Penance

Title: Penance
Japanese Title: 贖罪 (Shokuzai)
Author: Kanae Minato (湊 かなえ)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 229

Fifteen years ago, in an unnamed rural town, a girl named Emily was raped and murdered. Although four of her friends saw the face of the man who tricked her into going off alone with him, he was never caught. Emily’s mother, driven half-crazy with grief, accused the four girls of being responsible for her daughter’s death, and they have all carried this burden with them into their adult lives. The statute of limitations on the murder is about to run out, yet its lingering effects have not yet faded. Is it possible that one of the surviving girls, now young women, holds a clue to solving the murder? If the murderer’s identity is revealed, will these women find peace, or is the cycle of violence impossible to halt?

The first four of Penance‘s five chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Emily’s friends, each of whom is haunted by the trauma of the incident.

The first narrator, Sae, is the girl who discovered Emily’s body, and the horror of what she saw has never been far from her mind. Of the four girls who survived, she’s been the most afraid that the killer will return, so she’s been determined to remain in the immature body of a child while keeping to herself and never dating. Not long after she’s hired by a firm in Tokyo, however, she’s presented with an offer of marriage she can’t refuse from a young man from her hometown. Although this man is too young to be the murderer, he possesses a significant and startling clue, and Sae comes to realize that he has a very good – and very creepy – reason for staying silent.

The second narrator, Maki, has become an elementary school teacher, and she’s recently found herself on national news after preventing a mentally ill young man from attacking her students. Far from being hailed as a hero, she is blamed for the young man’s death, and she does not deny that she took action to harm him. Addressing an assembly of parents, Maki explains what happened to her when she was a child, why she was able to act so quickly and decisively when threatened with violence, and why she bitterly regrets her behavior on the day that Emily died.

The third narrator, Akiko, is a precious human (I love her!) who sees herself as a “bear.” She has never moved out of her parents’ house, partially because of the trauma of Emily’s murder and partially because of outwardly imposed issues regarding her body image. “Boys have it easy,” she explains. “Even if they look like a bear they’re popular […] and being big isn’t a drawback the way it is for girls” (87). Akiko isn’t a shut-in, but she never went to high school and has since distanced herself from society. She now spends her days sleeping, helping her mother around the house, and working out. When her brother Koji gets married, she finds herself gradually being drawn out of her shell and becoming friends with her new sister-in-law’s child from a previous marriage, Wakaba. Wakaba’s mother Haruka has a dark past, however, and even the innocent and sweet-tempered Akiko senses that something isn’t quite right with the new family. She ends up becoming involved in their drama by accident, and disastrous consequences ensue.

The fourth narrator, Yuka, has lived her life in the shadow of her older sister, who was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. The older sister was doted on by their mother, while Yuka became the scapegoat for her mother’s frustrations. After Yuka indirectly witnessed Emily’s death, her mother began to alienate her even more, and Yuka has grown up feeling that she should have been the girl who died. Nevertheless, she has managed to achieve a modest amount of success in her life, but her resentment toward her sister has inspired her to enact a complicated plan of revenge. This brings her to the attention of the murderer, as well as Emily’s mother, who knows far more about why her daughter was killed than she has ever revealed to anyone.

The fifth narrator should perhaps remain a mystery for readers to discover for themselves. It seems as if this person will be able tie everything together… but then she doesn’t, not at all.

Penance had me enthralled from beginning to end. Although the story contains many mysteries, the identity of the murderer begins to feel irrelevant and inconsequential as the deeper tragedies of the narrators’ lives slowly unfold. The novel is are firmly grounded in contemporary Japanese society, but the characters’ anxieties are universally relatable. Penance has a lot to say about what it feels like to be an outsider, and what it feels like to live in fear of physical and social violence, and what it feels like to have difficulty communicating with the people who are close to you.

Penance is not a novel about vulnerability, however; it’s a story of resilience. It’s also a story about a group of women who learn where their breaking points lie and then purposefully put themselves into situations that trigger them to take action. By the end of the book, the narrators share more than one murder, and the loose conspiracy that arises between them is a beautiful development fashioned from intricate plot details. The strength of Kanae Minato’s writing is in her compassionate portrayal of her psychologically damaged yet intensely sympathetic characters, but that doesn’t get in her way of creating a compelling and suspenseful mystery in this brilliant literary thriller.

The Black Cat Takes A Stroll

the-black-cat-takes-a-stroll

Title: The Black Cat Takes a Stroll: The Edgar Allan Poe Lectures
Japanese Title: 黒猫の遊歩あるいは美学講義 (Kuroneko no yūho arui wa bigaku kōgi)
Author: 森 晶麿 (Mori Akimaro)
Translator: Ian M. MacDonald
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Bento Books
Pages: 146

Let me preface my review of The Black Cat Takes a Stroll by saying that this book is misogynistic pseudo-intellectual garbage.

I’ve tried to keep my tone sane and reasonable, but I don’t want to mislead anyone into wasting their time reading about something that celebrates notions of male dominance and superiority. If you know this sort of thing won’t appeal to you, it’s probably best to skip this review.

The Black Cat Takes a Stroll is a collection of short horror-themed mystery stories centered around “the Black Cat,” a genius 24-year-old professor. The narrator is a first-year PhD student specializing in Western literature. She became friends with the Black Cat when the two were undergraduates together, but now the narrator is the Black Cat’s personal assistant, or “sidekick,” as she calls herself. She has decided to write her dissertation on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and the book opens with the Black Cat mansplaining the narrator’s research to her.

