This analysis is of a story that comes from Dan’s Selected Short Stories, now on Amazon. As such I will try to use less quotes in this analysis to spur people to pick up the collection for themselves. Do not read this analysis until you have read the short story for yourself.
As much as a critic wishes to be able to dissect and explain the ways of great works such that as many men as possible can be uplifted within their frame, there is always an ineffable something that cannot be touched upon – a spot of cohesion which is exactly what makes them great.
“Without Baseball Cap” – a story by Dan Schneider – touches upon that ineffable through its recount of a single Japanese boy’s life, spanning from childhood to manhood, and ending in parenthood. That is the surface narrative. Underneath, there is a manipulation of symbols and events outlining a certain tension that exists within all of us. Past and present. Dream and reality. A distant Motherland, and the Earth we stand on. These are, for now, abstractions – but I will try to illustrate how the story translates these abstractions into reality.
There is a motif within the title itself that acts as the first of such translations – that of the baseball cap. Placing it in such a position of prominence raises it in the reader’s headspace (as Dan does the same for his chapter titles in novels like A Norwegian), such that one cannot help but track every instance that motif appearing, and question its meaning, and, more importantly – permutations of meaning. Furthermore, there’s that enigmatic word ‘without’ that implies a contrast of two states, which is followed up later in the story itself. When the baseball cap appears in Robert Matsumi’s (the main narrator of the story) recount of the difference between the Godzilla and Gamera movies, in which he recalls how the plucky boy protagonist from the Gamera movies sports a baseball cap, we think about what it means, and the ‘without’ that it is opposed to.
The story itself begins from an interesting entry-point, with the narrator ruminating on the abnormality of the word Gammera and how it belongs neither to Japanese nor English – and this raises a normal pop-culture reference into something more symbolic, of the divide. If I recall, in one of his videos (I can’t remember which) Dan has talked about how starting off a short story with idea, as opposed to mere description (e.g. the description of the hospital that opens Ward No. 6) is a better option because it sets things in motion immediately.
After that opening, the rest of the paragraph goes into exposition of Matsumi’s early days and parents. Dan is quick to get back into theme though when Matsumi points out how he subverts normal stereotypes surrounding Asians, and talks about living by the Consulate and being exposed to American culture. Finally, he ends with a title-drop, setting it more concretely within Matsumi’s life:
“And, yes I did grow up wearing a baseball cap- that of the Nippon Ham Fighters. But, most of my life has been spent without baseball cap.”
Then, Matsumi recounts a series of games between baseball players – the Japanese All Stars and American big leaguers. Of the game, he notes how the Japanese lost, but “who won and who lost were not so important as the memories they gave me, and millions of other young Japanese”. He also recalls a notebook he had with several autographs from players, but he finds it hard to recall where the notebook went. These two details stick out and will gain steam as the story goes along, especially by the end when we see Matsumi’s treatment of artefacts from his past.
As a side-note, this story shows us exactly how you should write about characters of a different station/race – and make it into your own. Dan selects plausible cultural details but elevates them through juxtaposition and parallelism such that they become more than just cultural details. In this way he, and Jessica Schneider in her novels set in other countries, can use these details as a jumping point to talk about something more essential – have the story transcend its milieu. This is why both of them might not be able to show us the trappings of Japanese experience as much as, say, some documentary or Anime or some even more meticulously researched historical novel, but they give us just enough to set up the illusion – and aim for things much higher than mere cultural education. Fiction is not truth after all, and in this way Dan subsumes worlds and other lands into himself, expanding his corpus and making it seem like he has an eye into all lives. He speaks more with less.
Matsumi proceeds to talk about an object from his past – a chest where he kept all the things he valued the most. Amongst the clutter of mementos within the chest, he recalls the preserved body of a cricket and tells the story of how the cricket came to be. This segment of the story mixes together many things at once:
- It references the kid’s book The Cricket in Times Square and talks about Matsumi reading it as a child
- Matsumi’s father appears in the recollection and talks about his own pet cricket that he taught to sing.
