Oh, The Places we'll Go
Travel writing has a long, rich history in the tradition of American Literature. This week, we're featuring Steve Howard's brilliant little piece, "Slipping Satori", in an attempt to understand how he subverts the genre of the travel story and produces a brilliant, emotional piece that you can read in under a minute.
The Travel Narrative
Speaking broadly, the travel story is all about coming to terms with some difficult event, concept, or situation. One thinks of Americana by Don DeLillo, where the protagonist faces a life crisis and sets out across the American West in an attempt to find himself and secure his sanity. One thinks of Hunter S. Thompson and Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas. Or Train Dreams by Dennis Johnson. The list goes on, but what all these stories share is an inciting incident that sets a protagonist off on a journey across space - typically the vastness of the American continent - and uses that physical space to showcase the progression through the character's mental space.
What's in a name?
This is an important note: "Satori" is a Buddhist word that means something like "sudden enlightenment". This enlightenment is typically found at the end of a long road, or journey. The title, then, is in a certain way already a comment on the travel narrative: the epiphany at the end of the travel novel has been reached, but it is difficult to grasp, to hold on to for any extended period of time. "Slipping Satori" begins where these novels end: the terminus of a multi-year journey. The unnamed protagonist now must face the consequences of her rigorous travel. This quiet little story asks the question: what happens after the travel narrative? When the end of the road has been reached, what does it look like to pick up the pieces? What happens when the moment of enlightenment becomes, with time, slippery, elusive?
"Slipping Satori" attempts to deal with this question of what happens after the ending. In this story, the protagonist has left her life in California behind for a new one in Japan. We learn that in the course of her journey she ended up at a Zen temple where, "The resident poets and monks rebuilt you with their inked haiku and daily zazen training..." (Howard) The story quickly challenges the stock assumption that the mystical Eastern training has had such an effect, though, "...but only on paper, true reality's diamond is still an allusive treasure." (Howard) This is the harsh eventuality confronted by by story's unnamed protagonist: on paper she seems to have reached some sort of inner peace, but the reality is much messier.
What Waits on the Other Side?
"Slipping Satori" leaves us with the question: What will happen to our protagonist when she returns to Los Angeles to confront the demons that her travel narrative led her away from? If the road-trip story is all about leaving our past behind, "Slipping Satori" is brilliant in the way it challenges us to remember that epiphanies are, in fact, temporary. Real life enters back into our minds by degrees. The satori, the stunning, crucial realization, is always slipping away from us, even as we move toward it.
About the Author
Steve Howard has a BA in creative writing from Western Washington University and has published flash fiction, short stories, haibun, and CNF in numerous lit journals. His novella The Adamantine River Passage was released in 2017. He is an English teacher and a semi-professional stand up comedian.