April 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
I first heard of Yoko Ogawa via the PR machine for her novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, one of those books that received breathless rave reviews in all the big name literary publications. The breathlessness made me a little wary. But I was curious – the premise seemed fairly interesting. But that’s not the first Yoko Ogawa book I bought. The book I bought was The Diving Pool. I bought it because it was on sale.
The Diving Pool is a collection of 3 long short stories, or rather, 3 novellas as the publication information states, but they’re rather insubstantial as novellas, so I’ll stick with long short stories. I had high expectations for the book despite myself, following the breathless praise for the other novel, and the breathless praise for this collection of stories too, as printed on the back and front cover. So much breathlessness made me breathless in anticipation.
Overwhelmingly, all 3 stories employ the kind of narrative style that makes me rather breathless with annoyance. It’s the carefully-contained, constrained writing that’s supposed to be ‘pitch perfect’ and without a ‘word out of place,’ as reviewers have said, but that kind of writing should always feel natural. It should feel like that’s how the writer writes. Not the style in which she writes in order to be appear literary. Which is exactly how it feels like with Ogawa. I don’t know if this ‘quiet’ kind of writing is better in Japanese, and if the effect gets lost in translation. I don’t know, for instance, if the translator aimed for a more precise, measured, quiet style than the original was. The Literary World always wets itself in its pants over exactly this type of precise, measured, ‘not a word out of place’ writing, whether in Japanese or in English.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I was led to believe this book was going to be STUPENDOUS, but if you want to know why I’m really bitter – it’s because I still believe in book reviews. And so I’m bitter because I believed them and they lied.
Ogawa is a gifted writer in some aspects – the cool casualness of her prose belies the “unexpected menace” in her stories (those words in quotes are from the New York Times; I can’t help it, anything that I want to say about this book has already been said – just in a different context). And the unexpected menace works, it really does. I started this book before going to bed at night and didn’t want to continue because there is that suggestion of an underlying creepiness that’s going to trickle out from under my bed and stain my dreams an ugly dark shade of anxiety. And who wants that? I want restful sleep.
But all that menace doesn’t really make up for stories that are otherwise rather… boring. Or maybe boring is too strong a word. Bland is better. It’s just that… the stories lack flavour. There is no… energy. Maybe that’s the point; that these stories are meant to feature listless, direction-less, depressed girls with unexpected reserves of cruelty, pessimism, and manic paranoia. And then – bam! Creepiness magnified. But somehow, during the reading, it just doesn’t work. Also, there is a complete lack of humour in any of these stories. I understand listless, depressed, bored, scared, and fucked-up people – hell, reminds me of me, hardy har har – but dear lord, can’t they at least crack a joke or two? Or chuckle, perhaps?
The first two stories irritated the hell out of me even though I wanted to know what happened in the end. I’m not sure what this means. A failure of style? It’s not necessarily a failure of the imagination. Or maybe it’s just the failure of the reader (Ha!). ‘The Diving Pool’ featured an unlikeable character with whom one can also sort of sympathise (to some degree, at least) which is no mean feat, certainly. But moments were ruined with bits of contrived writing, like when Aya, the protagonist, talks to her roommate (Aya’s family runs an orphanage; her parents are head of the local New Agey church/religious group). Her roommate, Reiko, was talking about her life before coming to the orphanage, and said that she felt as though the hooks that have kept her and her parents together have come undone. Aya, without responding to Reiko, thinks about “what sort of sound was made when hooks holding together a family come apart. Perhaps a dull splat, like the sound of a ripe fruit splitting open. Or maybe it was more like an explosion, when you mix the wrong chemicals.”
Really? Here’s this poor kid talking about the loss of her family and Aya’s making poetic observations about the sound of those metaphoric hooks? If Reiko knew what Aya was thinking, I’ll bet Reiko’ll tell her to sod off. That’s nothing necessarily wrong with thinking about the sound of the hooks. Perhaps that mental diversion was meant to suggest Aya’s unique… oddness. However, the likening of the sound to ripe fruit splitting open, or chemicals mixed in the wrong proportions, just seems so very, very calculated. You can hear the writer thinking about what to write; the efforts of thinking of how to be writerly and literary is laid bare in the prose. You’re yanked out of the story and made aware of the presence of the writer, being writerly. And that’s a recurring problem with all of Ogawa’s stories.
It’s either that, or the translator had one hell of a time translating the stories, and it’s his laboured efforts that we’re witnessing as readers. (Stephen Snyder, here’s looking at you.)
