Review of The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada

This book is a prime example of the commercial bent of recent Japanese translations. It is a case study in how to underestimate your readers.

It is a case study in how to underestimate your readers. It was well-marketed to adults by a very reputable publisher. Of course it is selling well, garnering misleading blurbs and reviews, and impressing lots of important people. However, it is written at about a sixth-grade level, is only about 30,000 words long, and boasts no innovation in character, plot, or prose. Did we learn nothing from the author’s last book? A year from now, are they going to rinse and repeat this same process with another example of this lite, disposable, un-literary silliness?

It is no surprise that it received the Akutagawa prize, and that is the most likely reason for its short length. In recent years, this prize has come to indicate the opposite of its original intention. When they gave it to Kenzaburo Oe and actual writers, I had some respect for the prize. The downhill track it has followed since is startling.

This short novella reads very like the examples I encountered in Creative Writing 101 in college. 75% of the short, repetitive sentences could be edited out. The attempts at building atmosphere are transparent and simply an accumulation of mundane interior monologues. The narrator will ask up to twenty rhetorical questions in a row sometimes. And the rest of the prose is simple reportage on the surroundings: grass, cicadas, trees, houses, hoses, fences, store items.

Very little happens during the course of the novella: Main character moves to new house. Weird, unexplained things happen to her. It concludes without resolving any of the questions raised. You are supposed to draw an allegory using these dreamlike hints throughout. The housewife is feeling directionless. When she literally falls into a hole, you are supposed to realize she has metaphorically fallen into a hole as well. Society pigeonholes women. Japanese traditions are getting old. Those are the background themes. But lacking all character development, relying so heavily on bland descriptions, is simply amateurish. This is not fit to be printed. The author has ideas, but lacks formal development.

Comparing this book to this year’s translation of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, I see a world of difference.

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