Martin Amis: “My life looked good on paper – where, in fact, almost all of it was being lived.”
― Martin Amis, Experience: A Memoir
The review originally appeared in September 2005 in the Albany Times Union.
Banana Yoshimoto became a literary sensation in Japan with her first book, “Kitchen,” in 1987. Spare prose, novella-length stories and quirky characters combined to make difficult themes, such as sexual identity and death, easily accessible and emotionally involving.
Since then, her books have been translated around the world, but a typical reaction in the United States has been: “Who? Is that her real name?”
Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto, which she chose because of the beauty of the banana flower. More importantly for American readers, her latest book, “Hardboiled & Hard Luck” (Grove Press; 150 pages; $21; translated by Michael Emmerich) , offers another chance to get to know this talented writer.
The novella “Hardboiled” presents a fascinating use of common tropes in Japanese literature: the power of nature and the presence of ghosts.
An unnamed narrator is hiking in the mountains and seems not to have any cares – or human connections. She believes relationships end not because of feelings, but because “periods in our lives end the way seasons change. That’s all there is to it. Human willpower can’t change that – which means, if you look at it another way, that we might as well enjoy ourselves until the day arrives.”
This attitude, however, doesn’t prevent her from encountering a lover – a woman who could see ghosts – she had left and who died in a mysterious fire a month after she had moved out. Odd things happen to the narrator at a shrine, in a noodle shop and at a hotel, and then she remembers it is the first anniversary of her former lover’s death.
Though “Hardboiled” is a ghost story, it isn’t a horror story. The dead appear as living people or in dreams, and the realms of the living and the dead interact in unexpected ways, with compassion, understanding and resolution.
The narrator of the second novella, “Hard Luck,” is also a young, unnamed woman. She recounts the unreal and heartbreaking period of time in which her family comes to terms with her sister’s vegetative state and impending death.
The narrator, a college student who has put her studies on hold, even calls it “a sacred time set aside for us survivors.” (That sentiment seems so much more appropriate than the media and political circus that surrounded Terri Schiavo, who died earlier this year.)
She finds herself in the midst of an odd flirtation with Sakai, the older brother of her sister’s fiance. The fiance, too grief-stricken to be at his intended’s bedside, has returned to his parents’ home a coward. Sakai takes his brother’s place at the hospital to preserve the family’s honor, it seems. But he later admits his interest in the narrator.
Sakai, a tai chi instructor in his early 40s, is otherworldy and oddly attuned to the narrator. Through their talks, she is finally able to cry. But she knows the budding relationship won’t go anywhere. She even describes him as “weird, and kind of a fraud … cold and unreasonably cheerful, and … no sense of responsibility.”
Yoshimoto’s power as a writer is evident here, with a straightforward description that works to reveal the characters of both Sakai and the narrator.
Throughout the story, strangeness, desire and humor are combined without ever once forgetting the brain-dead sister and the family’s grief. How the narrator sees her situation is also an appropriate description of the story: “And it struck me that if anything was a miracle, it was this: the lovely moments we experience during the small, almost imperceptible periods of relief. The instant the unbearable pain and tears faded away, and I saw with my own eyes how vast the workings of the universe were, I would feel my sister’s soul.”
With these two novellas, Yoshimoto again proves her fame is well deserved. She succeeds in showing the naturalness of the supernatural and in making the peculiar not only realistic, but also touching.
The deft translation by Emmerich (who previously translated Yoshimoto’s “Goodbye, Tsugumi” and “Asleep”) should help Yoshimoto gain a broader audience in the United States.
This review first appeared in the Albany Times Union (August 11, 2001)
Hilarious, loving characters in ‘Honeymooners’
Chuck Kinder’s first novel since “The Silver Ghost,” in 1978, “Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale” ($24; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 358 pages), is a hilarious, yet unflinching, eyes-against-the-windshield journey through years of booze, drugs, sex, friendships, lies and betrayals in the lives of a pair of promising young writers.
The freewheeling 1970s that Kinder recreates, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area, belong within the literary tradition of the moveable feast Hemingway created out of Paris in the ’20s. Kinder’s writers, Ralph Crawford and Jim Stark, live “like bold outlaw authors on the lam from that gloomy tedium called ordinary life.” Kinder both celebrates and sends up their bravura and recklessness.
I love this book. Get it. Read it. Now.
“After Birth” by Elisa Albert tells the story of three months in one woman’s life around a year after giving birth who befriends a former “almost” rock star/poet who is about to give birth. The narrator says of the poet: “I’m a little obsessed with her, by which I mean a lot, which I guess is what obsessed means.”
In that sentence, Albert achieves the creation of a distinctive character in her narrator: a sharp sense of humor, somewhat confessional, somewhat striving for clarity, while also somewhat muddled. Ari, the narrator, may not always be a sympathetic character (one of the first things she does is call the upstate city she lives – a fictional town called Utrecht, but an easily readable blend of Albany, Troy, Schenectady — a “shitbox”), but her language is so seductive that it can charm the reader, even in her most negative moments.
After all, Ari seems to be suffering from a kind of post-partum depression, a severe disorientation in which she feels betrayed by a world that didn’t prepare her for life after having a child, she’s lost interest in completing her doctorate in women’s studies, she feels isolated in the aforementioned “shitbox” town, and all of it has been exacerbated by having undergone a c-section operation.
If that weren’t enough, there is also that special kind of existential dread a parent faces by bringing a new life into the world: “I’m not going to pretend my kid is special, like other kids who starve and freeze and get raped and beaten and have to work in factories and get cancer from the fumes, too bad, so sad, but my kid is going to be warm and organic and toxin-free and safe and have everything he wants when he wants it and go to a good college and all is right with the world! Fuck that myopic bullshit. He’s going to suffer. He’s going to get mauled by some force I can’t pretend I can predict. We all live in the same fucked-up world.”
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