Review of People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami

Hiromi Kawakami collects here a dreamlike conglomeration of semi-related characters and events from her part of town, if the title and interior clues are to be believed.

The random nature of the images and events lend the collection an experimental feel. The writing is smooth and simple and unadorned. Her earlier novels and stories were more atmospheric and consistent in my opinion. The quality of the ideas wavered from intriguing to objectively bad. Nonetheless, I admit it is hard to judge absurdist or bizarro works. They are not trying to make sense. Yet, I only consider a bizarro idea successful if it is either memorable or comments obliquely on the real world, either through satire or subtext. There appears to be some of the latter going on, and I only wish more of the vignettes resolved into memorable stories or packed more of a punch.

Like with her previous works in English, her subdued storytelling is softer than Yoko Ogawa’s and the spheres from which she draws her subject matter are not as far-flung as Yoko Tawada’s, but any of her books are approachable, somewhat enjoyable, and similar in feel to Banana Yoshimoto’s.

Be prepared for dog principals, pigeonitis, and other wacky scenarios. None of them are explored into perversity and remain tethered to a quirky sort of mundanity. No matter how out-there H. K. ventures, she is typically unwilling to offend anybody. If you liked Convenience Store Woman, you should check out Kawakami’s work, and watch for a subliminal appreciation for wabi-sabi.

I do hope more of her translated works make it into English soon.

Review of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

The quiet beauty of a store interior. The intentionality of the setting. The sincere dignity of a retail worker. The cyclical expanse of such a life, confined within shrinking walls, hemmed in by the minutiae of the commercial products of everyday life. 

Constant exposure to these mundane implements imbues them with chimerical, mystic qualities, and reminds us that a dioramic life can still be a rich one.

Very similar to the set up of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Nakano Thrift Shop takes place in a store in Japan. The employee who narrates our story lives the repetitive rhythms of most retail workers, yet in this manner, exposes the hidden beauties to be found in minimalist lifestyles. That is not to say she is not also fraught with worry, shame, jealousy, loneliness and anxiety. In fact, her experience proves to be both boring and enlightening.

What this short novel does well is portray the feeling and nuance of its setting. It lacks dramatic twists and startling lyricism, but possesses the sophisticated clarity and restraint characteristic of the author’s other books, all of which I enjoyed to some degree. This is for fans of Banana Yoshimoto and for those who can appreciate the subtleties of a Japan frozen in a state of perpetual unrest and gender tension. This genre is often called Slice of Life. In small doses, it offers a refreshing reprieve from one’s own often underwhelming existence.

Review of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

ISBN 1609455878 (ISBN13: 9781609455873)

Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs is a bold literary statement and another first person, modern, feminist novel from Japan.

Staking a claim among literary celebrities like Banana Yoshimoto, Hiromi Kawakami, Natsuo Kirino, and Yoko Ogawa, it would almost appear that the future of Japanese Literature is female. It would make sense, in a way, since its past was male though and through with the notable exception of Murasaki’s monumental Tale of Genji. I first heard of M. Kawakami when I read her short stories in Monkey Business and various anthologies. All of the stories were good. Her first novel in English, called Ms. Ice Sandwich, was disappointingly simple, unmemorable, and almost unmentionable. This work is far more complex, substantial and controversial.

Mieko Kawakami is one of the few Japanese authors I know of who has been granted interview time with the reclusive Haruki Murakami. In fact, Murakami was so taken by this book, that he announced his new favorite Japanese author, namely, Mieko Kawakami. She then went on to do a book length interview with the literary superstar. Hopefully we will get this interview in English soon.

The novel was quite uneven in my opinion. The first 40% I would rate 5 stars, the last 30% would get 4 stars and the middle 30% would earn 2 stars. The voice took on entrancing rhythm from the start, as intimate and easy to read as I had hoped. An absorbing, fast-paced chronicle involving complicated family issues ensued, including the ramifications of plastic surgery and some relatively common concerns and reminiscences of a young girl in the modern age. A very readable and rewarding first part overall. The second part falls into many tedious repetitions on the theme of fertility and the morality of artificial insemination. If you can get through it you will be rewarded by a satisfactory ending. The main character is a writer who offers us another cliched and idealistic view of the writerly life. Do writers really spend 90% of their time in restaurants discussing their meals and their work with literati? Hemingway would have you think so. Kawakami loads her novel with table conversations, and wastes our time with the inaccurate writer’s complaints. Do writers really have to fend off their editors in person with clever dog-ate-my-manuscript excuses? Of course, she has writer’s block – almost never touches the keyboard, yet still embodies all of the qualities we have come to associate with the ideal writer figure. She is an artist, who can’t be rushed. You might begin to notice the influence of Haruki Murakami at this point. Yet, the protagonist’s fixation with childbirth, its unfeasible application to her own ambition, and the relationships, hardships and sacrifices involved paint the picture of a self-absorbed artist on an existential ego trip. The character mentions this in the book, pointing out her own flaws. I commend the author for her well-rounded exploration, but the obsession infiltrates the plot so heavily that it weighs the book down for a large part.

Toward the end of the novel, many moral issues are explored with erudition and insight. Kawakami is an astute observer, and very confident in her ability to wrangle emotion out of the reader. She doesn’t shirk or bow politely, she cooks up charm and smarm and really goes for broke sometimes. There is a scene detailing a meeting with a potential sperm donor that had me laughing out loud. It was the kind of masterful confrontation Murakami could have written. I was highly intrigued by Kawakami’s stance or explanation of the value and demerits of sexual relationships. How they stand in stark contrast to Murakami’s portrayal of sex in his novels was fascinating. It is not always productive to assume that just because a writer’s main character is a writer who treats women like objects, that the writer treats women like objects. Or is it? Does writing about mistreating women constitute mistreating women? Kawakami faces off with Murakami’s controversial female characters by lambasting male character tropes. She bashes men throughout the novel and takes a firm moral stance on women rights while exploring the emotional content of fertility choices. It is a vast and moving essay on the matter and an entertaining coming of age story.

The painful flaw of this novel lies in the repetition, which Murakami’s style suffers from as well. It is a sort of dumbing down of the themes. But the themes are still there. The characters, their voices, and the strangled atmosphere of Japanese polite educated class strugglers tugged at my nostalgic love for Japan’s literary past. I really adored parts of Breasts and Eggs, and you should give it a read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the free ARC.