The 149th Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2013, went to Fujino Kaori 藤野可織 for the story Tsume to me 爪と目 (Nails and eyes).
The obi blurb calls it "a chilling work of literary horror" (戦慄な純文学的恐怖さく, with 恐怖作 glossed ホラー). I'm not sure if I'm glad I knew that or not. Knowing that, I was looking for it to get suspenseful, or scary, or creepy, uncanny, or something somewhat resembling horror. So when we learn that the mother is dead in mysterious circumstances, cause of death unknown, I automatically suspected the daughter. And, in turn, that led me to expect something very like the final scene.
But I get ahead of myself. The basic story is this: a young woman, presumably in her 20s, who works at a temp agency, is having an affair with a married man who's temporarily stationed in a different city from his wife and young daughter. The wife dies (in mysterious circumstances, cause of death unknown), and not long after that the guy asks his mistress to marry him. She agrees to move in with him for six months on a trial basis. Most of the story concerns her gradually getting used to being a house-not-quite-wife: quitting her job, learning to take care of the little girl, furnishing the apartment. Gradually shifting from a thoughtless floating single existence to an uneasily tethered existence. Meanwhile, the little girl is, understandably, traumatized by the death of her mother; this manifests itself in near-catatonic passivity coupled with severe nail-biting. Eventually the mistress takes a lover; she also starts haunting homemaker blogs, eventually discovering the one that had been maintained by the mother. She starts to furnish the new apartment exactly like the old. This is all interrupted one day when the lover comes over unexpectedly, and the mistress hides the daughter on the veranda, locks the glass door, and pulls the curtains. This traumatizes the daughter (her mother had died locked out on the veranda). Later she takes her revenge by placing fingernail clippings on the mistress's eyes while she's sleeping and pressing... The end.
In literary-technique terms, there's one big curveball in all this. The story is narrated in what amounts to the second person. Not a complete second person narration like Bright Lights Big City (the only example I can think of, actually). It's narrated in the voice of the daughter, who is an adult of unspecified age as she's narrating, and who is addressing the mistress. But it feels almost like a complete second person narration, because we're not privy to the thoughts of the daughter (despite the fact that it's her narrating), while we are privy to the thoughts of the mistress. In other words, the main character of the story is "you" (anata), and we're told what "you" were thinking at any given moment; but although an "I" does show up from time to time, we're not really told what "I" was thinking. Nor do we know why "I" is speaking at the present moment, nor do we know much about the present moment at all. This isn't a confession - it's not "I" finally explaining to "you" decades later why she did what she did (either "she"). Curious effect.
As I say, my experience of the story was entirely colored by the fact that it's billed as literary horror. The death of the mother is presented as a mystery. Her body is discovered frozen on the veranda, with the glass door locked from the inside and the daughter asleep in the bedroom. Did she commit suicide? Accidentally lock herself out - unlikely, from the construction of the lock? Did the daughter kill her? The horror-story billing makes us suspect the daughter; and this, as I say, in turn makes us suspect that the daughter is going to do something to the mistress, and she does.
But just what she does is a little unclear. Does she blind the mistress? One of the very few references to the present day in the story makes it clear that daughter and mistress have been living together as mother and daughter, and mentions the mistress clinging to the daughter's arm as an adult just like the daughter clung to the mistress's arm as a child. So is the mistress blinded by the girl's fingernails? Or just wounded? And if she's blinded, why does she marry the guy and stay with the daughter after the six months are up?
One possible explanation for this comes in the way the mistress seems to gradually become possessed by the spirit of the mother through her blog... No, that's overstating it. If this had been a real, determined horror story, that's what would have happened. But we're give no indication that a supernatural thing is happening there. Rather, it's presented in a literary way, i.e., a suggestion that in her alienation and lostness the mistress is sinking into a traditional gender role with uneasy inevitability, that her identity as an individual is becoming submerged into her role as wife and mother. However, this role is not presented as one of tenderness or nurturing - her way of dealing with the kid's nail-biting is to give her junk food to nibble on - but rather one of consumption. Buying things to make the house neat. Fashionable furniture. The wife had done that - her blog consisted basically of photos of furniture, as if that were a stand-in for her missing inner life.
The only moment of tenderness the mistress displays toward the daughter is right before the eye-scratching scene. The girl has scratched other kids at school with her bitten-jagged nails, and a scolding from the school moves the mistress to give the girl's nails a good trim and paint them with nail varnish. Is this her finally accepting her role as mother? So that when the daughter scratches her, the mistress decides to stay and help her rather than flee and leave her to her misery?
Set out like that, the story makes a certain amount of sense to me on both a literary and a horror-story level (as if those had to be opposed; I don't believe they do, for the record). However, I feel like in setting it out like that I've made a few connections that I really think the writer should have made. Leaving things for the reader to figure out is one thing, but let's just say I'm not sure that this reading is justified by what's actually on the page; and yet, at the same time, it's not indeterminate in a particularly productive or moving way, either. I keep coming back to this, but if it weren't for the warning that this should be read as horror, I don't think I would have detected any tension at all until the very end; and that applies to narrative tension, as well. The story feels trivial and aimless, up to the end.
There's promise here, but I'm not sure there's excellence. On the other hand as a choice for the A-Prize it seems pretty comprehensible. This will be much less divisive than the last choice, not to mention much more accessible.
The book contains two other stories, Shōko-san ga wasureteiru koto しょう子さんが忘れていること "What Shōko-san Is Forgetting" and Chibikko hiroba ちびっこ広場 "Kiddy Plaza." Both share the title story's interest in unsettled minds and unsettling moods, not quite to say horror.
"Shōko-san" is told from the point of view of a woman in her 80s who has had a stroke and is in rehab for it. Every night in bed she's visited by a mysterious man who does things to her, and every day she forgets it. Sometimes during the day her daughter and grown granddaughter visit, and the granddaughter takes a liking to a young male patient who's always hanging around. Can you see where this is going? At the end Shōko-san seems to realize that it's this young male patient who's been visiting her, and that he's probably been doing sexual things to her. But the narration is locked into Shōko-san's dreamlike consciousness, so none of the details of any of it are clear.
"Kiddy Plaza" is a little neater. A young mother is getting ready for a night out with the girls, when her little boy comes home from the playground crying. She thinks he just doesn't want her to go out, so she waits until her husband comes home and hands him over. But when she gets home and he's still crying she learns that the kids have told him the playground is cursed. Anybody who's there at 4:44 will be visited in the night by a girl who invites him to go to the playground. Finally the mother tells him she'll convince him that it's nonsense. Come on, let's go to the playground...
That one I kind of liked.