Shambling Towards Hiroshima

September 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hiroshimaShambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow

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Reading a James Morrow story, I expect parts of it to go over my head. He marries a love of genre with a literary style, meshing satire with reality, theme with plot, and poignancy with characterization. That he manages to write at that depth and still tell a compelling story speaks to his skills as a storyteller, as well as a literary darling.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is part love letter to ’40s and ’50s monster movies, part apology to Japan for what our country did to them in World War II. The two themes come together well, and with no surprise. Scholars have written much about the Godzilla movies reflecting the concerns of Japan after surviving two atomic bombs, so there was already a wealth of information for Morrow to use for his story. He injects a wry sense of humor into his version, though, as the giant lizard creatures in his story are very real.

To wit, Morrow creates an alternate history where the Manhattan Project has stalled, but the generals are still looking for something sufficient to scare the Japanese into surrendering. Enter the Knickerbocker Project, where geneticists have engineered violent, giant iguanas to set loose on Japan to destroy its cities. The thing is, the generals don’t want to send the lizards to Japan without giving the ambassadors a chance to report back on what the US army can do and hopefully engender a surrender. After all, the US will lose troops, too if the war continues down its path.

The plan is to build a scale model of a Japanese city and let a baby giant lizard loose on the model to show the level of destruction they can bring to Japan. Unfortunately, the young lizards are docile and loving, and about as destructive as a flock of butterflies. Enter Syms Thorley, a B-movie actor who is well known for playing monsters, and an elaborately contructed giant lizard suit that can roar and breathe fire, among other things.

The story is told from Thorley’s perspective, as he’s writing a narrative of his time during the project, ostensibly as a suicide note. He jumps back and forth from reminiscing to telling us how his life is now. He’s writing from a hotel room, where he’s staying as a guest at a movie convention, having celebrated receiving a lifetime achievement award for his works. His writing is interrupted by different people — a staff member, a prostitute, and a convention attendee — that gives us a chance to see him reflect on his time involved with Project Knickerbocker. He’s by turns proud of the work he did and ashamed of his part in the war, which is the real thrust of the story. By the end, we get a full story of the project and its aftereffects, where the satire clears like a fog lifting and we learn the point of this novella.

Morrow is a fantastic writer, and Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a fantastic story. It’s not perfect (the ending feels rushed, and shifts in tone so suddenly that it’s jarring), but it tells an engaging story through a likable character and has a strong message. I haven’t read enough of Morrow’s work, but Shambling Towards Hiroshima encourages me to get to it. I’ve had his Biblical satires for years, and need to move them up my to-read list.

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