Posts tagged ‘Yoko Ogawa’

March 4, 2013

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge Is an Elegant Collection of Creepy Intertextual Tales

by Edwin Turner

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In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.

The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs.  J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a  haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.

The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:

Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.

The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.

These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.

The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.

But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.

Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.

Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.

The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.

There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.

What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.

Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.

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February 4, 2013

Ben Marcus/Victor Segalen/George Saunders (Books Acquired, 2.01.2013)

by Biblioklept

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I went to the bookstore on Friday afternoon to drop off some trade-ins and order a few books for my wife and kids for Valentine’s Day. I had no intention of buying anything, but a bit of random browsing led to me leaving with Ben Marcus’s collection Notable American Women (how could I resist that blurb?), a collection of George Saunders essays, and René Leys by Victor Segalen—the NYRB edition stuck out, and then the blurb sold me on this tale of a Westerner trying to access the Forbidden City of imperial China.

I’m reading Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet right now, along with some short stories by Yoko Ogawa, as well as Lars Iyer’s latest, Exodus; I’m pretty sure René Leys is on deck after one of those.

 

January 16, 2013

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge (Book Acquired, 1.12.2012)

by Biblioklept

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Revenge is Yoko Ogawa’s new collection of short tales (new from Picador). Their blurb:

An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Elsewhere, an accomplished surgeon is approached by a cabaret singer, whose beautiful appearance belies the grotesque condition of her heart. And while the surgeon’s jealous lover vows to kill him, a violent envy also stirs in the soul of a lonely craftsman. Desire meets with impulse and erupts, attracting the attention of the surgeon’s neighbor—who is drawn to a decaying residence that is now home to instruments of human torture. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders—their fates converge in an ominous and darkly beautiful web.

Revenge is translated by Stephen Snyder, who also translated Hotel Iris—which I really dug. From my review of that book:

Hotel Iris recalls the dread creepiness of David Lynch, as well as that director’s subversion of fairy tale structures (perhaps “subversion” is not the right word–aren’t fairy tales by nature subversive?). There are also obvious parallels between Mari’s story and The Story of O andPeter Greenaway’s fantastic film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her LoverBut these are perhaps lazy comparisons–I should talk about Ogawa’s deft writing, her supple, slippy sentences, her sharpness of details, the exquisite ugliness of her depictions of sex and eating. She’s a very good writer, and translator Stephen Snyder has done a marvelous job rendering Ogawa’s Japanese into smooth, rhythmic sentences that resist idiomatic placeholders.

Revenge seems just as creepy. You can read the first story “Afternoon at the Bakery” in full at Macmillan/Picador’s site; a few sample sentences to entice or repel you:

He died twelve years ago. Suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator left in a vacant lot. When I first saw him, I didn’t think he was dead. I thought he was just ashamed to look me in the eye because he had stayed away from home for three days.

April 5, 2010

Hotel Iris — Yoko Ogawa

by Edwin Turner

Seventeen-year-old Mari, the narrator and subject of Yoko Ogawa’s new novel Hotel Iris, is something of a Cinderella figure. Her dad dies a violent death when she is only eight years old and her grandparents soon pass on as well, leaving her in the sole custody of her money-grubbing mother who works poor Mari like a slave in the upkeep of their shabby hotel. The titular Iris is a crumbling structure with only one seaside view, frequented in the off-season by prostitutes and only bustling in the sweltering summer months. It’s in the off-season when Mari first spies the transformative figure in her life–a man fifty years her senior who gets into a raucous fight with a hooker in the hotel. Transfixed by his commanding voice, Mari follows the man the next day as he performs banal errands. When he confronts her, the two strike up a strange friendship (very strange, it will turn out). The man lives on a small island where he works translating mundane Russian texts like tourist pamphlets–although he is hard at work at a passion project, translating a strange Russian novel. The translator begins writing Mari letters and she eventually sneaks away to meet him. In the seaside town he treats her with quiet deference, but when Mari visits his small, austere home on the island she undergoes a bizarre, sadistic sexual awakening. To continue a proper review of Hotel Iris will necessitate some mild spoilers. I won’t reveal any major plot points, but those intrigued may wish to stop reading here. Otherwise, on to the aforementioned bizarre, sadistic sexual awakening.

It’s pretty simple, really. The translator, a sexual sadist, has found in Mari a perfect masochist, a young girl so alienated and lonely that she can only find pleasure in extreme pain, beauty in brutal ugliness, and freedom in bondage. Her initial attraction to the translator, his commanding voice, goes to extremes in his isolated house on the island, where he strips her naked, ties her up, and forces her into all sorts of sexual humiliations. In a strange mirror of her Cinderella-life at Hotel Iris, he forces her to clean his house while strapped to a chair. He takes thousands of degrading photographs of her. In a scene reminiscent of “Bluebeard” he hangs her from the ceiling of a tiny pantry and whips her with a riding crop. He never engages in direct coitus with her; in fact, he never even removes the suit and tie he wears even in the sweltering summer. In each scenario Mari expresses the true happiness and pleasure she finds in the translator’s torture. “Only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure,” she tells us.

That young, naïve Mari should narrate the novel is the genius of Ogawa’s program. Her first-person immediacy communicates the confusion and despair of a neglected, overworked teen trapped in a dead-end job in a Podunk town. As the plot spirals it tempts the reader to endorse the “love” that Mari feels for the old man who tortures her. Just as Nabokov manipulates his readers via the charms of Humbert Humbert, Ogawa, writing her reverse-Lolita, repeatedly cons us into normalizing the relationship, in viewing it only from Mari’s perspective. It’s through the slipped, oblique details of Mari’s past that we construct a more coherent image of a long pattern of abuse. Her mother, always bragging about Mari’s beauty, tells the story of a sculptor who used Mari as a model (Mari, of course, believes herself ugly). “The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me.” The only maid in the hotel repeatedly claims to be “like a mother” to Mari, yet she attempts to blackmail and humiliate the poor girl, and even tells her that she was Mari’s father’s “first lover.” Late in the novel, a drunken hotel guest gropes Mari’s breast and her mother brushes the abuse off, blaming implicitly on her daughter. The focused, purposeful sadism of the translator–a result of the man’s own painful past–is thus a form of love for Mari. Yet we see what Mari can’t see, even as we accept the savage doom of their romance.

Hotel Iris recalls the dread creepiness of David Lynch, as well as that director’s subversion of fairy tale structures (perhaps “subversion” is not the right word–aren’t fairy tales by nature subversive?). There are also obvious parallels between Mari’s story and The Story of O and Peter Greenaway’s fantastic film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. But these are perhaps lazy comparisons–I should talk about Ogawa’s deft writing, her supple, slippy sentences, her sharpness of details, the exquisite ugliness of her depictions of sex and eating. She’s a very good writer, and translator Stephen Snyder has done a marvelous job rendering Ogawa’s Japanese into smooth, rhythmic sentences that resist idiomatic placeholders. Hotel Iris is not for everyone, but if you’ve read this far you’ve probably figured that out already. Readers who venture into Ogawa’s dark world will find themselves rewarded with a complex text that warrants close re-reading. Recommended.

Hotel Iris, a Picador trade paperback original, is available today.

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