‘Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail:’ Michener fellow Kelly Luce gets good and weird

In Kelly Luce’s debut short story collection, “Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail,” a toaster lets you know when you are going to die, a young woman struggles with the death of a sibling and things get quietly, Twilight Zoney odd.

And then there’s the title story, wherein a young woman grows a tail. Or is it three different women who grow them, all named Hana Sasaki?

Somewhere along the line, between the time of J.D. Salinger, John Updike and Raymond Carver, and, say, the Nintendo 64 era, North American literary fiction woke up to the imaginative power of Gabriel Garcia Marquez-style magical realism: Think Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders or Aimee Bender.

So it is hard for the genre fan to read the excellent “Three Scenarios” and know even the most fantastical stories will be regarded as smart, forward-thinking literature (which they are) and not recall Arthur Krystal’s now-infamous Oct. 24, 2012 essay in the New Yorker in which the veteran critic doubles-down on his contention that literature is to high culture as genre fiction is to low ideology, with eye-rolling comments such as: “Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals.”

A few of these stories could have worked in the legendary genre magazine “Fantasy and Science-Fiction” as well as they do in, say, the “Tampa Review” or “Storyville.”

That is not a shot at Luce, who does terrific work here, or her publisher. Luce’s book is the first offering from A Strange Object, the Austin-based publishing house started by former American Short Fiction editors Jill Meyers and Callie Collins, and it is a strong, smart debut.

A Michener Center fellow, the 33-year-old Luce seems on the cusp of the proverbial next level. Her work has appeared in the the Southern Review, Chicago Tribune, and the Kenyon Review. She’s picked up fellowships from, among others, the MacDowell Colony, Ragdale Foundation and Jentel Arts.

She attended the Sozopol Fiction Seminar in Bulgaria and did time in Japan (literally, actually — she spent about a week in a Japanese jail on a trumped-up shoplifting charge), which explains why all but one of the stories in her debut collection are set in Japan, several of them with Japanese characters. Hers is a cosmopolitan viewpoint.

As much or more than anything else, Luce’s stories are about transformation, about the moments when a perception changes or when something simply becomes something else (including the stories that have no fantastical elements).

Of course, that is often the point of a short story: a cluster of images and plot and ideas around a moment of revelation. But in “Three Scenarios,” it becomes a de facto theme.

And there are also stories that have nothing to do with the other-worldly, such as the lovely closer “Amorometer,” a case of mistaken identity that a woman plays out as long as seems civilized (and probably a little bit beyond).

In “Pioneers,” a Japanese woman struggles to make her marriage to her Western husband work. The first line is beautifully economical: “Yukimo jiggled the handle and thought, break, broke, broken.” Luce maintains the savvy tone throughout.

But Luce’s work truly pops when things get weird: In the sharp opener “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,” a very religious woman owns a toaster with a strange habit: “when you put in a piece of bread, it came out with a kanji character toasted on it. That character indicated how you’d die.” (Does this count as a bug or a feature?)

To his credit, Old Kumo, one of the toaster’s … subjects? victims? handles the news well:

“‘What was your word, sir?’ ” a delivery boy asks.

“Sleep. Isn’t that a hoot? Now I can finally live in peace.’” It’s a thoughtful piece with a quieter ending than one expects.

(And as Luce recently noted in a brief interview with “Poets & Writers” magazine, the story sprang from an idea box in which she dumps random thoughts to use when she is stuck. “I pull out a few scraps and force them into a story. ‘Ms. Yamada’s Toaster’ came from: ‘appliance with a superpower,’ ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and ‘so much beer.’” Kelly, keep this process up!)

The titular piece is one of the shortest; its title tells you exactly what is going on. At three points in her life, or at one point in the lives of various Hana Sasakis, she grows a tail.

The scenarios read like almost like demos for longer works, but Luce smartly circles back to the idea of multivalent perception: “Sometimes, she gets the sensation that time has frozen for her only, a glitch in relativity, as if she’s observing herself from a great distance.”

In “Rooey,” Luce waves her arms frantically to let you know where the story is headed: “Here’s a story: two people are in trouble and the wrong one dies. There’s been a cosmic mix-up, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and they all live sadly ever after. The end.” And it is to her credit the end is still a surprise.

Indeed, it is to Luce’s (and A Strange Object’s) credit that “Three Scenarios” is the best kind of surprise: a good collection from a new voice that is just getting going.

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