Translated from the Japanese by Paul McCarthy
(Urbana-Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009)
Sometimes it’s only a whisper. Didn’t we just see that man? Weren’t they just talking about a missed train? And veins on a rock…where else did we just see veins? In one story, a man still feels guilty years later for not having met his lover at a train station to depart for a new life together. In the next, the tables have been reversed, or set askew: a man goes every day to a train station to wait for an unidentified woman who never arrives. Images are stitched across the stories that make up Mieko Kanai’s The Word Book, nagging at the reader, making her wonder whether this is one long, shifting tale rather than a collection of stories that explore rotating questions through the lenses of a few, usually unnamed characters. Time and situations shift without warning and characters mutate, as in dreams, from parents to lovers to strangers, leaving their counterparts little choice but to adapt.
These whispers finally become explicit in the dream trilogy that closes the book. In “Kitchen Plays,” a man remembers the many, many times he had to fetch milk for his mother as a child because the milkman forgot to deliver it. There is a large stone that juts out of the ground in front of his house, on which he often trips when returning with the bottles of milk, and has sometimes even broken the bottles on. Remembering all of this, the man thinks of his mother’s death, then feels uncertain about whether it really happened, so calls home; his mother answers, and asks him to go buy milk since the milkman has forgotten to deliver it. The story closes with the narrator remembering a train ride with his father and sister and his mother’s ashes. Who, then, is he bringing milk to? The next story, “Picnic,” opens with a narrator on the way to see his lover after having just delivered milk to his mother—a clear continuation of the last story, although the horrible moment when the man delivers milk to a house that either contains his mother or doesn’t is left to the reader’s imagination.
This thwarted anticipation takes another shape, that of the “kitchen play.” We never really learn what these evocatively named events are, though they are referenced prominently in two of the stories. They aren’t plays, exactly, and they don’t happen in kitchens, or not real kitchens, anyway. There’s a feeling of excitement as the narrator and his lover walk down the steps into a basement theater, but water from the canal next to the building immediately smashes the windows in the room, and the two have to run, like in a dream, up the stairs and through labyrinthine corridors of the building to get to safety. And in “The Voice of Spring,” two men discuss kitchen plays over hamburgers and beer, and then enter a theater in the basement of an abandoned hotel, apparently in pursuit of a kitchen play, but the story ends before the play begins. Surely, like in a prose adaptation of a villanelle or an OuLiPo experiment, there must be a pattern or logic here.
These stories demand attentive reading, although, as with a David Lynch film, it seems the solution to the puzzle will always be just beyond reach; but also like in Lynch’s films, the payoff is in trying to unravel the mystery, and in the beauty of the journey. Kanai’s delicate and sparse language—and Paul McCarthy’s superb rendering of it—make up for the lack of coherence.
One thing is for certain: Kanai is deeply invested in exploring the mutability of the self. And why wouldn’t she be? It is her profession to inhabit the minds and bodies of others. The narrator of the opening story, “Rivals,” falls into conversation with a traveling salesman who recounts a romance he had when he was younger, in which he came to realize that his lover was seeing another man. This other man, it turns out, was a rival in more ways than one: he would leave his diary lying around, and it mirrored the salesman’s diary word for word:
The notebook contained passages I myself had written, but that does not mean that the unknown man deliberately copied each word and phrase from my book. His notebook was exactly identical to my own.
The salesman has lived his life with the knowledge that somebody out there mimics his every move, thinks his every thought, feels his every emotion. “And since,” the story ends, “there is no one anywhere who can accurately gauge our numbers, instead of ‘rival,’ let us speak of ‘rivals.’”
The narrator of this story speaks in the first person, as does the traveling salesman—without quotation marks or italics—so that the reader has to keep close track of whose story is being told at all times. Naturally there is an expectation that this is the narrator’s story, since he is the one who invited us in, so it takes a few pages before we realize that this is not his story at all. But why nest the salesman’s tale within the narrator’s, when the narrator ultimately melts into the background? The narrator is a mask the writer wears; Kanai is allowing herself a tangible presence in the story, perhaps to remind us that without her, there would be no story. In “Windows,” the authorial voice interrupts again, with a description of where she is while she’s writing the story, deliberations about what to name her character, and even a prickly exchange with her character, who says:
I’m sure you realize this, of course, but what you wrote about was only one small part, and what you didn’t write of was much, much larger. And I feel that I’m living my life within the flow of the time you didn’t write about. Besides, you don’t know anything about me, and I bet you never really cared about me at all.
These are strange, unnerving little tales: serious, surreal, and incredibly complex, yet told simply, with detachment. “I know which corner it is, but I don’t know how to explain how you would distinguish it from the other countless corners of the same kind, without drawing a map,” says the narrator of “The Voice of Spring” to his lunch companion. This could serve as a metaphor for the book—we recognize these experiences and emotions as real and crucial, but to relay them coherently to another person seems unfathomable.
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Anne McPeak is a freelance editor. She was previously the managing editor of A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn.
This review originally appeared in TLR’s Winter 2010 issue, Machismo: A Field Guide.