel or play as well as the history of Pearl Harbour, I guess – the apex where things or thighs meet…
    “‘Yes,’ was Nadeshiko’s deadpan answer.”

  4. A Lesson in Flexigation
    “Sometimes the whole shape opens up like a giant camera aperture and he sees her down in the centre, as if she is stuck in a black hole.”
    An OCD vision of mathematics as geometry vis-a-vis the interstices or interalices of skirt.

  5. Not Really Human
    “…a completely blank sheet of good quality paper. At first, at least, it had seemed blank. There was one area that had a different texture. When he lifted it to the light, he saw a watermark…”
    I felt deadened by reading of the salaryman’s slice of life like that slice of the text above, his microcosm of wife and daughter, a thin-edged contiguity with neighbours, his routine of work duties, the life assurance sales techniques that — in transfiguration with their own subliminals and his narrow-aperture family snapshots — did little to re-assure… but having now finished reading the story, I feel more alive. How does that work?

  6. Only The First Night
    “He had managed to exempt himself from the need to carry with him the stress-inducing company mobile phone, though he had lied a little when he had complained of a minor heart condition, and exaggerated the effect such a gadget might have on him.”
    I don’t suppose his talk of a dicky heart – in contrast to, at the end of the story, a hearty dick – would have gone down too well with any employer…
    As I read this story, I tried to search for the right expression for it: deadpan, methodical? … Until the story itself came up with ‘matter-of-fact’, and that is what it is – fact, matter and balanced mass, and the fact of his marriage and his baby daughter, and the matter-of-fact shooting stars that hide a whole feast of ‘as above, so below’ rather than ’cause and effect’ astrology, I guess, guiding or reflecting his matter-of-fact life in the future, and the lifting of his erection into the air when becoming greater with mass not less, as he finds his wife in the bath with a female stranger, still a stranger, one who is a fellow hotel guest despite the hotel being otherwise next to empty. I could go on. It does not seem to matter. In fact, it is what it is. Made me smile, when thinking about the prospect of the second night.

  7. A Loss
    “The tip of Emiko’s tongue had suddenly started worrying a gap in her two lower front teeth and it was preoccupying her.”
    …the gap, the loss, not the teeth themselves. This seems to relate to a similar gap relating to the painter Torrentius in my review of another book by this author where I happened to quote that specific reference here. Like the gap between the Two Towers of 9/11. Like the emerging gaps, losses and tragedies of family life felt in this story matter-of-factly, as both pleasure and frustration when jiggling one’s life as a tongue in a gap – related to the paradox of mass in the previous story and, now, here: a gold bar (a gold tooth?) for the universal gap: “it was heavier than she imagined from its size. […] the weight of the object inducing its own unexpected momentum.”

  8. The Ichimatsu Doll
    A disturbing, atonal, compelling word-symphony of a wife’s pregnancy, his sex with her before and during, a gap or loss by birth complications, his earlier buying a doll from a Ligottian doll ‘factory’ ironically to celebrate the pregnancy, extrapolations upon recreational sex or upon the curse of mobile phones, half-sleeping visions while travelling and the close shave or slice and salaciousness of empty converging lines with gaps and empty space… This story deeply worries me. A good thing? Well, I won’t forget it easily. To forget is to die.

  9. Head of Girl
    “A star or a planet? It could be a dead celestial body or one that that still had a strong influence on us struggling creatures down here, he speculated.”
    I, too, struggle, ageing well beyond middle age, with this story, speculating, like this protagonist, on youth and age, on right and wrong, marriage and bereavement, sanity (clear wholesome thinking) and insanity (unwholesome thinking or Alzheimer’s with which the authorities conspire), dream and reality, deliberate and accidental Internet sites, crime and punishment, and all their various permutations evoked by this story. I am still struggling with it, failing to understand it, so how do I know whether it’s a good story or a bad one, whether I myself am good or bad in or out of a story. So, should I put myself in a rubbish sack in case I put someone or something else in it, instead?
    (The mass of a head in a painting or the mass of head in a sculpture or the mass of a real head). Some fiction book reviews are more fictional than the fiction they review.

  10. Idol
    “Was he just a receptacle for images and other people’s fantasies finally attempting to take his own action, to define himself?”
    This is an exercise in sexual fantasising that is well-written and provocative – and I wonder if all the trains going through Tokyo are full of people with such things on their mind as they sit together randomly on the narrow seats? And whether suicide pacts in that part of the world actually end up synchronising? This work is not a comfortable read, but to read work by a skilfully laid-back or passive painterly author that tries to summon a potentially significant geometrical vision of art, space and humanity from ungeometrical flesh manipulating other flesh within the fictionally fantasising head, one has to try to be laid-back or passive oneself. Take the rough with the smooth. The clad with the unclad. Try to imagine it not happening except on the page.

  11. The Space Between The Walls
    It is a shame that the context of this book further accentuates the nature of this story while even, standing alone, it is a short masterpiece of parallel civilisations, English and Japanese, through the eyes of a Japanese man having lived in England now returned to his wife in Japan, as further seen through the eyes, I infer, of an Englishman living in Japan who is the author. The logistics of doors and rooms as fast space, related to the fast time of this childless couple’s would-be daughter’s growing in another world seen through an English curtainless window.
    Why a shame? Because some of this book’s other context may deter some readers from ever getting to read this short masterpiece at all.

