Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends (Short Flight/Long Drive Books) is worth reading simply for the exotic locations and unique settings, but there is much more going on in this collection. A layered sadness permeates these stories, often soliciting sympathy for the main characters. At other times, a sense of entitlement causes the reader to become frustrated and even angry at these spoiled people. And still other stories allow us to understand the uncertainty that life offers up, even amidst important events and epic moments, unsure of how to take these revelations, unable to change—even when willing.
One of the first things that you may notice about this collection is the fantastic narrative hooks. Greenfeld often starts off his stories with a truly compelling line or two that sets the stage for a tale.Take this opening line from the first story in the collection, “Copper Top”:
“I carry with me a white-capped orange plastic jug containing 2,100 milliliters of my own urine.”
Even when pausing for a few moments to contemplate this statement, I had no idea where this story was going to go. But I was certainly going to keep reading. Or, this example, from “Toddy M”:
“The first time I saw Toddy M. he was naked.”
Another moment where you wonder to yourself what the hell is going on. Where is this story going to take me, why the urine, why the naked man? Suffice it to say, the stories expand and develop, the hooks revealing only the tip of the iceberg, the entire narrative slowly unfurling.
The locations that I just mentioned are scattered all over the world. His stories take place in Lombok, Indonesia, the Pacific Palisades in California, Shanghai, China on Mt. Everest, the Sea of Japan and Australia, to name a few places. For those that haven’t traveled much in their lives, these distant cities and rural outposts are fascinating and authentic glimpses into not only the flora and fauna but the politics and social structures of times and places we may never have seen before. Take this description from “Toddy M” the story of a surfing legend that is set in the jungles of the aforementioned Lombok:
“When Toddy and Liddy came in from their morning surf, they both dumped buckets of fresh water over their heads and we set off up the hill, following a narrow trail alongside an intermittent barbed-wire fence overgrown with a white, flowering vine. Toddy
and Liddy wore sarongs and flip-flops, and I felt overdressed in my hiking boots, shorts, button-up shirt and brimmed sun hat. We could hear monkeys in the trees, and at one point we were overwhelmed by a cloud of blue butterflies that landed en masse in a patch of mud. They scattered again as we approached.”
Greenfeld is widely recognized for his creative non-fiction and journalistic pursuits, in addition to his storytelling abilities. The authority and sense of place he creates must certainly be informed by his globetrotting and wanderlust, but whether he’s actually been to these places or not isn’t important. The feeling of immersion, the details, the local flavor—those aspects of his stories add a layered depth to the settings and lifestyle of the natives and tourists alike.
There is also an eccentricity to his characters and the ways they go about their lives. Whether the protagonist is rich and lounging about an island, or a struggling journalist traipsing through a war-torn country or thick jungles, they often have quirks and behaviors that make them interesting and unique. Take this passage from “Silver,” the story of a man working in China, part of upper management, who wants simply to fit in, to be a part of something, to care about somebody for once:
“Is this weird? Sometimes I would go to the freezer in the little office kitchen and scoop up a mug of ice cubes. Then I’d head to the bathroom, where I would dump them in the urinal and piss on them. I’ve always liked peeing on ice—there used to be a Mexican restaurant near my apartment in New York where I could always pee on ice—and there weren’t any places in Hong Kong that poured ice into their urinals. Nobody ever caught me doing it and I was never sure I would even be embarrassed if I were caught.”
What does this scene reveal about him? Is this a harmful pursuit, just entertainment? Or does he relish the creation and destruction of something that only he can control? We may get some answers to these questions when we get to the end of this story. After one of the soccer players on his team dies, the man named Silver, he pursues the dead man’s wife:
“She told me to call her Cheryl and offered me oolong tea. She had a round face with oval eyes and thick lashes. Her nose was small but delicately shaped, and when her mouth was closed it turned into a slight bow. She wasn’t beautiful and probably never had been, but after an appropriate time had passed I would ask her out to dinner. I wanted Silver’s happiness. I didn’t think it would take long. The following week, when the company offered me a job in New York to save me from the continuing cutbacks, I turned it down.”
Which leads me to the sadness that surrounds most, if not all, of the stories in this collection. There is often regret, when telling these stories, sometimes for things that haven’t been done, sometimes for things that have. These sensations stay with the reader long after the stories have been finished, these lives continuing (or ending) on the page, but the feeling, the emotions, stay with you. There are two stories that illustrate this above and beyond the rest. The first is “Death and Glory,” and involves a young man coming home from his studies to see his handicapped sister, who is not only stuck in a wheelchair, but stutters what few words she can utter. In this passage, our protagonist considers a seizure earlier in her childhood:
“I was sure you were going to die in that hospital room. And then, I thought to myself, you would finally be free.
But you were strong when perhaps you should have been weak.”
He wants his sister to stop suffering, so he shares his life with her, albeit begrudgingly. And even though he feels it as a chore, it weighs on him that he can’t do a better job of helping her to live vicariously through his life.
The other story that exemplified this sadness was “The Gymnast.” So many aspects of this story are haunting. There are the horrible conditions of living in Communist China:
“Our rooms were inspected every night, coaches checking for contraband food. If they found so much as a bean cake you were denied rice for three days and had to run eight kilometers; a second infraction and you were sent home. Of course, we knew how to hide our shameful little morsels—honey-tea cough drops and other hard candy were like currency to us. Full of sugar and easy to conceal—in emergencies, we learned how to secure them in our vaginas.”
And it’s also in the moments where our main character, the gymnast Xiao, has a momentary pause and realizes what is happening, the sacrifices that she and her mother have made in order to get a shot at glory, the Olympics and honor:
“For the next five years, I would see my mother a total of eighteen days.”
But finally, it is in the powerful and devastating conclusion that Greenfeld shows us how to end a story, how to tell of her complete commitment, at one time for the sport, and later, for anything but:
“I had taken my seat on a bench when I saw a brick that had loosened from the path around the playground. I gathered the brick and put it in my shopping basket.
My baby would wail horribly when I smashed her calf with the brick. She would never do a roundoff in her life. Why had I done this? she would ask if she already had words, looking up at me with uncomprehending eyes thick with tears. Why?
To save you, I would tell her even though she would never understand, to save you.”
Reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or to a lesser degree, George Saunders’s “Puppy” the echo of that brick, the wailing of the child, the black spot it must have cast on the heart of the mother, Xiao, it will stay with me for a long time.
If you are not yet familiar with Karl Taro Greenfeld’s non-fiction work, be sure to keep an eye out for Speed Tribes and Boy Alone. His short fiction, including some of the stories in here, was first brought to my attention in the Missouri Review, as well as The Paris Review, two of the finest journals out there for contemporary fiction. I mention these publications, as well as his recognition in the Best American Short Stories anthology and the O. Henry Prize Stories anthology, to show you that I am not alone in finding his work compelling, entertaining, and everlasting. This collection of stories, NowTrends, will leave a mark—both on your mind’s eye and your own aging heart.