An abstract experience, describing Michael Bishop’s 1976 novella The Samurai and the Willows is not an easy task. A writer conscious of every word put on paper, the narrative requires attention to glean full meaning. The effect a desired one given the themes at work, lines such as “…she was damn glad to get away from that flute and fiddle, from the posturing zombie on the grandstand. It was OK for a while, but she didn't have Tyger-boy's knack of making what was ‘just mental’ into a kinetic showplace for her instincts. She kept looking at what she was doing and wishing she could shake off her skin and emerge into an unclad rioting of the blood.”, and another line “Seymour Glass, who loved the haiku, who lived when a man could let a cat bite his left hand while gazing at the full moon” are good representations of the prose used to tell the story.
Not allusive for the sake of being allusive, there is a tale pushed sporadically along by the prose of The Samurai and the Willows. Set in a futuristic Atlanta after an unnamed apocalyptic event has forced humanity to dome the surface and emigrate to levels underground, the novella tells the story of Queequeg, an eighteen year old rollergirl postman, and Basenji, a “thirty eight-or nine” year old horticulturist specializing in bonsai. Queequeg full of life and a possessing a keen sense of fun, she is confronted by the brusque silence of Basenji’s past when the two come to share the same cubicle on level 9. By the end of the tale, however, the two affect one another in powerful ways.
Touching upon some interesting ideas, The Samurai and the Willows has three main thematic prongs. First is the evolution of culture and art. Basenji condescending of Queequeg’s youthful view of what is aesthetically valuable, Bishop devotes part of the novella’s discussion to the importance of art, as represented by bonsai. (There are no descents into the minutiae of the craft.) Secondly, Bishop looks at the theme of guilt and aging. Though Basenji’s mother passed away year’s prior, a weight still tugs at his heart thinking of the woman and his relationship with her in the years leading to her passing. Lastly, Bishop utilizes his knowledge and experience of Japan to imbue the story with its culture. The samurai aspect metaphorical rather than actual, the window upon our Pacific neighbors is opened a little wider through the narrative.
An interesting read for its prose alone, The Samurai and the Willows is likewise recommended for its cultural and personal concerns. A product of the New Wave movement, the era’s fingerprints nevertheless remain light. Bishop poetically, subtly working his ideas into setting and character, it’s an accomplished hand telling an accomplished story.