“Jack and Betty Forever” by Yoshinori Shimizu

December 19, 2008

Posted by Nick Sarno

 

jackandbetty1

 

There are a few books that occupy a special shelf in my brain. I call them “odd books.” I’d like to come up with a catchier name for them, but since I usually keep this to myself, “odd books” will do just fine. Odd books are never great, but they’re not especially bad, either. That is, they don’t have any camp value, and they’re never so-bad-they’re-good. They’re not odd because they’re surreal, or because of any fantastic content. They’re simply odd in a way I can’t quite wrap my mind around. Odd in a what-were-they-thinking-when-they-wrote-this-? sort of way. 

 

The odd books are always written by authors I had never heard of before. Once I’m familiar with the author, when I have some idea of what they may have been thinking, the mystery fades. (If I had never heard of Nathanael West, The Dream Life of Balso Snell would probably fall into this category.) 

 

The thing about these books is, I think about them a lot. I probably think about them more than books I really like. There is a kind of comfort in knowing that I’ll never get to the bottom of them, that I’m unlikely to come across any critical studies or reviews of the book, that I’ll never read a biography of the author. I can make them my own in a way I never could with anything else.

 

Jack and Betty Forever is an odd book. I bought it used, because I liked the cover and because it was three dollars and I needed something to read, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It is a small collection of short stories, five of them, and each one leaves you unprepared for the next.

 

The first story, “Jack and Betty Forever”, opens simply enough. A man and a woman meet on the street, after having not seen each other since junior high. They greet each other and decide to get a cup of coffee together. As they enter the cafe, Jack asks Betty, “Is this a table?” And from that moment on, things become odd. Jack and Betty, it seems, have met each other on the streets of Chicago. They have both learned English from school books, and their speech regresses to the simple language of school primers. They begin to reacquaint themselves.

     “What do you do?” Betty asked, wondering what sort of work Jack did.

     “I am a lawyer,” he replied.

     “That is a good job.”

     “Two months ago, however, I lost my job.”

     “Oh, that is too bad.”

As the questions are asked, the replies become more and more dismal. Betty’s husband died, shot by the police, after killing eight people in a supermarket. Her father committed suicide after his store went bankrupt because a McDonald’s entered the neighborhood. Her son sometimes “does drugs and rapes women.” Jack is divorced. He and his wife stopped getting along after their child was born from an artificially inseminated mother. Betty’s sister committed suicide. It’s difficult to know exactly how to take this exchange–as satire? As political commentary? As an exaggerated description of the immigrant experience? By the time they begin speaking of Jack’s sister (“When she was in her late teens she decided she wanted to become a movie star.” “Oh, I see.” “Then she appeared in several hard-core porno movies.” “Oh.”) such questions become irrelevant, or at least pushed to the side, and the story becomes laugh out loud funny. 

 

The second story, “Growing Down”, is something else entirely, a kind of science fiction piece about a world where people age backwards. It reminded me of something I would have been introduced to in a ninth grade English class, when each student would have to read a few paragraphs out loud, when we’d have to form our desks into a circle and discuss it afterwards. It made more sense (though it lost a little of the mystery) when I read Yoshinori’s Wikipedia entry which states, in its entirety: “He was born in Nagoya and has published stories, especially young adult science fiction, since 1977.”

 

“A Day of Glory”, the longest story in the collection, concerns an elderly man who began writing poetry upon his retirement. His son has gathered the old man’s poems and published them in a small edition. This gets the attention of a morning television program, which has a segment called  “Doing Fine, Thanks!” The fifteen minute piece, aired once a week, is a “feel-good” look at folks who, despite their age, are “doing fine.” The news segment, of course, does not go as planned. It’s actually quite a beautiful and moving story, odd only because it is sandwiched between teen sci-fi and “Soba vs. Kishimen Noodles.” 

 

This story, more of a satirical pseudo-sociological study on the differences between Tokyo and Nagoya then an actual story, takes the book in an entirely new direction. It seems to be a kind of inside joke about Yoshinori’s hometown, and the population of Nagoya are probably the only people who will get all of the humor in it, though some of the jokes manage to come through. It is followed by “Ode to the Monkey and the Crabs” which, I think, is a rereading of a Japanese folk tale, though I still haven’t been able to make heads or tales of it. Which, as one of my odd books, is exactly as it should be. 

 

Jack and Betty Forever was published by the Kodansha English Library in 1993 and was translated by Frederik L. Schodt. It seems almost impossible to buy anywhere, though there must be some used copies floating around. If you stumble across one of them, it’s well worth the three dollars.

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