Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing

I’d selected The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak (Bantam, 2008; all quotations are taken from this edition) to examine because I wanted to see how he handled the structural concept of interrelated short stories (or a novel-in-stories), and I certainly learned a lot. I have a set of stories that are interrelated by virtue of an over-arching plot as well as by featuring subsequent-generation protagonists (the second story’s protagonist is the granddaughter of the first story’s protagonist, the third story’s protagonist is the granddaughter of the second story’s protagonist, etc.). I have ideas for additional stories to fill out that set, but I think the problem is that those stories work more as chapters than standalone stories, and I’m always curious to see how other writers handle such a concept. To that end, Barzak’s novel-in-stories gives me a lot of food for thought. Warning: Spoilers to follow.

The Love We Share Without Knowing is a collection of ten short stories, five of which are told from a first-person point of view, five from a third-person point of view. Barzak does not, however, alternate these different points of view; in fact, there is no discernable pattern to their order. Instead, the novel is ordered by its chronology (each subsequent story takes place some time after the stories preceding it) and by its thematic structure. The theme of the novel-in-stories, as suggested by the title, is different kinds of love and how people are both drawn to and repelled by love. The phrase “the love we share without knowing” appears in two different stories, although admittedly from the same source and interpreted by two different narrators, and that phrase suggests the general optimism that pervades the stories (and perhaps Barzak’s point of view as well).

I was most interested in how Barzak structured the interrelationships between the stories’ characters, and so I found creating a structural outline of The Love We Share Without Knowing to be a useful exercise:

1. “Realer Than You” — The first-person narrator is Elijah, an American teenager transplanted to Japan with his family. He is miserable until he sees a fox in the woods after discovering a mysterious tiny shrine; later he meets a mysterious girl named Midori dressed in a fox costume, and he subsequently discovers that Midori killed herself many years ago and realizes that she was the fox (or fox spirit, kitsune) who has helped him realize that “Nothing is more real than the masks we make to show each other who we are” (24). This story is also one of the few with overtly fantastic elements.

2. “The Suicide Club” — Four people—Kazuko, Hitomi, Asami, and Tadashi—come together because they have each reached a stopping point  in their lives (Kazuko’s husband’s affair; Hitomi’s boyfriend won’t commit; Asami and Tadashi are disappointed by love. They decide to commit suicide together (apparently a popular method of suicide in Japan) because then at least they’d all be together, or “issho ni” (56). We learn that Midori (#1) was Kazuko’s best friend (Kazuko, as it turns out, is the common connection between most of the characters).

3. “Sleeping Beauties” — The first-person narrator is Danny, although we don’t learn his name or his boyfriend’s name (Kenji, who is addressed as “you” throughout the story) until a later story. Danny has been in Japan for a few years teaching English, and Kazuko (#2) is his boss’ secretary; one night at a company dinner he brings up the concept of group suicide, which unsettles Kazuko (this incident is also related in story #2 from Kazuko’s point of view). This story introduces several fairy tale references, not the least of which is that Kenji, realizing that Danny is going to leave him to return to America, traps Danny in his sleep. Kenji tells Danny, who talks in his sleep, “Don’t speak to those who talk in their sleep… If you do, you will trap them in the other world. The world we enter in our dreams” (67), but that is exactly what Kenji does to Danny, who is then trapped in sleep (a revised Sleeping Beauty) but continues to speak.

4. “If You Can Read This You’re Too Close” — The first-person narrator is Nobuo, the non-commital boyfriend of Hitomi (#2), who nonetheless is angry with Hitomi for committing suicide because of the burden it places on him. In this story, we see him take Ai to a love hotel but then leave her when she becomes sentimental over an entry in the room’s diary where a lonely man comes to the love hotel alone to touch “the love we share without knowing” (86). On the train a blind man sees Nobuo, and then Nobuo goes blind while the blind man regains his sight. The blindness is a lesson about not connecting with people, but Nobuo refuses to learn it.

5. Like the second story, “Outlanders” is a third-person point of view following four Americans—Laurie, Hannah, Ted, and Jules—living in Japan, and like Danny (#3), teaching English. The story details the basic and various disappointments in love of each of the characters. Hannah is hired as a “tutor” for Nubuo (#4) by his parents, who worry about his apathy since his blindness and hoped that having someone converse with him in English—a language he loves—might help.

6. “What They Don’t Tell You” follows Hannah (#5), and we learn the reason why she come to Japan and why she’s so distant (her Japanese boyfriend was killed on 9/11 and she’s come to Japan trying to connect, somehow, to him). Hannah also knows Kazuko (#2, #3) and she sees Elijah (#1) from a distance as he and his family are moving out.

7. “In Between Dreams” — The first-person narrator is Ai (#4), who, as Kenji’s housekeeper, discovers the sleeping Danny (#3) and, after listening to him talk in his sleep for several days, takes him to the hospital.

8. “Where I Come From” follows the now-awake Danny (#3, #7) and his mother, who has come to Japan upon learning Danny’s been discovered after being missing for six months. Danny tries to connect with his mother, to share something of himself and his relationship with Kenji (#3, #7).

9. In “Day of the Dead,” which takes place around the festivities of Obon (the day of the dead of the title), follows Kazuko (#2, #3, #6), who was the only one of her suicide group to be resuscitated. The spirits of Hitomi (#2, #4), Asami (#2), and Tadashi (#2) follow her around as she visits her family for the festival, and at the end of the story Kazuko meets the spirit of Midori (#1), and by the end Kazuko has come to a place of peace, indicated by the departure of her friends’ spirits.

10. “A Thousand Tails” — The first-person narrator is Midori (#1, #9), which brings the novel full circle, as we learn about Midori’s connection to kitsune and gain a fuller account of the reasons for her suicide. The end of the story pulls together the theme of love and necessary connection the other stories embody. “A Thousand Tails” is probably my most favorite, but then I’m a longtime fan of kitsune stories.

One interesting fact that made itself apparent while I was creating this structural outline is that the first-person narratives are the stories that include any real element of the fantastic (the ninth story, “Day of the Dead,” being the only exception, but as this third-person narrative leads into the final first-person story, told from the dead Midori’s point of view, that exception makes sense). This technique struck me because it allows the novel to be read on two levels: (1) the fantastic elements are indeed “real,” in the sense of this created world, or (2) the fantastic elements are metaphoric, a level more easily accepted because of the implicit unreliability of any first-person narrator.

Overall, I was impressed with Barzak’s novel-in-stories. Some of the later stories, I must admit, didn’t feel as if they would stand as well on their own (like “In Between Dreams” or “Where I Come From”) because getting the full benefit of the story requires some background context, although I was impressed with how many of the stories worked both independently and interconnectedly. The Love We Share Without Knowing has provided me a good example of a technique with which I’ll continue experimenting.

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