Editor’s Choice Review April 2018, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Kaiju Man by J. L. Roberts

“The Kaiju Man” caught my eye this month with the utter surprise of how it blooms: a cleanly observed setup that just flowers into a transcendent, dreamlike, emotionally impactful piece of magical realism; an ending that’s utterly surprising, and yet completely organic—and yet not without room to improve. This month, I’d like to talk about how detail work can work both with and against us as writers, and the question of making a story its best self.

One of the major strengths of “The Kaiju Man” is a sense of observation that’s lyrical, fine-grained, and yet completely transparent and accessible. The paragraph with our protagonist driving out of Raleigh is beautifully textural—it describes not just landscape, but temperature, opinions (“the moisture and the heat haze combining to keep dirt on the ground where it belongs”) and change (“soon-to-come luxury housing developments starting in the mid-$200,000s”) in a very short space. None of these sentences are elaborate or baroque, but each sentence here is doing double duty: “the late morning light streaking out of the sky, pointing to this tree, that stretch of hillside” is gorgeous as a static image, and that sentence works even better because it makes the light kinetic—imbues motion into the narrative. I feel the effects of that work without actively noticing them, or being thrown out of the piece.

That’s a skill that needs to be balanced, however. As the kaiju approaches and the narrative fragments into more sensory impressions, though, the prose becomes much more visible, and I’m not sure it’s entirely a positive. I’d suggest pruning that section back somewhat: each of those details is beautifully rendered, but they stack up into something a little too overwhelming for me as a reader—something that blocks me from getting through to more story. Taking two or three sense impressions out of each part of that scene makes the other ones sharper and more meaningful, and the path a bit clearer for readers. That goes, likewise, for the scene with Hannah: the image of her framed against Layton’s iris is incredible, but it’s getting lost for me in the general denseness of metaphor that surrounds it.

Imagery isn’t just presentation, in a story: it’s the setting around it—in the jeweler’s sense. Imagery’s an art of contrasts. Setting something much more plain around an image, a moment, you want to spotlight makes it stand that much clearer, and can increase the impact immeasurably.

The density of detail has a structural effect, too: the pacing of “The Kaiju Man” stalls somewhat near the middle, around Layton taking out the boat and the protagonist’s observation of the fish. A bit of pruning as the story starts to slow will keep the pace of reading measured, and make sure that pacing isn’t telling readers details are important (spend more time on this!) when they aren’t just yet.

The worldbuilding and characterization are well-sketched in details here, too. It’s quite refreshing to see a male character whose career slump isn’t a source of bitterness, but a choice he himself made. It’s clear how much the protagonist loves Hannah—how much taking her perspective changed his own attitude to life—and that love makes his push to change her name to an English one (although, I’m noting Hana is a Japanese name too!) a much more interestingly complex one. Everything in this piece is grounded in a certain kindness, and that does something silent and earthshaking to how it’s read.

That hinting system works with the world too: the coral that’s not there anymore, the poverty around Layton’s brightly-painted house, the time since Fukushima all combine to create a sense of a certain kind of worn-down near-future. Considering how few details are given, the picture I’ve got of this version of the world is surprisingly complete, and that’s skilled work.

There is one silence in the worldbuilding that feels more like an omission: what degree of racism goes down in this area. Layton’s obviously changed his name, and there was obviously pressure for the protagonist and Melissa to change Hannah’s name; there are rumours about Layton in town, but the normally polite protagonist brings them up as if this isn’t going to hurt him (“do you know what they call you in town?” is not a neutral question). Layton lives in an emotional and social ecology as much as he inhabits a geographic one; I’d suggest thinking about what that looks like, and letting it inflect this interaction a little more.

There are also some version control issues here—two different Japanese names for Hannah, which switch midstream, for example; two stories about why they changed her name; the protagonist taking notes either with his phone or in a notebook—and a recurring tense bobble between present and past, but those are issues easily sorted out.

The major question in “The Kaiju Man”, though, is the protagonist’s transformation and their swim up the coast. There’s a nearly dreamlike feel to the scenes after he goes into the water, and while they stretch a bit long for me, the payoff is magnificent. To answer the question posed in the author’s comments, the ending here is gorgeous—I can feel the structure, the bump in the narrative of how quiet and emotionally affecting it is, and it works on me—but I couldn’t tell you what has just happened, or why, and that lack of intellectual closure puts a dent in my emotional satisfaction. There is a clue in Layton having lost his family, in how he and Hannah both have changed names, how Hannah has been sent away from home (to boarding school) again, but I’m scrambling for those clues. I feel the faint echo of those connections, but couldn’t say for sure that they’re intentional. I can’t tell if this is a familial connection or just the bond of shared experience: being more and different inside than you are outside, in a stranger’s country.

I’ve noticed the existing critiques on this piece have identified the same issue and suggested solutions that change what kind of story this is. I’d gently differ with them. There’s an urge sometimes, when there isn’t enough information about what story this is, to try to make it into a story more recognizable to that particular reader, and it’s not necessarily the most productive urge. This story is quite thoroughly itself, and it’s very good at being itself; structurally—that as an ending—this is powerfully affecting as it is. Even in a somewhat messy draft, “The Kaiju Man” moves me. The question, I think, is making it communicate itself more clearly: bringing information that’s currently in the subtext of “The Kaiju Man” up a little higher, nearer the level of the text. How might we get more clues without breaking that narrative dream?

I’d suggest that that’s a productive goal for the next draft of “The Kaiju Man”: locating the story you’d like to tell with it, finding the clues that are already there to point readers along the way, and thinking about how they can be clarified, or a few more puzzle pieces dropped into the cracks of the narrative so that the trail is clearer. This might be a two- to three-draft process, and will probably involve some tinkering, but getting it down without disrupting the gorgeous, almost reverent atmosphere of that last scene is, I think, well worth it. Please don’t make “The Kaiju Man” anything different than what it is: just show us a little more light.

Thank you very much for the read, and best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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