This is how each of the six stories in the book plays out: something strange happens within the narrator’s circle of friends and acquaintances, she doesn’t understand what’s going on, and so she goes to the Black Cat, who delivers a condescending lecture about literature and philosophy. The mysteries are bizarre and absurd, and they tend to be more reminiscent of the “erotic grotesque nonsense” of the Shōwa-era dark fantasist Edogawa Ranpō than they are of the dark yet largely linear logic of Edgar Allan Poe, yet the Black Cat still draws on his knowledge of European intellectual traditions to explicate the psychology of the people involved.

In the first story, “To the Moon and Back,” the narrator has come into possession of a hand-drawn map that doesn’t seem to correspond to the neighborhood it purports to represent. Although the provenance of this map clearly suggests the circumstances of its creation (the narrator found it carefully preserved and tucked away in her mother’s dresser drawer, which would lead most people to the immediate conclusion that it was given to her by a former lover), the Black Cat is more interested in discussing abstractions relating to mapmaking. His mental process is explained by the narrator as follows: “Applying Bergsonian aesthetics to literary criticism is the Black Cat’s specialty. Upon returning from Paris, he published a paper titled, Dynamic Schema and the Poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé that caused a sensation” (12). Through a series of complicated mental gymnastics, the Black Cat is able to apply a diluted mishmash of schema theory to arrive at the obvious conclusion, ie, the secret letter in the narrator’s mom’s underwear drawer is from the narrator’s mom’s secret lover. Good job, son! Handshakes all around.

The more intriguing story underneath the plot of “To the Moon and Back” concerns why the narrator’s mother had a secret lover to begin with. According to the narrator, her mother is a successful academic specializing in Japanese literature, a job that has not been easy for her. As the narrator says, “Japanese universities are feudal institutions. To succeed in the ivory tower of academe, a woman has to work at least twice as hard as her male colleagues – which only makes my mom seem that much more amazing” (15). Because the narrator has entered graduate school because of her respect and admiration for her mother, I wanted to know more about this woman and her relationship to her daughter, but the author never allows the narrative focus on the Black Cat to waiver for more than a few paragraphs.

This is a major shortcoming in all of the stories in the collection, in which female characters function solely as plot devices and abstract concepts for the Black Cat to play with. To add insult to injury, the Black Cat loves to cite real-life Western scholars and theorists, but never in the entire book does he mention an actual female writer.

I mean listen, we’ve all read Sherlock Holmes and watched the Iron Man movies, and we all love narcissistic yet brilliant male characters, but the misogyny underlying The Black Cat Takes a Stroll frequently results in awkward and uncomfortable situations that serve to underscore the author’s disdain for women. To give a representative example, in the fourth story, “The Hidden Flower,” the Black Cat manipulates the narrator into a situation in which she will be raped by his uncle so that he can prove a point to her. His uncle doesn’t take the bait, and so the Black Cat brings the narrator home with him and hypnotizes her so that she won’t remember what happened. He can’t stop himself from bragging about the incident after the fact, however, because he still wants the narrator to understand the point he’s trying to make. Instead of being like, “Wow, it’s super not cool that you set me up to be sexually assaulted for the sake of winning an argument and then tried to gaslight me,” the narrator is comforted by the level of control the Black Cat is capable of exerting over her. At the end of the story, she says, “My head slumps onto the Black Cat’s shoulder. Safe and secure, I feel I could sleep forever” (96-7).

It’s entirely possible that I could be misreading or overreacting to “The Hidden Flower,” but honestly, I’m not too terribly interested in going through it again. In any case, this is merely one of the many examples of the Black Cat’s patronizing attitude regarding the narrator and her subsequent worship of him. Here’s another example from the first page of the story…

This stuff crumbles the moment I touch it with my chopsticks. Sesame tofu isn’t meant to crumble. It’s supposed to be gooey. I’m baffled.

“A bit like the paper you just presented,” observes the Black Cat seated beside me. He’s alluding to the fiasco that I’ve just succeeded in putting out of my mind. The guy is a fiend – a genius, true, but nonetheless a fiend. Then again, maybe that’s the nature of geniuses. (73)

No, no it’s not. This guy is nothing more than a garden-variety asshole, and it’s painful to see the narrator fawn over him.

The Black Cat Takes A Stroll is an unironic romanticization of male misogyny within an academic context, and I hated every page. If you’re a woman who has seen male colleagues promoted ahead of you, and if you’re sick of being told your business by insufferable male douchebags, and if you’re frustrated by the societal assumption that men know more about your mind and body than you do, then the stories in this collection might hit a little too close to home. The gut punches this book delivers are frequent and unyielding, and I couldn’t read more than five pages at a time. Even if you’re not as sensitive to overt sexism as I am, I still don’t think the mysteries presented by the author (such as the mystery of the letter in the mother’s underwear drawer) are all that original or compelling.

I’m happy to see that a book like The Black Cat Takes a Stroll has been published in English translation – it’s good to see work coming out that isn’t associated with the current big names familiar to English-language readers. It’s also wonderful that novella-length genre fiction from Japan is finding its way into English, and I think that Bento Books is doing something interesting and important. Still, between misogynistic light novels and misogynistic suspense fiction, I feel that there’s a definite bias in the material that has come out in the past few years, and The Black Cat Takes a Stroll doesn’t add anything new to the landscape of contemporary Japanese fiction in translation.

Review copy provided by Bento Books.