Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Yoshimoto Banana: Lizard (1993)

Published in Japanese as Tokage とかげ in 1993, translated in 1995 by Ann Sherif as Lizard.

Six short stories, published in a variety of venues between 1991 and 1993, published in book form in 1993. What’s interesting is that Lizard in English consists of the collection Tokage in Japanese, translated straight. It’s extremely rare for a short story collection by a Japanese writer, no matter how carefully sequenced and selected, to be published in English as-is. This didn’t happen for Murakami Haruki, for example, until after the quake. His earlier English collection The Elephant Vanishes was drawn from several different collections in Japanese, as was the more recent Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. That Banana’s Tokage made it into English as-is, preserving the contours of the original, is probably a measure of her huge popularity abroad in the early ‘90s.

That, or maybe it was just the translator’s call. I can't be sure. Either way, it’s nice to see.

The first story, “Newlywed” (新婚さん in the original), has the most interesting provenance. It was serialized in early 1991 on ads hanging from the ceilings of train cars in Tokyo. If you’ve been on trains and subways in Tokyo you know that every surface that can take an ad has an ad; the ones hanging from the ceilings, over the aisles, are called "center-hanging ads" or nakazuri kôkoku 中吊り広告, and back in 1990 and 1991 JR East ran a PR campaign in which they had a number of noted writers serialize stories on these ads, calling them "center-hanging stories" or nakazuri shôsetsu 中吊り小説. Banana was one of them; “Newlywed” was her entry.

Here’s a random coincidence: a few weeks ago I was in my local used book maze, Smith Family, and happened to be looking through their exceedingly random selection of Japanese-language books (basically whatever exchange students bring over from Japan and don’t want to take back), and lo, there was a copy of the Shinchô paperback collection of stories from this campaign, Nakazuri shôsetsu 中吊り小説. What’s cute about this is that it retains the format of the stories as they were displayed on the ads (I can remember seeing some of these on trains – that’s how old I am), complete with illustrations. What’s cool about that is that it ends up preserving the installment divisions within each story – each installment had to fit on one sheet of paper, so it was really short.

Banana’s, for example, ends up being 16 pages as reprinted in Tokage (18 in the translation), but that was stretched out over 10 numbered installments (weekly, I think) in the train ads. Those divisions are eliminated in the story as reprinted Tokage, and as translated in Lizard, and maybe they’re not important – but maybe they are. In any case, it’s interesting to think about, in terms of structure: that’s 9 mini-cliffhangers in one short story. Did Banana think about this while writing it? Did that influence the way she told the story?

What’s “Newlywed” about? It’s about a strange encounter on a train: a newlywed man on his way home from work misses his stop, intentionally, and then encounters a strange, shape-shifting spirit that rides the train observing the people. First it appears as a homeless old guy, then as an alluring woman; in the latter guise it converses with him and helps him work through his anxiety issues over his marriage. Okay, not the most interesting story – but appropriate, surely, for the venue. Cute.

The first three stories in the volume are told from a male perspective. That’s interesting. I’m not sure what else to say about it at this point, though, because I don’t see her making much of an effort to simulate a male voice – no boku or ore here. Maybe that’s interesting in itself, I don’t know. But it is unexpected to get halfway through the book before you encounter the kind of young, female narrator that Banana is known for.

And even when you get female narrators they’re not quite the college girls that she started out with. They’re married, or on the verge of marriage; not mothers, not quite housewives, but women at a slightly more advanced stage of life than the girls in Kitchen and Tsugumi. I guess Banana’s characters are aging along with her (and, presumably, her initial audience).

I have some of the same reservations about this that I did about N/P: I’m not sure the emotional intensity her narrators claim is earned by the events the author depicts. Banana’s method, I think is to have each of her stories work up to some kind of epiphany, which the narrators not only experience but explain to us. But often, to me, it all feels a bit glib – the life-lessons learned seem a bit facile, the emotional intensity a bit too out-of-the-blue. In her best stories, these contrived epiphanies are attributed to characters whose youthfulness allows me, as a reader, to write off their unbelievability as a function of the character, not a deficiency in the writer; and they’re embedded in narratives that provide other pleasures. N/P didn’t give me any of that, and these stories don’t give me much. …That may be my problem, not Banana’s. But there it is.

The last story, “A Strange Tale from Down by the River” 大川端奇譚 sounds like it should be inspired by Nagai Kafû (and I half suspect it was), but in her afterword she claims it was inspired by British punk band The Tights. Lately I’ve started to assume, without much justification I guess, that Banana’s “all I read are manga and punk lyrics” deal is mostly a pose; I find that her career makes just as much and perhaps more sense if we think of her as a canny self-presenter perfectly aware of the po-mo concepts she’s trying to embody. But I could be wrong.

In any case, this is the most interesting story in the book. It’s told by a young woman who spent her early twenties as a sexual adventuress, doing anything and everything she could think of with anybody she could; a (non-sex-related) illness took her out of the game, and now she’s settling down with a guy. Partly the story is about the past coming back to haunt one – in some ways predictably (yes, there’s an envelope with some photos) and in some ways not so much (no, her guy doesn’t particularly care) – and in this respect the story benefits from some uncharacteristically careful positioning in the immediate post-Bubble adult world. That is, in a period in which everybody is trying to forget the excesses of a few years before, so is this character.

