Original, elegant, lovely, poetic, and… bla bla zzzz…

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.

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