“The Countdown Clock” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui
English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)
Original: Japanese (近づいてくる時計), 1996
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017
Synopsis: Finding himself in the same old clock shop time after time, sleep period after sleep period, the author begins a friendship with the shop owner, a wizened man who suggests new or interesting time-pieces to the author. The shop keeper provides insight into the real life of the author, who, perhaps, may dwell too much on death as he typically see his dead friends in his dreams; however, he also can’t remember who exactly is alive and who is dead. These dreams interfere with his reality as he often spots the same shop–albeit under different names each time–in different districts of familiar cities. With each new clock presented by the shop keeper, the author sees a different perspective on what time is though he may not appreciate each perspective for what it’s worth.
Pre-analysis: Though the author is unnamed, it can be assumed that the “author” in question is the actual author of the story–Yasutaka Tsutsui–who is writing a meta-fictional story about mystical realism… that sounds new to me (meta-mystical realism?). When the synopsis mentions “in different districts of familiar cities”, Yasutaka writes about Ginza in Tokyo and Shinsaibashi in Osaka (both places of which I’ve actually visited), which he should have ample experience with considering they are from his current residence and his hometown, respectively. If these two matters–the main character being an author and that same person being familiar with the same places as Tsutsui–parallel the story, then the reader can further assume that the magical realism element of the story also applies to the author himself… not literally, of course, perhaps he’d never do anything so acute; take it as a metaphor, as always.
Analysis: The clocks are an interesting part of this story. Though I don’t have a solid fix on my analysis, my thoughts wandered to Chinese and Japanese elements of philosophy where I found some points of reference… perhaps it’s accurate or it may just be a dead-end.
The first interesting timepiece is a clock whose minute-hand turns every 45 minutes and whose hour-hand turns every 9 hours. This is close to the rotational period of Jupiter’s equator (9h 50m), but I can’t find any other subject to which it may refer… perhaps, as Jupiter is called “big wood” in Japanese (木星), it may have some distant connection with the Chinese element of wood, whose attributes are strength and flexibility, like bamboo.
The second timepiece is a watch that, at noon, quickly protrudes a tiny needle in the wearer’s wrist; otherwise painless, when tipped with poison, it could be an assassin’s weapon, so posits the author. As noon is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, this timepiece could represent the Chinese element of fire, whose attributes are often connected to restlessness.
The third timepiece is the Clock of Life, which is a clock embedded in a piece of bluish-black rock, which the author, at first, strokes then breaks in a fit of curiosity. If this symbolizes the Chinese element of metal, then it’s presence in the story reflects persistence and determination. When the author smashes this timepiece, he discover that it’s actually composed of many smaller clocks, each of which represents someone he knows and once knew; the clocks whose hands cease to move are known to be dead, those that still move are known to be alive, and some stop and go as the author is unsure of their state (alive or dead).
Another timepiece of the book that is actually a clock in that when the page is turned, the clock on the preceding page moves forward in time. This could represent wood again as it’s made from wood pulp, yet wouldn’t fill out the five elements of Chinese philosophy.
The last timepiece is the Countdown Clock, the descending number of which represents the amount of time the author has left in life. He’s unable to convert the numbers to any measurement of time, but is worried by the decreasing number of digits: from six to five to four. This could reflect the Japanese element of void, which, itself, represents energy, thought, or spirit… which is running out in the author.
Review: In just ten pages, Tsutsui is able to combine magical realism, portions of Chinese and Japanese elemental philosophy (perhaps), meta-fiction, the personal subject of confronting death in his old age, and the nature of dreams (a topic on which I didn’t want to spend much time). It provides plenty on which to reflect, certainly giving each reader a subjective journey through their own thoughts on dreams, death, and time. This is one of the weightier pieces in the collection – take your time to savor it.