But the story is also about finding one’s place in the world, a place that is perhaps destined to be related to things deep inside oneself that one has no memory of – gawd, that sounds like a Yoshimoto Banana sentence. Here’s the deal: she falls in love with her fiancé as much for his apartment as for his personality: he has a great view of a river out his window. Much later she learns that her mother dropped her into a river when she was a newborn, and that her father rescued her. So on a subconscious level we’re meant to see that her attraction to the river as an adult was dictated by events in her childhood, and that in the present it represents a kind of thanatos. I’m not saying it’s handled all that elegantly, but it’s there. And it’s at least a little more developed than most of her themes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Yoshimoto Banana: Tsugumi (1989)

In English the title of this book has been rendered Goodbye Tsugumi. The “Goodbye” has no basis in the original title; presumably it’s been added to tip the reader of the English off to the fact that “Tsugumi” is a person’s name. In Japanese the title is simply Tsugumi – actually TUGUMI, in Japanese school romanization, which in standard romanization would be Tsugumi.

It was serialized in the now-defunct Japanese edition of Marie Claire in 1988 and 1989 before being published as a hardcover in 1989. Mrs. Sgt. T suggests that this is important: we should it expect it to be a light, youth-oriented love story. And indeed it is, sort of. It’s a classic seishun story – it hits hard the themes of youth passing away, fleeting summer as a symbol of youth passing away, love and loss as rites of the passage-away of youth, and the picturesquely dilapidated beach towns in which these stories always seem to take place. It’s a great example of the genre.

And it might be the best novel of Yoshimoto’s I’ve read so far. That is, it displays a novelistic craft I hadn’t suspected she possessed: rounded, varied characters (not just the narrator); interesting story, tightly told; vivid evocation of place and season; and a pleasing tone, ranging from bittersweet comedy to tragedy narrowly averted.

The narrator’s name is Maria – she was, she says, named after the Virgin – and she’s the daughter of a woman whose lover is a married man in Tokyo. Maria and her mother live in an unnamed beach resort town, with her mother’s sister, whose family runs a ryokan. Maria’s mother helps out, and lives for the day when her lover (Maria’s father) will divorce his wife and marry her.

You think that’ll never happen, but this isn’t that kind of cynical love story: in fact, it happens early on, and they move to Tokyo. That’s what sets up the action: right after moving to Tokyo they get news that the sister’s family is selling the ryokan and moving out of the beach town to run a B&B in the mountains, so Maria goes back to spend one last idyllic summer at the ryokan. She’s 19 and just finished her first year in college: cue nostalgia.

Maria has two cousins roughly her age, living in the ryokan: Yôko, a year older than her, and Tsugumi, a year younger. Tsugumi is a problem child: physically weak since infancy, plagued with a number of unnamed, vaguely described ailments – in this she seems, no doubt on purpose, like a character from a 19th century novel, and you’d be justified in suspecting that she’s Not Long For This World. (But you’d be wrong: it’s not that kind of book.)

Tsugumi’s weak, all but an invalid; she’s also (as is the way of these things) startlingly, ethereally beautiful; she’s also (and this is where the comedy comes in) a bratty, bitchy pain in the ass. Tsugumi compensates for her physical helplessness by verbally abusing everybody around her. But they all love her anyway – Maria and Yoko and the rest of the bunch know the score, and are never seriously hurt by Tsugumi’s excoriations. That’s the kind of book it is.

So, during this final summer Tsugumi falls in love with a young man named Kyôichi, the scion of the family that’s building the big modern hotel in town that’s displacing the ryokan business and driving Tsugumi’s family out of town. So there’s some classic rivalry potential here, but it’s really soft-pedaled in favor of the cute love story. Tsugumi doesn’t spare Kyôichi her shrewish tongue (not that the story is about the taming of her), but he quickly becomes devoted to her.

Part of the charm of the story is that because it’s narrated by a third character, we don’t get an inside view of Tsugumi and Kyôichi’s courtship: Maria is present for some of it, but not all of it. The actual nature and development of their love is a mystery, as love always is. This is nicely handled.

Along the way there’s some business with some neighborhood bullies and Kyôichi’s dog, and Tsugumi’s revenge (digging a pit to trap a bully in – and the discourse on the pit and Tsugumi’s feelings while digging it seems to resonate with some other famous pits in modern J-lit, such as Ôe’s in The Silent Cry and Murakami Haruki’s in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – discuss). This, too, is nicely handled: it’s a fictional device, well deployed to reveal character and move the plot along. Precisely the kind of craft that, I confess, I don’t always look for in serious literature, particularly in Japanese, and precisely where the Marie Claire audience-expectations influence may come in.

In other words, I’m prepared to theorize that writing for Marie Claire allowed Yoshimoto to give herself license to write something that employs genre formula (romantic comedy, seishun story) more thoroughly than is usual for her. And as far as I’m concerned it was good for her. This is a much more satisfying book than N/P. It’s less original, less experimental – but I’m not sure it’s less deep, because I’m not sure that N/P had any depths.

It’s a great read. And translator Michael Emmerich, who took over the Banana desk in 2000, deserves a shout-out: this reads better in English than any Banana I’ve yet looked at. It’s accurate, but more than that (Sherif is accurate too) it has a sense of style. I particularly like his creative solutions to the problem of how to make Tsugumi’s speech sound suitably rude, given that rudeness in Japanese consists of very different things than rudeness in English.