by Elyse Hauser
Lovely and strange, Brian Warfield’s short story “Tokyo” plays with form,
language, and temporality to capture the bleak surreality of the everyday. The reader is dropped into a Tokyo subway at midnight, a memory. The story moves like a subway train: winding, pausing, inexorable. The train moves like a life. The narrator speaks to us from some time after Tokyo, assuring that “there is nothing to the future except what science fiction has promised us.” Has some great tragedy or tribulation befallen the narrator since Tokyo? Only the tragedy of plodding through the mundane realities of the world.
Yet the mundane might also be beautiful and fascinating. Warfield uses juxtaposition to great effect here, evoking vividness through contrast. On the subways of Tokyo are “short businessmen” and “punks with safety pins through their eyelids”. The narrator learns the poignant lesson that life is not about learning poignant lessons. The world flips from fascinating to repetitive, until the two concepts converge and overlap.
While the expected details of a person’s face or a city’s smell are deliberately excluded, the narrator is very specific about time. We’re on the subway at midnight, but midnight only in the romantic sense—it’s actually two or three a.m. Five p.m. on Monday is “a horrid hour”. The narrator was 42 in Tokyo, and Tokyo was seven years ago. Like a train announcing the hour, these facts mark the story and the narrator’s experience in a way we are familiar with, in our lives delineated by dates and times and birthdays and anniversaries, the unstoppable passage of time.
On the page, the form of “Tokyo” reflects the story’s sense of disjointed strangeness. Each paragraph consists of just a few lines, sometimes merely a sentence, with white space in between. These frequent pauses are like stops on a subway. They allow us to move with the narrator, as he flicks between images as though showing us a slide reel of Japan, and jumps between the past and the present, the abstract and the specific, between object and interpretation. Warfield moves expertly up and down the ladder of abstraction, counterpointing tangible images with metaphysical ideas. The trajectory of one’s life is a “thick red cord”; to step through the actual doors of the train is to step into a sense of anonymity.
Ultimately, the entire story exemplifies this theme. The subway, real, solid, and practical, is also surreal, somehow outside of reality, a metaphor for life and a place for observation and introspection. Moving through this story, we become unsettled by the disconnected lines, the broken paragraphs, the lack of chronological narrative, the strange imagery. Yet, though we do not know the narrator’s gender, background, or appearance, a sense of honesty and close observation allows us to trust the story. “Tokyo” leaves the reader uneasy, most of all because it feels true.