The second story, ‘Pregnancy Diary,’ was again, somewhat strange. Again, I was annoyed while also being mildly interested. The protagonist chronicles her sister’s pregnancy through a carefully-kept diary of her sister’s moods, and as the morning sickness and cravings start to take their toll, through her eating habits. There’s nothing really weird about the sister’s behaviour. What’s weird is her sister’s, the protagonist’s, obsession with her pregnancy. The jacket copy tells us that this story is a “sinister tale of greed and repulsion.” Sure, the sister’s greedy – but pregnant woman can be, for certain foods. Repulsion – I suppose the protagonist is, to some respect, repulsed by her pregnant sister’s weird eating habits (again, nothing abnormal about that). I suppose the pregnant sister is repulsed at the beginning, too. Morning sickness will do that to you. But at the end of it, you’re left feeling, what’s the damn point? Even pointless stories that are good are not supposed to do that to you. If told well, it just is. Because life itself has moments of pointlessness. But if you’re left wondering “what’s the point?” of a story you just read, you’d better believe that it’s a serious effing flaw. And not due to a “pitch-perfect” literary style.
Things start to coalesce pretty well in the final story, which is the one I enjoyed the most. ‘Dormitory’ is plain creepy in that jeng-jeng-jeng Hitchcock way, the momentum slowly building up, until you get to the end and nothing the hell is resolved and you’re left with your nerves jangling and your mind completely on edge. Now, that I totally enjoyed. There are crippled caretakers who are self-sufficient to the point of oddity (no one should be that independent), empty buildings, and strange flowers. Nothing changed much with the writing style, but there’s more action, less ponderous musing. But even when there’s musing, it’s musing with a purpose – all the elements of the story come together quite wonderfully. If this is what Ogawa is like when she’s good, then yes, bring it on – I am especially interested in reading the latest Hotel Iris, which appears to be a full-length exposition of weird creepiness.
But please, spare me the ‘no-word-out-of-place quiet elegance and poetry’ or whatever of the first two stories. I say, bring on the words, bring on the mess of your literary style, as long as you take me somewhere. If, as the blurb on the front from the Guardian says, you’re one of “Japan’s greatest living writers,” then please for the love of god make me live through something in your pages.
February 6, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Love as an obsession overrides love as everything else. In Hitomi Kanehara’s Autofiction, the protagonist is consumed by love – literally and metaphorically. She talks of nothing else. She thinks of nothing else. Every thought, even those of plastic mineral water bottles, leads back to the concept of love and unity. For the character, Rin, to be in love with someone is not just to BE with them, but to be them. To become the other.
She’s manic and paranoid, and within a few pages of reading you’re tempted to wonder why any of these guys are seeing her to begin with. Or why any of them have led the relationship to progress as far as it has. The alarm bells would have started sounding awhile back. It leads you to wonder – is she hot? Is it the sex? Does her hotness override her raging paranoia, jealousy, and insecurity?
Or maybe she’s just a really nice girl, and loveable despite all that.
But she gets under your skin. I read chunks of this slim novel late at night, under the covers, and I got goosebumps. There’s a certain skulking creepiness about her, because she sees things that other people can’t. Not dead people, just… things. Her perception is twisted, but that’s a large generalisation. Her perception could be the real one. Or maybe that’s the point of perception – one woman’s twisted is another woman’s ho-hum.
Much as we all want love to be roses and sunflowers and buttercream frosting and mutually-fulfilling sex, it’s really about this: loneliness, uncertainty, anger, and the endless desire for more. More from yourself, more from your partner, more from The Relationship.
Rin would rather imagine the presence of another entity, an imaginary entity – Smith-Smith – in the house, than she would face the ‘secrets’ of her husband Shin, who disappears to his room every night for a few hours despite Rin’s pleas, tears, and drama. He goes into his room, and… who knows? Rin hears the sound of the trunk in his room opening and shutting. That sound has superseded all fears for Rin. She’d rather have a ‘ghost’ named Smith-Smith hanging about the place than listen to the sound of the trunk cover opening and shutting from the closed door of her husband’s bedroom.
I thought about this at length. I’m a wimp. I don’t watch horror movies, can’t listen to ghost stories, can’t stand old women and kids turning into demons (to which a previous post on Legion attests), and will rather face a roomful of relatives questioning me on my single status and marital intentions than tramp about in a graveyard at night all alone. (Wait, no… no, I take that back.) Okay, so there are things that will force me to face abject horror or unknown entities. But personally, would I rather have a Smith-Smith in the house than face up to my husband’s big secret? NO. Give me that big secret, and I will conquer it, I tell you. Well, give me the secret or the option of a creature named Smith-Smith hovering about the place, and yes, I will conquer that secret.