- It goes into dialogue between Matsumi and his father where the older tells the younger how a time will come when he will see the ‘magic’ in the dull things he owned as a child.
- To follow up with the motif of the baseball cap, Matsumi’s father knocks the cap off at the end of his dialogue.
- Matsumi then talks about taking care of his own cricket, Toshi, who died and became the body in the chest – placed there by his father in hopes that his son would learn to recognize its death one day and grieve.
As you can tell from the above list, it is a very multi-faceted section of the story. The tone is whimsical, especially when Matsumi’s Dad talks about the magic of the past and the singing cricket – and it also tracks Matsumi’s own analysis of his memories and thoughts. For example Matsumi remarks:
“I do not remember the cricket’s name- my father’s. Mine was Toshi- although I never really felt he was mine, so his name seems somewhat a forced intimacy, but my father’s cricket, even though its name is lost, was somehow more real to me. I cannot fully explain this. I think it was because my father acted as a filter of the past. To him, his cricket was more than just a cricket, it was an almost mythic being, far closer to Chester Cricket, than to my cricket. To my father crickets represented that thing that all people lose, and can never share with another fully- their simple past. Perhaps it was because I was too young, then, to fully grasp what such a thing could mean to a person, although a movie monster like Gammera was not something I could not grasp. To me, in a sense, Gammera was more like my father’s cricket than Toshi. Yet, my cricket was just a bug, and one that rarely ever made music. I had not the patience nor desire to be trained by an insect. I was a boy, after all, and the world of my youth was filled with possibilities far beyond the ken of a cricket that wanted to indenture me.”
And you can already see the symbol being erected – with parallels made to the Gammera movies.
In my opinion, the most important function of this scene is the expectations it sets – especially with how the father talks about the cricket’s corpse. A lesser writer would probably have followed up on that idea throughout the whole story, and end with a banality about Matsumi rediscovering the magic of the past, as his own father had mentioned. Yet, Dan brilliantly sidesteps all of these tropes throughout the whole tale – translating something far closer to reality rather than dwelling in clichés. Immediately after Matsumi recounts the story of the cricket, he remarks:
“Yet, as I gaze at it, dead, dried, browner than in life, I still cannot graft enough meaning. Perhaps I am simply not the man my father was, much less the man he hoped for me to be. The notebook, however, the one full of the autographs of the American baseball players still means far more to me than the corpse of an insect. So, I put it back, and think some more, of what was once, but is no longer.”
Matsumi then goes back to talking about interaction between the races, about how they played sports – American football rather than Japanese baseball – and also a remark made by a history instructor about how most people remember the Atomic Bombs, but less so the fire-bombings of Japan which killed more people:
“Mr. Takinora, a history instructor, said that there was a sense among the older survivors of that night of fire, which killed more people than the famous atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, that the past sometimes must be left to its own devices, to fade in its own time and way, if at all. In a sense, his advice was counter to that of my own father, so was easily ignored by me, as well the other boys, whose fathers must have been more like my own. Nonetheless, that is why the buildings were never razed. Such sentiments, of course, were lost to boys who were born years afterward.”
This little segment further deepens the parallels explored throughout the story. Whether the cherished past (and in extension, Matsumi’s ties to Japanese culture as a whole) should be kept or be left to fade away. It points itself out as a direct counterpoint to the father’s words said before as well.
Another major segment of the story comes up next – when Matsumi finally talks about Godzilla and Gammera. This is a great use of pop-culture milieu – and raises the famous old monster movie series into a deeper symbol to be tied in with the rest of the story, including the remark made at the start. Matsumi touches small details to show the clash between cultures seen through these movies – how the American version of Godzilla has King Kong winning while the original Japanese one has him losing, and how Gammera would star a Japanese boy sporting a baseball cap (!), with an American boy as a sidekick. While Matsumi ponders about the various traits of the two films, noting that Godzilla was ultimately superior while Gammera “quickly descended into juvenilia” – he draws back and thinks:
“Yet, to most of my friends- Japanese and American- there was no real difference between the two film series, and they thought me some sort of egghead wannabe, who just did not know how to have fun. And, perhaps, they were right. After all, I did not understand what my father tried to impart to me about my dead cricket, and here I was, probably reading things into the monster films that were just fun things. Besides, most of the boys- Japanese and American- just loved ogling the sexy older sisters in those films.”
