The park bench is perhaps a little tired. Tired of serving as a vehicle to enable quirky relationships to form between complete strangers. If I see someone is sitting on a park bench, I personally don’t sit down there for fear of them becoming my friend over time and helping me to overcome my personal issues, while I help them to overcome theirs through my openness and generosity. You’ll be familiar with the format, I assume, from countless films and books. Are we really like that? I suspect not. If I were writing a novel about random strangers who open up to one another, they’d be two women who meet in the queue for a nightclub toilet. Drunk.
From Edward Albee to Lee Rourke, though, the literary park bench trope can actually do the trick if you treat it right. The question is, can each new writer who uses the park bench avoid the trap of the twee happy ending?
Milena Michiko Flašar, I would argue, almost manages it. She certainly has the requisite pair of couldn’t-be-much-different characters, and her setting is an unusual one for German-language writing. Ich nannte ihn Krawatte is 32-year-old Flašar’s third book. Her bench is in a park in an unnamed Japanese city and its inhabitants are a “salaryman” and a “hikikomori”. The white-collar worker is out of work but hasn’t told his wife yet and so has to spend all day wearing the tie of the title, eating his bento on said park bench. That plot device gets another cliché minus-point, I’m afraid. The reclusive youth has just started leaving the house again after an unspecified period in his bedroom. I’m not entirely sure what made him do so.
As you would expect, the novel deals with the two men gradually opening up to one another and giving each other strength. They talk about their respective problems in plainish prose – the young man is the narrator but the dialogues are strangely, I assume deliberately, unrealistic. There is shame here and mistakes and regrets and pressure, so much social pressure, all finally voiced in therapeutic clarity. The characters are fleshed out with memories, vividly narrated. And then they agree that the salaryman is to tell his wife and the hikikomori is to cut his hair, and my heart sank after rising continuously as the story proceeded. Please, don’t let that be the end. Please don’t let this be a heart-warming tale of strangers reaching out to one another across class and age divides.
This evening I was reading this piece about Ingeborg Bachmann by Elizabeth Bachner, and I felt quite inspired to write about loneliness and literature, but then I didn’t feel quite ready enough to expose myself as she does. It’s tempting, I’m sure, for writers to solve their characters’ loneliness almost like we try to find ways to dissolve our own. And it wouldn’t make a good story if the two drunk women in the nightclub toilets decided to go to an evening class or chatted to remote friends on skype or read lots of books, rather than forming an unexpected bond with each other and each of them instinctively knowing just what the other needed to do to make her life better.
But Bachner quotes Bachmann, whose character Ivan tells her writer character Ich in Malina, “It’s disgusting to put all this misery on the market, just adding to what’s already there, these books are all absolutely loathsome. What kind of obsession is this anyway, all this gloom, everything’s always sad and these books make it even worse in folio editions.” And after Flašar I read Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son, which is so far removed from either of these books as to be incomparable, and yet is full of misery and gloom with even the glint of hope at the end absolutely loathsome, and I came away in awe.
It’s all right. Flašar’s ending is a compromise. Things go badly for one character and well for the other. There is quiet misery, rendered very well, and there is resolution.