Pearls Before Swine, Chapter 1: All Men Are Dogs

One night, after an unusually ample plate of pulled pork sliders, Keaton Patterson was visited by a large talking pig. “Colossal” was how he described it to Mark Haber, “with a cleft nose and a pierced eyelid. And it wasn’t just talking either—it was eloquent.” He stretched out the last word as though unsure how it ended. “This pig was a soothsayer, a sage. He was sharing his wisdom for the ages and he feared for all of humankind. Because we humans enjoy pork, we write books about pork, we talk endlessly about pork, but we give nothing back.” After his prophetic dream (and a cold shower), Keaton said he knew exactly how to give back. Thus, Pearls Before Swine was born.

What is Pearls Before Swine, you ask? Keaton Patterson (Buyer) and Mark Haber (Floor Manager) choose one of the New Directions Pearls—a series of short masterpieces by great authors—to read. Then, they make a lunch date to discuss the book over some pork. New Directions Pearls are clean exercises in minimalism, whereas good BBQ pork is anything but—loud and crass, it slaps you in the face without apology. Nevertheless, with the marriage of these two opposites, something beautiful and strange came into this world.

But will Pearls Before Swine be a blind quest? Will it end in failure, another anemic attempt at literary criticism, akin to Brazos’ short-lived series Franco’s Franks, wherein Mark and Keaton dissected the works of James Franco whilst stuffing their gullets with hot dogs? Only time will tell.

The Swine: Pizzitola’s BBQ

The Pearl: Yoko Tawada’s THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG, in which a free-thinking, unmarried teacher named Mitsuko tells her students folktales, including one about a Japanese princess who marries a dog that loves to, well, lick her butt clean; meanwhile, a primal man named Taro arrives and begins a relationship with Mitsuko, while rumors fly throughout the town...

The Bridegroom Was a Dog (New Directions Pearls) Cover Image
By Yoko Tawada, Margaret Mitsutani (Translator)
ISBN: 9780811220378
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: New Directions Publishing Corporation - November 27th, 2012


Keaton: And it just gets weirder and weirder from there.

Mark: Yeah.

Keaton: You know, I was doing a little bit of research. And Yoko Tawada, she’s a very prominent contemporary Japanese writer. She also writes in German apparently. She’s won major awards in both Germany and Japan. THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG in particular won the Akutagawa Prize, which is the biggest literary award you can get in Japan.

Mark: Yeah. It’s like their Pulitzer or something.

Keaton: So, this story is roundly considered a classic of contemporary Japanese literature.

Mark: Yeah.

Keaton: But what does it “mean?”

Mark: Yes! Exactly! What is Tawada saying?

Keaton: There are certain elements of it that I think are very pertinent to Japanese society. It seems that there’s a definite look at gender roles, or the changing of gender roles...

Mark: Yeah. Gender roles, conforming to what society says you’re supposed to be.

Keaton: Also, modernization. You have the ancient part of the town and the newer modern apartments being built. All of the mothers—interestingly, you never hear about any of the students’ fathers—but all the mothers seem a little unnerved by this unmarried twenty-nine year old woman. So, there’s definitely a preoccupation with changing gender norms in Japanese society there. And in Japanese society, you know women have had a long upward battle with progressivism and equality issues. And so here comes this guy into this single, independent woman’s life. And he really instantly subjugates her right away it seems. He seems to objectify her. He just comes in and says, “I’m here to stay,” and then they have sex.

Mark: She’s actually powerless, yeah.

Keaton: And she doesn’t resist him at all, but it doesn’t seem like she really wants to [have sex] either.

Mark: No. And she even says toward the end she doesn’t even like to look at him.

Keaton: They have this really kind of passionate sexual affair. It goes on for awhile but then almost peters out immediately. And on the other side of the gender roles theme, a lot is made about how Taro likes to clean. The mothers talk about how maybe Japanese men are becoming sissies these days. But who doesn’t like a guy who cleans?

Mark: Right! Exactly! Exactly!

