Yamao Yūko and Dark Plots
I just finished reading a fascinating short story by 山尾悠子 (Yamao Yūko), called 遠近法 ("Perspective").
Yamao was born in 1955 (a good year, I can confirm from personal experience), and published a number of short stories and one novel through 1985, then retreated back to obscurity. In 1999 she returned to writing, releasing more stories, a well-received novel called ラピスラズリ (Lapis Lazuli), and the collection I am reading now, a very attractive slipcased hardcover called, surprisingly enough, 山尾悠子作品集成 (Collected Works of Yamao Yūko).
I picked it up basically without knowing anything about her or her works except that two stories in the collection were selected in a poll of "All-Time Best SF" conducted by Hayakawa SF Magazine.
(Locus has a truncated English version that lists only the OTHER Yamao story)
I used the word fascinating to describe it, and it is probably the best choice. There aren't really any characters, and little plot... it concerns a huge stone construct, a cylindrical world of many layered floors, with a 'sun' and 'moon' cycling down the core. It purports to be fragments of a manuscript, discovered by somebody unknown — perhaps the reader — and describes the structure, bits and pieces of its inhabitants, and a few bizarre events that occur. Much of the text is spent describing this huge stone world, huge enough to be effectively infinite in size to the inhabitants but small enough that it can be conceptualized, and (after much difficulty) its edge reached.
The atmosphere, with thousands of stone statues of men and women, stone floors interconnected by decaying ropes where a single misstep — or a rotten rope — can mean a fall to an unknown death (?) at the end of the cylinder, village elders mystified by the existence of their world and more reminded me at first of Mervyn Peake's superlative Gormenghast trilogy, which is set against a sprawling, brooding castle full of dark and decay.
The author introduces fantasy elements as well, in the form of "gods" who ride clouds through the core... and apparently not very well. They cannot control their clouds, which sometimes thin out to leave them scrambling toward thicker, safer regions, or result in things being dropped. They hide, for the most part, only occasionally revealing an arm or leg as if by accident. And, when peeved or perhaps on whim, they scatter lightning bolts into the stone structure, deadly but rarely accurate.
Later in the story, the author suggests that perhaps this cylinder is a tower, with a world outside, but then again, perhaps not.
I found it a delightful read. The mood is excellent, supported by a bizarre universe and some really good word choices and style. As Grania Davis explained in her afterword to Speculative Japan, "...the very best Japanese SF&F tends to be mood-driven instead of action-driven." And "Perspective" is clearly about mood. It is successful because of the stone world it describes so effectively, and the language used to describe it.
This type of writing — describing the setting or situation, with no plot or characters, is certainly uncommon in English literature, at least in my experience. I can remember a succession of English teachers explaining plots, and stressing the need for tension rising to a climax, or characters that the reader can empathize with. There are also Japanese novels — quite a few of them, in fact — that use the same basic elements of character, situation and tension toward a climactic end, but then end suddenly without ever telling the reader what happens. Perhaps you remember Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" I read it in middle school, I think, but still remember it... which door did he choose? The story succeeded exactly because it lacked a conclusion; the reader never finds out what happens. I have my doubts that any publishing company would have much success with a lot of stories like that, because I think most English-language readers are used to a conclusion; they want to read a book, get into it, have a satisfying conclusion and put the book down again. There is a lot of argument about what conclusion would have been best, but I haven't seen many people arguing about whether there should have been one or not.
Some people I've talked to suggest that this phenomenon is merely evidence that Japanese in general are more willing to think about things without demanding a cut-and-dried answer, while Americans and other Western cultures generally want a definite yes or no, black or white, solution. Beats me... there is some truth to it, but it may just be that Western literature hasn't developed this type of writing very much yet, and is perhaps too strongly influenced by the one-hour TV drama with tension peaks and major plot developments every 15 minutes.
Whatever the reason, when they're written well, they really good... and I've come to enjoy the heck out of them. My English teacher might not have approved, but even without characters and plot they can grab my interest and keep it. Even better, I stay interested and thinking after I put the book down.