Title: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Japanese Title: 寡黙な死骸 みだらな弔い
(Kamoku na shigai, midara no tomurai)
Author: Ogawa Yōko (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Ogawa Yōko is a writer of the fantastic who spins softly glittering tales of quiet desperation. In Japan, she’s known for her magical realism, which is so subtle as to be almost Todorovian in the uncertainty it generates. Nevertheless, her first novel to appear in English translation, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is about kind-hearted people behaving nobly in the face of senescence and overcoming emotional adversity by opening their hearts to one another. It’s a good book even despite its clinging miasma of Hallmark-style sentimentality, but the way the novel was marketed made it feel as if its publisher were trying to pass Ogawa off as the next Yoshimoto Banana, which she most decidedly is not. Messages of hope and moral fortitude are few and far between in Ogawa’s work, and her next novel to appear in translation, Hotel Iris, is about ephebophilia and sadomasochism in a decaying seaside town. The novel is quite short and, given its subject matter, an odd choice for translation, but perhaps its publishers saw a faint connection to Yoshimoto’s Goodbye Tsugumi, which explores similar themes (albeit in an infinitely more upbeat and chipper manner).
I am therefore interested in the way in which Ogawa’s newest work to appear in translation, Revenge, is pitched to potential readers. Short blurbs from Junot Díaz and Hilary Mantel appear on the back cover, but the writer who bears the honor of having his praise appear right in the middle of the front cover is Joe Hill. Joe Hill is the author of several novels, comic books, and Kindle singles, and he’s known as a writer of grisly and violent mystery fiction. Hill’s debut work, 20th Century Ghosts, is a collection of stories that contain more subtle disquiet than they do splattered blood. My favorite is “Voluntary Committal,” in which a seriously disturbed man builds an elaborate crawl-through maze of cardboard boxes in his basement, which eventually becomes a portal to another dimension. 20th Century Ghosts has won all sorts of awards, from the Bram Stoker Award to the British Fantasy Award, but Hill is still considered a horror writer; and, by association, Ogawa is positioned as a horror writer as well. As if Hill’s name alone were not enough to convey the message, the cover of the North American edition of Revenge is designed to resemble dead skin stitched with rotting thread.
Despite the implications of its cover, Revenge is less about hideous creepy crawlies lurking at the foot of cellar stairs than it is about the small disturbances in daily routine that hint at the madness waiting patiently on the edges of human civilization. For example, the first story in collection, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” opens with a scene of a peaceful town on a Sunday afternoon:
Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, enthralled. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench knitting. Somewhere a horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry. The mother hurried over to gather the child in her arms.
You could gaze at this perfect picture all day – an afternoon bathed in light and comfort – and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.
What you might notice, however, is the author’s focus on children and families. The detail out of place in this scene is a solitary mother who enters a quiet bakery to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday. The catch is that her son is dead and has been for many years. He died when he was six years old, and his mother responded to the tragedy by piecing together a scrapbook of newspaper articles about other children who died in similarly upsetting circumstances, which she describes in loving detail for the benefit of the reader. The physical deterioration of the cakes she continues to buy for her son’s birthday serves as an analogy for her own decaying sanity, something that used to be as fresh and wholesome as a young boy but now resembles nothing so much as rotting flesh:
Long after I had realized my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, straining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, and finally a layer of mold appeared.
“Mold can be quite beautiful,” I told my husband. The spots multiplied, covering the shortcake in delicate splotches of color.
“Get rid of it,” my husband said.
I could tell he was angry. But I did not know why he would speak so harshly about our son’s birthday cake. So I threw it in his face. Mold and crumbs covered his hair and his cheeks, and a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death.
The above passage is the dramatic high point of the story, which is otherwise sedated and subdued. The horror Ogawa offers her reader is not the terrified panic of a boy clawing vainly for air as he suffocates in the dark or the emotional turmoil of a distraught mother sobbing wildly in her grief, but rather the unsettling certainty that people who are irreparably damaged walk among us within a world that is constantly growing as filthy and old as we will one day become.
The eleven stories in Revenge are very loosely connected, with each almost fitting into the next like a section of a puzzle box that has been warped by humidity. The major theme connecting the stories is ultimate futility of the attempt to outlast the relentless march of time through creative endeavors or the preservation of a material legacy, and the collection is filled with unremarkable deaths, lonely rooms stuffed with junk, and putrefying fruit and vegetables. It’s dark stuff, to be sure, but Ogawa’s language and narrative skill, rendered beautifully in Stephen Synder’s translation, allow the reader to experience the horror of the stories in Revenge as so mundane as to be almost comforting.
NPR listed Snyder’s translation of Revenge as one of the best books released in 2013, and it’s in good company. Despite Picador’s gruesome cover, Ogawa’s stories have much more in common with her listmate Karen Russell’s debut collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves than any of the recent work by Joe Hill or Peter Straub – or any of the recent work of Murakami Haruki, to whom many reviewers feel compelled to compare Ogawa for some inexplicable reason. Ogawa has her own style of haunting and meticulously crafted fiction, and I can only hope that more of her short stories find their way into English translation, the sooner the better.