But that secret gets to you. It gets to Rin, too. As she says, without Smith-Smith to believe in, she’ll die. She’ll die without the love of her husband, she’ll die if she finds out his secret. And really, what is Shin doing? What’s in that trunk? And why can’t Rin, being the obsessive paranoid that she is, simply storm into his room and demand an answer? Or alternatively, sneak into the room during the day when her husband’s at work? Instead, she chooses the path of endless rumination; she opts to drive herself crazy while drowning out the sound of what goes on in that room by playing music on the computer and CD player, and turning on the TV, and ceaselessly wondering what her husband is doing.
Because following Rin’s train of thought, soon you’re thinking like her. Or maybe all of us have a Rin in us, in lesser or greater degrees. Your husband should be allowed to hang out by himself in his room, for a few hours, if he wants. He can climb in and out of that trunk and it should be okay. Technically speaking. In a normal, loving relationship, it should be okay. In other words, it will never be okay.
And what it madness? Does that mean being completely self-aware? Because Rin is completely self-aware. She knows what she’s doing, she’s semi-alert or receptive to how others respond to her behaviour, and she makes promises to herself to stop, or to change. But she can’t. Maybe that’s what Kanehara wants to show us. Love is an addiction, it cannot be willed or rationalised. And most importantly, love and sex are never separate:
“The desire to be wanted by a man. The desire to get a man. Most females go into hysterics if either of these can’t be fulfilled or the fulfilment of these two desires is unbalanced. Their pussies get all irritable, restless. What is hysteria, after all? It’s the disease of the pussy.”
Hysteria, then, is solely in the domain of the female. And the female can only be fully satisfied by the male. Wombs may wander, but the pussy merely wants to sit by the fire with a male lover and companion to chase away all anxieties. Rin believes that a well-tended pussy will be satiated, calm, fulfilled. Interestingly, she conflates the need for masculine attention with sex. Do we want men to notice us for anything else? Apparently not, because Rin wants men so that they want her. If they want her, they’ll love her. But not forever, as she discovers.
Pussy only gets you so far, but not so much for Rin, because she sees her pussy as a living, thinking aspect of herself. So she talks to her pussy, she placates it with soothing words, she gives it advice. Sometimes Rin’s betrayed by her pussy, and she conveys her anger. Or sometimes, she’s just tired of being ruled by it. “How dare my pussy rule my thoughts! Shut up! Shut up. You’re just a cunt,” Rin tells her pussy. Her pussy can also be condescending. “Oh you poor thing,” her pussy tells Rin, and Rin gets mad.
Let’s face it – we all want to give our pussies a talking to, sometimes.
(I’m curious, however… what’s the disease of the balls? I mean, besides blue balls.)
Sex is also rape, for the most part of this book. In one of the flashback scenes, Rin hangs out with a group of women who make part-time money as escorts. They attend a party where one girl is dragged out kicking and screaming by two men. Rin asks her companion, “Are they going to rape her?” He answers: “I suppose so. Yeah.” And while Rin doesn’t want to be raped, and she hopes she won’t be, she’s attracted to her companion and so asks him if she’s going to be raped too, to gauge his response as his level of attraction to her. She’s happy with his answer: “I want to say that because you’re cute, you’ll definitely be raped.”
It’s a bit alarming to hear the word rape being bandied about so easily. Maybe Whoopi Goldberg might pause to ask, is it rape rape?
One of the female characters in this book says, “I don’t mind being raped by one person, but then it was group rape, and I felt betrayed.” They don’t mind or object to having sex, or to the concept of sex, but there is no chosen penis, no chosen one with whom to have sex. So, they leave themselves open to the idea of being penetrated by just about anyone – and they conflate that with rape, because there is no agency in the choice of their sexual partner. For them, that’s rape that’s not quite rape. But we’re unclear if these female characters want to have sex at all. Maybe they only want it insofar as they think it makes them desirable and desired. Or maybe if it’s something you’re not invested in, physically and mentally, then it’s okay if it’s consensual or not… the latter is unpleasant and possibly painful, but for these girls, it’s no big deal.
As Laura Kipnis asserts in The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability, the concept of the vagina as ‘valuable real estate’ and a ‘costly attribute to lug around’ is that maybe, oftentimes, the vagina is more than not ‘overpriced’:
“But as indicated, the big problem with these high-value vaginas is that the more they’re overpriced, the more theft-prone they become; thus constant vigilance is required to keep out marauders and trespassers, those who would pluck your trophy, steal your jewel, with feigned promises and sweet talk or sometimes even force.”
All this guarding against theft can deplete you of your faculties – mental, emotional, and creative.
Love is sex and sex is rape, and love is therefore rape? I think that’s the most perplexing and alarming aspects of Autofiction. Love is a stranger walking up to you and taking what’s yours, leaving you a shivering, suspicious, uncertain shell of your former self.