Where We Go When All We Were is Gone and Gross Details
I want to talk about grossness and gore. I want to talk about when a detail in a story makes you shudder or gag. Can the repulsive be misused? Of course! But it can also do wonderful things for a story.
In Sequoia Nagamatsu's "Rokurokubi" (which appears in Where We Go When All We Were is Gone), the narrator's neck will stretch a miraculous length at night so he can snake his head through the sewers and spy on people—his body lying at home.
The nature of this talent is bizarrely magical and ridiculous, until it isn't. Look at what he has to do after a neck-stretching adventure.
"Back home in the morning, I scrub my neck free of grime and cover any scrapes with anti-bacterial cream and makeup."
This line stopped me. I paused in my reading to gag a little bit. And I don't really have a weak stomach. I love gross stuff, in fact. (In a different Nagamatsu story, characters slurp raw placenta—that doesn't bother me!)
So why is this one so sickening? It feels a little bit like the common reaction to words like "moist" or "ointment"—cringe-y, but hard to say why.
Still, there are reasons. I know the grime is raw sewage—feces and urine, as well as vomit and blood and all the other bodily fluids that human beings flush. The narrator is literally scrubbing poop out of a neck cut, and treating it like a normal, everyday thing. I also feel disgust at the idea of makeup just barely concealing what I imagine must be a thick layer of anti-bacterial cream. In fact, I dislike the very idea of anti-bacterial cream. It's gross, ok?
But that doesn't feel like the whole reason for such a visceral reaction. I suspect my roiling stomach has to do with the vulnerability that the action betrays. This is a magical being. And yet, the demon is worried about bacteria. Maybe my reaction is to a sudden realization of weakness in what is supposed to be strong. Vulnerability is necessarily unsettling.
In another moment, the character comments on this vulnerability and we see more clearly that it is linked to both his physical body (which is intensely human) and the magical nature of his neck:
"There's something very close to childhood about not having your body around—the helplessness of not having your arms, the emasculated aspect of your genitals being half way across the city."
The body is distant and therefore exposed. But it's still attached, still a conduit for pain and death, making the exposure more frightening.
Of course, I'm not only interested in why I shudder, but in the effects of that reaction on the greater story. If I'm grossed out by a detail, there is a visceral response in my body. The story, which is first just squiggles on a page and then a series of related abstractions (words) that form images in my brain, has suddenly and miraculously become a thing that wriggles through me. I feel it.
It's also worth considering that if I'm reminded of my own body because of something happening in another body, it creates a connection between the two bodies. I experience the pain and the vulnerability of the Rokurokubi. And so I become the character, the "demon," in a very physical way.
So what does it mean that this grotesque embodiment occurs within in a magical story?
First, lets go back to what this narrator is. Rokurokubi have existed a long time in Japanese lore and this is a re-imagining of them. I'm not an expert on Rokurokubi and I'm not going to explore which aspects of the story are traditional and which from the contemporary author. In my style of analysis, which focuses on the effects of words on a reader, I think a writer's choice to include a detail is as important as the invention of a detail anyway.
But let's say you haven't read this story (yet!). When I talk about the magical nature of the Rokurokubi, you might conjure a spectral being--something airy and ghostly. When I say it's "legendary," that might summon up some magical world, maybe pseudo-medieval, or something even stranger. Once we know a thing is magic, many of us think of poofs and smoke and sparkles, of misty ghosts, of hologram-like evaporations. And these bodiless monsters—well, we can't feel a body that's not there.
The embodiment of this Nagamatsu's Rokurokubi is emphasized when he meets another legendary being. This is a Nukekubi, the kind of demon whose head floats around without a neck. The Nukekubi leaves a "luminescent mist… like a trail of miniature stars." It's a physical head, I think, but it's clearly separate from the rest of its body, and the head itself is described like a spirit or ghost.
I say this to point out the way Nagamatsu embodies his Rokurokubi, which is in sharp contrast to my expectations. This Rokurokubi, with scraped skin and bacterial cream is not airy at all. He's made of flesh and blood and bone, susceptible to cuts, infection, and even embarrassment.
In old stories, violence is rampant, but it's ususally swift and sanitized. The raw or messy parts have worn smooth through telling and after telling. It's common, of course, in retellings, for the contemporary writer to put back the lost gore. However, the particular grossness of Nagamatsu's details makes the contrast of old to new even more acute, the sensations more physical in a reader's body.
I think placing the character's vulnerability directly in the reader's body does another important thing for the reader's experience. If magic has real-world consequences—if I feel a physical revulsion from the cuts and scrapes in the story--then this "magic" must be in my "real" world, too. The distinction between story and life collapses.
Many old stories—fairy tales, legends, lore—are exceptionally violent. But perhaps because they've been around so long, retold so many times, the entrails are no longer slick and squirming. They've been distilled to sharp brutal acts, clean cuts, quick death—even if it's prolonged for the characters, it becomes quick on the page. I love this about old stories. But it's also a lovely thing (a frightening thing!) to dirty them up again and admit the mess involved with having a body—the pain, the grossness, and the desperate vulnerability.