Jim Shepard’s “Master of Miniatures” is a masterful miniature, a small container filled with substantial events and substantial pleasures. Based on the life of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects man who made it possible for us to enjoy Godzilla destroying Tokyo, it’s the story of that destruction, the seismic destruction of Tokyo in 1923, the aerial destruction of Tokyo in World War II, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also the destruction that those catastrophes wreak on Tsuburaya’s marriage.
The novel begins with the disaster of Tsuburaya’s marriage. Having forgotten Tanabata, the Star Festival, the one day of the year the two stars, Altair and Vega — the two lovers — can come together, he wonders, “at which he was more adept: hurting Masano inadvertently or intentionally.”
The Tsuburayas, we learn, had, once during their long-distance courtship, identified with the star-lovers. The day the lovers come together had been special for them. The brief period of togetherness the couple enjoyed, however, has ended. Now, after the death of their daughter “they each put in longer days, he in his innovations and his wife in her grieving.”
Tsuburaya’s innovations are, of course, in the realm of special effects, the ingenuity that made Godzilla — the monster and the movie — as powerful as they were. We learn, among the many other interesting things Shepard squeezes into a mere fifty pages, that the Godzilla-suit worn by the actor who towered over the 1/25th scale Tokyo weighed 100 kilos and thus, for scenes that would show only the top or bottom half of the monster, only half the suit was worn. We learn that the planes that menaced Godzilla to so little effect were filmed hanging upside down, and that the film was then inverted in order to conceal the wires because “no one noticed them below the aircraft instead of above.”
That Shepard is able to enrich his novella with such information and that the knowledge he shares is always essential, never arbitrarily dumped, is a marker of his skill.
As we learn in accurate detail about the various catastrophes that accompany the creator of the destruction of Tokyo through life, we notice that he’s never quite present for them. On the day of the 1923 earthquake, for example, he was meant to have met his father from whom he had been estranged after running away to Tokyo to pursue a career in the movies. Tsuburaya is unable to make that rendezvous, a missed opportunity that increases in significance when his father, after ordering Tsuburaya from his hospital room, dies of the injuries sustained in the quake and its aftermath.
This is an example of how Shepard is able to use a catastrophe such as the Tokyo quake not as sensationalistic filler, but as an element of his novella’s design. The ever-widening schism between Tsuburaya and his wife, for example, also appears to stem from his never quite being there, even after his daughter dies. He always retreats into his work: the meticulous creation of destruction.
The smaller a work is the less baggy it can be. To be a success it must succeed at sentence, rather than paragraph or chapter, level. When Shepard writes not that an interviewer was aggressive, but rather that he “asked each of his questions as if jabbing a tied dog with a stick,” we see that he understands this.
Shepard has created a text rich with sentences as carefully wrought, and luminous with details that radiate well beyond the covers of this deceptively small book, a miniature that is anything but.