  12. Mobile, phone
    “They’re very good, but a bit creepy.”
    I am obviously too close to this story, having published it in ‘Nemonymous’ in 2003. Yet, each time I have re-read it, once a week or so ago here, and again just now, I have seen more and more in it – and, now, in the context of this book, I see the deadpan or deadly coolth of an ethos that is foreign to me come closer to my Home key. A woman in the crashed car with this book’s leitmotif of a mobile comma phone abrim next to her, about to speak with a mass greater than the mass of the person speaking. Likewise the Internet, the ominous mass of the dating system character outweighing the person himself, subtending retrocausally with an angled stab. The scene on the front cover of this book is in this story, the schoolgirl with pleated skirt at-arm’s-length leitmotif. The dolls. A parental abandonment. And “subtending that cruel, dwindling angle” backward in the text yet forward in time, too, toward “an isosceles triangle of hope.” The ethical coolth of death itself?

  13. Apparent Distance
    “Because of the effect of gravity in space, that’s to say the force exerted by the sun’s huge mass, it sometimes seems as if a whole cluster of stars, maybe even galaxies, are periodically brighter than they usually are and even sometimes seem to be located in places where they aren’t. The light that reaches us from them has been diverted as in a prism, you know what a prism is?, O.K., and, by the same token, you might be looking straight at them and not be aware of it.”
    As with these stories. And this husband-illicit mobile-phone-implicit friend-non-complicit participants-tacit liaison-as-planetary-conjunction without explicit intention stems from a Japanese woman lending the man a book about a painter. Which painter, I ask? Perhaps the author will let us know in a comment here. But even he may be wrong, I guess.

  14. Half A Life
    “…jumbling her up into a Cubist collage, or, depending on a fortunate concatenation of horizontals and verticals,…”
    That earlier painter: Picasso? This story is a powerful collage in itself, containing too many leitmotifs to itemise here, but reprising the sexual fantasising on train journeys, and now such fantasising from viewing the passing train from outside as well as from within it, coupled with a poignant melting away in sharp angles of sudden non-awareness by the salaryman about the book’s generic salaryman’s routine of life and commuting, and here it is such melting away of the work to which he commutes as well as his children. A young salaryman’s form of Alzheimer’s, I guess, his own metaphorical hand or some other appendage caught in the train’s mobile doors?
    And by the end of it, I now think that unknown painter was Bosch. Assessing asses.

  15. Cocoon
    Fair warning. Now the book’s schoolgirl with pleated skirt leitmotif is seen from that very motif’s point of view, making perhaps the unforgivable at least understandable, a sort of inevitable culmination of this book’s tenor, while, obliquely, coupled with images of toads and frogs. Unforgivable, too, in that reputations follow a book in front of it, deterring others to judge its good from bad, in case they get them muddled up.
    At least she was deprived of her mobile, phone.

  16. Holding Pattern
    The perfect holding pattern paradoxically in the form of this whole book’s perfect coda, yet it still leaves a taste in my mouth that my mouth wants to spit out. But, unlike my mouth, I am pleased I have experienced this book. Fiction books should shock as well as intrigue otherwise they don’t stick to the Alzheimer’s-proof sides of the mind. And, taken as a whole, together with ‘The Stream and the Torrent’ and ‘The Dance of Geometry’, i.e. this author’s work I have read so far, its gestalt has stuck fast. As to the type of glue used, best not to enquire.
    This final story is of a Japanese man holidaying in Hawaii after a break-up with his girl friend. It carries some amazing obsessive visions that are described perfectly, including a Chinese woman with hair like Veronica Lake. It shades into a terrorist act at the end, not disconnected with my earlier reference in this review to Pearl Harbour, whereby it was not explicitly mentioned till this last story. A terrorist act almost like this book being placed on someone’s bookshelf without their knowledge. The trouble is it’s so well-written, so expertly charged. Yet, this coda is also a welcome laid-back, deadpan, methodical, matter-of-fact travelogue, and that is with what I am appropriately left, because that’s the prospect of how one’s life in death should both end and begin, its natural or unnatural obsessions solved, blunted, exorcised, by having at least watched them spike out along the geometrically horizontal graph of fiction, before vanishing, leaving only this book’s horizontality, that perfectly straight skyline of self, an endless holding pattern after the sun has gone. Neither 911 or 42. A catharsis and a purging.
    And, finally, some telling quotes from this last story:
    “…there was a natatorium of gentle water about three or four feet deep where nascent families bathed and paddled in comfort.”
    “…he could see the sun setting on the water. For a few moments, it was a red balloon touching the meniscus of an inconsequential body of liquid, threatening to float up again and drag the water with it. He was not certain what he thought as he watched this tentative balancing act of nature, beyond the fact that he could do nothing about it one way or another,…”
    “…hundreds of people were sitting, ghostlike, watching the same film from the day before on the huge cinema screen, staring, he thought, as if waiting for the world to end.”
    “…and that formerly oppressive feeling began to diminish until it was akin to the last receding conic section of a train disappearing from view.”


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