19 March 2013

Body (Asa Nonami) and Revenge (Yoko Ogawa)

'Twas pure alphabetical serendipity that threw two short-story collections by Japanese women together on my TBR shelf: Body, by Asa Nonami (Now You're One of Us), and Revenge, the latest translated Yoko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor). They've much in common besides that, so this is kinda a "If you loved X you'll love Y" sort of review. But, you know, chattier than an Amazon algorithm. (Should the "customers who bought this" box ever start using words like"awesomesauce," I am doomed.)

The first thing I'm tempted to talk about I'm not even sure is a thing, though? It's prose style: Nonami and Ogawa seem to share a deadpan and economical approach to language that's sleek and effective . . . as I say this, though, I realize that's how I'd describe most of the Japanese literature in translation I've read, so I've no idea whether it's intentional, or whether it's the nature of the language itself, about which I am wholly ignorant. I have to say, though, I really like it. My vote for best image from either book is Nonami, discussing head blows in boxing, saying the brain "sits like a block of tofu in water".

The other big commonality is darkness, man. These ladies can walk the edge of straight-up horror like nobody's business, and their characters inhabit distorted and menacing spaces, sometimes literally, like the title institution in Ogawa's story "Welcome to the Museum of Torture." Here, the curator has two criteria for inclusion: one, the artifact must have been used on a human being, and two, "I don't exhibit an object unless I have the desire to use it." Yet this same man, in a later story (the eleven in Revenge are obliquely connected), soothes a dying tiger to its regal rest, "melted together into a single being." In Nonami's five tales, each protagonist fixates on some component of their physicality and attempts to control it. So a twentysomething man obsessed with his spreading bald spot, in "Whorl," takes an experimental drug and ends up losing his girlfriend; a daughter's wish for plastic surgery on her bellybutton (which, who knew it could be the wrong shape? but apparently it's a common modification in Japan) leads her mother to reconstruct her own face and body.

Finally, my favorites! Nonami's "Buttocks," about a teenage girl nudged into bulimia by a dormmate's offhand remark, is absolutely chilling, the kind of story you won't stop thinking about. And Ogawa's "Sewing for the Heart," about a bag-maker tasked with designing a carrying case for a woman's external heart, is a tiny masterpiece.

Oh! And these are both paperback originals--$27.95 for the set. Not bad!

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