Review of Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi
Japanese Slice of Life Versus American Literary Fiction.
Slice of Life: mundane day to day events occur regularly. Characters go to work, commute, go shopping, etc. They interact with others in quirky and amusing ways. Characters make decisions, but the consequences are not usually earth-shattering. Readers have the chance to live a life vicariously through these people, to feel their accumulated stress and experience the joy of simpler lifestyles. They supposedly depict life in Japan (or another culture) and share cinematic aesthetics with film directors like Ozu. The writing style is simple, readable, approachable, unadorned. Examples include Convenience Store Woman, The Nakano Thrift Shop, The Easy Life in Kamusari, Norwegian Wood, and There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job.
Literary fiction: Characters just have money without ever having to go to a job. They spend it with abandon. They drive themselves into desperate situations through their glaring character flaws. They cheat on significant others for lack of anything better to do. They pick fights, usually make the most destructive choice, and are supposed to grow through these hardships and emerge a better person, but sometimes come out more despicable. They often worship idols (themselves, their lovers, money, status, etc.). They do drugs. The writing style is ornate, complex, rich, textured, and possibly pretentious. Common themes include marriage and mortality.
When it comes to reading genres, I think if a reader sticks too heavily to one or another, they will run up against fatigue. Thanks to the recent influx of translations from Japanese into English I have been able to enjoy many slice of life novels this year. But are they the literary equivalent to sitcoms? One of the advantages the Japanese genre has over the American literary output I’ve gotten through so far, is the relatable main character. More often than not, books by Roth, Updike, Ellis, Franzen, and others cast deplorable characters in the lead role, and put them through hell, and thereby create tension, conflict, and a general terror of the wages of excess. Sometimes I just don’t want to traverse the perverse landscape of the human soul and prefer to follow likable people through their ultimately trivial travails. They are too often about wealthy people who feel sad sometimes.
While Diary of a Void is not the most elegant Slice of Life I’ve read this year, it is generally recommendable, enjoyable, and rife with a few relevant subtexts. It tackles the common Japanese literary trope of workplace burn out, and discusses the image problem in that country, which many woman writers point to as the sustaining conflict in their feminist works. Shion Miura, on the other hand, pursues other themes in her recent translations, and the strikingly similar book, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, manages to pull the reader into an even more down-to-earth reading experience.
When it comes to light reading, I would place Diary of a Void somewhere in the middle in terms of quality. It does not pack a large emotional punch and is surprisingly bland. The complaining in the first half is countered by some improbabilities in the latter half. It is less believable and more forgettable than expected. Nonetheless, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to place a pleasant window before the reader, a lens to peer through, by which we may come to appreciate the small things in our lives all the more.
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