Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Falling Down the Wrong Rabbit Hole: The Fantastic in Kanai Mieko’s “Rabbits”

Rabbits, Crabs, Etc.There are few stories that can render my students practically speechless the way that Kanai’s surreal, Alice in Wonderland tale gone wrong can. At first told from the viewpoint of a nameless “frame” narrator who struggles with writing, the story slowly descends into the realm of psychological madness once he/she encounters a rabbit. Not just any rabbit, mind you, but a human bunny, a girl named Lily who wears real rabbit fur from head to toe and a rabbit head, complete with pink glass eyes. Lily leads the narrator back to her dilapidated house, which the narrator describes as “rabbit hutch” since “the floor had wall-to-wall carpet of rabbit fur and on the walls were nailed fresh rabbit pelts” (4). Lily says there must be a reason that she ended up in such a state, and so begins to tell her story to the narrator, and to us.

I do not want to give away too much of the story, but if I had to give the back jacket cover blurb, it would go something like this: What happens to a young girl when her family suddenly disappears, leaving just her and her father alone to their own devices? A special dinner of rabbits for the two on the 1st and 15th of each month soon becomes a daily ritual of power and desire. Transforming simultaneously into prey and predator, Lily’s attempt to assert her feminine wiles threatens to end with disastrous, rather grotesque consequences. What chance there might be to save her falls into the hands of a nameless stranger who records her tale…

Now, this is not a traditional “fantasy” story, but the fantastic does occur in a few instances, the most jarring one being when Lily’s family disappears. This is not explained in any way other than the narrator believes “they had been spirited off somewhere and would not show up again, which was fine by me” (9). There is no other allusion to them except when her father tells her to stay home from school since others will expect her to be distraught with worry over their disappearance. He eventually quits his job and the two give themselves over to decadently eating feasts, with rabbits as the main course. And herein my students want answers. What happened to the family? Were they murdered by the father, or even the daughter? Did they run away in fear? All sorts of theories are posited, and to no avail, since the text absolutely refuses to give hints as to their fate. We must take that at face value. But the fantastic has done its work to jar my students out of a sense of “owning” the story, of pushing them into the slipstream of what is real and what isn’t.

The other fantastic element appears when the frame narrator (whose gender remains a mystery) meets Lily as a rabbit for the first time. Running after the rabbit, the narrator falls “down into a hole and black[s] out” (3). We can assume this is an allusion to the Alice tale, but again, for my students, they want to place this firmly in the Real. Was the narrator’s encounter with Lily only a dream, or perhaps a journey into her/his subconscious? They want any explanation but that there is a mysterious hole that is somehow deep enough for the narrator to fall “down into” while not necessarily being deep enough for him/her to be pulled out of. And of course the narrator was chasing a human rabbit—how could they not ask for a logical explanation to wipe away their anxieties that perhaps this is a story where both the impossible and the only-too-possible happen? For Kanai goes on to explore issues of gender and power in a horrifying way, and does not give any kind of narrative closure at the end, only a strange portrait that is haunting, tragic, and beautiful. It is the best tale of its kind and records the societal issues Japanese women writers of the 1970s struggled with and sought to expose within their literature. Such is the power of the fantastic: you take it on its own terms, not yours.

Rabbits, Crabs, Etc.: Stories by Japanese Women. Trans. Phyllis Birnbaum. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1982.