This leads into funny comments about the sexy girls used in the Gammera films – and one of Matsumi’s friends notes that:
“Will said that he could never understand why the American kid just didn’t let the Japanese kid have the whole movie to himself, to play the hero, and just stay behind to comfort the older sister as she would inevitably worry over her little brother’s misadventures with behemoth monsters. That’s what he would do, after all- in the choice between a sexy older sister in need of comfort, or an ugly giant turtle, who would you choose? He took this as a sure sign that there was a greater meaning to the films, although more sinister than my interpretation- that they were anti-American propaganda meant to show off how sexually inferior American males were to their Japanese counterparts, even though the Americans had defeated us in war- a still inexplicable cultural fact that the films sought to give no answer to.”
Now this whole segment on Gammera is extremely interesting, because the starting line and its mention during the cricket scene makes us think that Matsumi liked and cherished the series (“one of the most important words in my life”) – and yet he’s denouncing it over here as juvenile and trashy and propagandistic. When you think about the other connections, the baseball cap, the status of the word ‘neither Japanese nor English’, the parallel to the father’s cricket, and the history lesson – you can see how vast the idea becomes, and how it ties into the eventual ending of the story.
The story shifts quickly after this, going through Matsumi’s life all the way into adulthood, in a mere paragraph – but only stopping for Matsumi to recall an anecdote when he was buying a house in Texas. The anecdote leads him to ponder the difference in customs even across states and another memory symbol is created when he recalls a neighbour who told him how Texans treated garages as “sacred places of the past” used to store memories. Matsumi refuses to use his garage as a storage space for mementos due to how “unspeakably filthy” it is and how he already has his chest – and he drops the quote: “Back in Japan a garage to park your car in was considered an extreme luxury only the super-wealthy could afford, so I made sure to indulge in that. All men are prisoners of their past, I suppose, and mine was distinctly Japanese.”
Robert Matsumi finally ends the story by bringing up his son, Henry Matsumi, and a scene between them. He talks about how Henry liked to wear a baseball cap – and he imagines his son to be the star of the Gammera movie – but knows that his son has no connection to the monster movies of his youth. Henry also preferred video games and Hollywood starlets over comic books or manga. Matsumi has to face his own generational divide between him and his son, similar to the divide between him and his father:
“Surely there could be a common ground found between us, that would connect father and son, young and old, Japan and America, Gammera and Godzilla. Or, at least I would try.”
At this point, one way to look at the starting line of the story becomes more apparent – that Matsumi is the transition between the two cultures, and the past will eventually have to fall away. The story ends with his son finding the old chest and seeing the cricket’s body. Matsumi repeats his father’s words, but now they are empty clichés and he himself does not believe in them nor know of what they truly mean. Henry is not moved, and also has no connection to the other mementos in the chest. This leads up to the poetic final paragraph which I will not spoil here, in hopes that readers will check it out for themselves.
Without Baseball Cap is a great short story that combines the lower and higher seamlessly. It comments on things like the divides between culture and the life of a minority race in the US – but, rather than other works that merely aims to show the difference and leave it at that, it submerges these differences into a greater cosmic point about the schism between present and past that every human being must face on this Earth, and the constant shifting of history and the progress of time. In terms of rating I feel like it would fall under a 96 or 97 – since there is a sense that it could still be vaster. But that does not stop it from being great at what it has said. Anyone interested should pick up Dan’s short stories on Amazon – and see for themselves.