Keaton: So again, the relationships between men and women, dominate gender roles all seem in flux. And we’ve all heard the phrase “all men are dogs” before. Maybe that has something to do with it.

Mark: Yeah, true!

Keaton: And apparently Taro is an adulterer. So...

Mark: True! He’s a dog. There you go.

Keaton: What are some other issues in Japanese culture we see here? Bullying.

Mark: Bullying, yes. Being an outcast.

Keaton: There’s the new girl at the school, Fukiko, who gets bullied for being “strange.” That really affects Mitsuko. And so going back to rumors, there’s this idea of members of society pointing out and ostracizing those who are not quite the same. Anyone who’s perceived as being strange is ostracized—Mitsuko the independent woman, Fukiko the new girl...but I’m talking too much!

Mark: I think theme of small town gossip is really important to the story. It’s just universal, you know? How rumors can affect what other think of someone who is different. All these mothers, who are kind of reluctant to send their kids to Mitsuko’s school, speculate about her past. They don’t really know her, but they make up stories about her.

Keaton: To get away from the plot for a minute and just talk about the structure, I don’t remember the last time I read sentences as long as the ones in this book. I mean, this story is sixty pages long...I think there’s like thirty sentences in the whole book. Do you think maybe she’s trying to mimic a conversational tone, the yarn-ness of a folk tale?

Mark: It definitely feels like a folk tale.

Keaton: I mean there are whole paragraphs, whole pages that are single sentences. But nevertheless there’s always this really fluid feel to the prose.

Mark: Yeah. It’s really well written. I was thinking about how clever it is that she can go seamlessly from one viewpoint to another: “But then we heard this....but then there was this...but then she told a story to the class...” It’s almost like a movie. It just moves from one viewpoint to the other effortlessly.

Keaton: Where is the point of view in this story? Is there a real, singular narrator here? It almost seems like there’s none.

Mark: It’s kind of omniscient.

Keaton: It’s like the miasma of voices of the community rumoring back and forth, giving rise to the story. There’s no specific point of view. All that uncertainty just kind of adds to the eeriness of it, I think. And then with the ending, you just read this strange tale...and then it’s just gone. I think that’s just the way things happen in life too around certain events. Certain occurrences really... [Keaton begins to cough uncontrollably] Sorry, I got some rib caught in my throat. You know, stories kind of pop up in our lives, in our surrounding society, our little cultures, and they just infect everything for a while, get everyone’s attention, it’s the center of attention, and then it’s just gone.

Mark: Yeah. Then it’s gone.

Keaton: It’s kind of like the effervescence of these stories, or just society in general. If society is built on stories, and stories are transient, especially folk tales...

Mark: Right! Just like events in life. What seems so important and is the focus of everyone’s attention suddenly is done. And then it’s on to the next!

Keaton: And it really does seem that Tawada is trying to mimic an oral tradition rather than a written story.

Mark: It very much does. Down to the teacher telling the story. “Let me tell you a story, children…” And that’s in the larger context of the story we’re reading.

Keaton: And you know, the continuation of the oral tradition depends on stories being passed down. So when a story loses people’s interest...

Mark: It dies off.

Keaton: Right. And maybe there’s a sense of that fading of a more “magical” past in THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG.

Mark: That’s very interesting.

Keaton: Yeah. I’d like to see some more of what Tawada has written.

Mark: She has more books from New Directions.

Keaton: So, we’ll say “thumbs up” to THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG?

Mark: I say “thumbs up”!

Keaton: And how about to Pizzitola’s? They get a thumbs up?

Mark: Yeah! Definitely an all around success. What do we have to look forward to for our next installment? I think we’ve chosen.

Keaton: Next month, we’re going to discuss Paul Auster’s THE RED NOTEBOOK, New Directions Pearl number I-know-not-what.

Mark: Some number.

Keaton: We’ll figure it out. See you next time for Pearls Before Swine!

The Red Notebook (New Directions Pearls) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780811220972
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: New Directions Publishing Corporation - July 16th, 2013

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