Friday, September 5, 2008

On "New Japanese Voices" edited by Helen Mitsios ***

I first came across this collection when working at a bookstore many years ago. The book came out at that time, and I was very curious about it, but I never got around to reading it--or at least more than one story in it. Now, it's fifteen years later, and the "new" in New Japanese Voices doesn't seem so new anymore. Some of these authors have gone on to quite a bit of fame in English translations; others, I haven't seen anything more of. The works featured in the book are the following:

"A Callow Fellow of Jewish Descent" by Masahiko Shimada
"On Meeting My 100 Percent Women One Fine April Morning" by Haruki Murakami
"Swallowtails" by Shiina Makoto
"God Is Nowhere; God Is Now Here" by Itoh Seikoh
"X-Rated Blanket" by Eimi Yamada
"Yu-Hee" by Yang Ji Lee
"On a Moonless Night" by Sei Takekawa
"Living in a Maze" by Kyoji Kobayashi
"The Imitation of Leibniz" by Genichiro Takahashi
"The Unsinkable Molly Brown" by Tamio Kageyama
"Wine" by Mariko Hayashi
"Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto

On the whole, the book presents an interesting smorgasbord of fiction writers in Japan in the late eighties and early nineties. But I can't say that the stories on the whole really hooked me. Standing out the most was probably Murakami's, but that story, which has never seemed that impressive to me before, perhaps stood out here because I've read it two or three times before. Other stories I can remember, now, days after reading them, include Shimada's piece, about a Japanese man who befriends a Jewish man in France (only in the end, we're told the man isn't what he seems, which in turns causes us to rethink the whole story).

I really enjoyed Kobayashi's "Living in a Maze," which recounted the story of a man whose nightmares become his everyday life. Such is an old story form, but the dream here was interesting enough that I was drawn in. The man's date becomes a cow, and then so too do the rest of the people, just as in the movie Jacob's Ladder, all the people become lizards. Cows don't seem nearly as creepy or interesting as giant lizards, and yet the manner in which Kobayshi describes all these events--so realistically--makes the ludicrous and silly seem both horrifying and funny.

Kageyama's "Unsinkable Molly Brown" is about a woman who is so fat that when she takes scuba lessons the instructor's have to take various measures to stop her from floating. Hayashi's "Wine" is about a woman who accidentally buys a very expensive bottle of wine and then can't figure out what to do with it (after all, it's too expensive to drink, and it's too expensive to give as a gift for any but the most special person or special occasion). Takekawa's "On a Moonless Night" is about a woman being eaten by insects--told in a "shocking" manner but, for me, makes it seem over the top. Yamada's "X-Rated Blanket" is more like a prose poem--about a woman's lover (i.e., he is her blanket). "Swallowtails" was about a kid with problems at school who grows butterflies as a hobby at home and probably comes closest to the kind of quieter stories one might expect from an American MFA student or from the master Kawabata.

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