The Word Book

Title: The Word Book
Japanese Title: 単語集 (Tango-shū)
Author: Kanai Mieko (金井美恵子)
Translator: Paul McCarthy
Publication Year: 1979 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 148

The pink cover of this small paperback might lead one to think that it’s a short collection of chick lit. While it’s true that Kanai Mieko is female, and while it’s true that she has often been classified as a “women writer,” The Word Book is just about as far away from chick lit as you can get. The twelve short stories in this collection are perhaps not so much “stories” as they are prose poems, or perhaps even essays written in the form of short stories. Kanai’s language is gorgeous, and the way she presents her ideas is fascinating. The stories themselves are very loosely structured and don’t follow established narrative patterns.

Kanai’s preoccupation in The Word Book is the writing self, or the self who is speaking, or telling a story. Many of the narrators in this collection are writers, and many of them are trying to explain something that happened in the past. Kanai almost fetishizes her narrators as they write about writing and constantly question their ability to tell a story. Perhaps it happened like this, perhaps it happened differently. Who is writing? Who is telling the story? Is the narrator of the story the same person as the protagonist of the story? Many of these stories have multiple narrators within the span of less than ten pages. A reader is faced with two choices – to either puzzle out who the narrators are and what their relationship to one another might be, or to let the narrative flow wash over him or her and simply accept that the narrator of a story is never a stable or unquestionable entity.

In that each of Kanai’s stories resembles something of an intellectual puzzle, I am reminded of Borges’s Labyrinths. In that Kanai’s stories are filled with a multitude of unreliable narrators who may or may not actually be the same person, I am reminded of Faulkner, especially As I Lay Dying. However, since Kanai is still able to infuse her stories with a sense of place and beauty, I am reminded of Furui Yoshikichi (Ravine and Other Stories, translated by Meredith McKinney), another Japanese writer of mysterious short fiction.

An interesting aspect of Kanai’s prose that I think is undeniably characteristic of her and no one else, however, is her play on gender. Kanai is a woman, but all of her narrators are men. To be more precise, Paul McCarthy has translated all of her narrators as men. I have only read a handful of Kanai’s stories in the original Japanese, but it is my impression that the writer takes full advantage of the ability of the Japanese language to not differentiate gender. Why does Kanai write with exclusively male narrators? Or are her narrators all men? Is she intentionally writing within a masculine narrative realm? If this book did not have a pink front cover and an “about the author” blurb on the back cover, would the reader even know that the author of this collection is a woman? Does it matter?

Meta-textual issues aside, I really enjoyed reading The Word Book because of its narrative sophistication, dreamlike atmosphere, and poetic touch. To illustrate what I like so much about this book, I would like to end with a passage from a story entitled “Fiction:”

But after awhile, I changed my mind: my guest’s words were as vague as they were clear, spoken by one who expresses by looks or by his whole weak body the scintillating talent of a born poet. Realizing this, I trembled with envy. Bitter as it was to admit, I was envious of those empty words, not understood even by the man who uttered them, those empty words that shone with a soft, rose-colored radiance. Words such as these, shining words bathed in a soft, rose-colored radiance, precisely because of their emptiness lusted after a shameless ecstasy of the sort one can only experience in dreams. And I thought, feeling a kind of despair, “Long ago my words, too, trembled violently in this shining, soft, rose-colored radiance.”

Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese

Title: Turning Japanese
Author: Cathy Yardley
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 310

I think that the cover of this book was obviously designed to attract a specific demographic of me, personally. Pink! Cherry blossoms! Serious business woman! Anime! I saw this book in the bookstore and didn’t even look at the back cover until it was safely home with me. Thankfully, what the cover promises, the book delivers: Japan-themed super-fun. According to Amazon, author Cathy Yardley already has quite a few novels under her belt, many of them romances with titles like “Ravish” and “Crave.” There are no heaving bosoms in Turning Japanese, though, and the book is much more of a comedy than a romance. I wouldn’t call it a travelogue, either, as the emphasis is much more on plot and character development than descriptions of exotic Japan. I genuinely enjoyed reading it; it was fun.

Okay, now the plot. Lisa Falloya is a 29-year-old factory office worker in upstate New York. Despite having lived in the same town her whole life, she can speak and read Japanese thanks to her Japanese mother. She loves reading and drawing manga and ends up winning a competition at a sci-fi / fantasy / anime convention, which gives her the opportunity to work as an intern at a manga publisher in Tokyo. Going to Tokyo would mean leaving behind her two best friends and fiancé, but she goes anyway after everyone she knows practically bullies her into it. Once she gets to Japan, Lisa has to deal with a mean boss and nightmare host family; but, as she begins to overcome those challenges, she also has to deal with the resentment of her friends and fiancé, who have started to feel that she has left them behind.

And now it’s time for me to explain why, even though I couldn’t put this novel down, it upset the shit out of me. Perhaps the least significant issue I had with this book were the small inaccuracies concerning Japan, which mostly involve mistakes with the Japanese language. As I said, these are fairly insignificant, but there are quite a few of them, and several of them are repeated quite often. Which is annoying to a Japan snob such as myself.

Second, Lisa is an almost textbook definition of what people in the various universes of fandom like to call a “Mary Sue character” (perhaps “self-insert character” would be a good translation), who is a bit shy and awkward but whose only real flaw is that she has no flaws. But, whatever, this isn’t high art here, and there have been worse Mary Sues who have stalked across the printed page.

My main problem with Lisa is that she more or less allows people to walk all over her while constantly apologizing and blaming herself. Even though the narrative demonstrates that it is when Lisa forces a dramatic confrontation that any sort of progress is achieved, the author doesn’t seem to put much stock into this method of resolution and instead allows most inter-personal relationships to stew in barely concealed mires of passive-aggressiveness, which I found extraordinarily frustrating.

To give a good example, Lisa’s fiancé is a self-absorbed, hypocritical, and emotionally abusive MBA student – I believe the technical term is “douchelord.” When he is studying for finals, he won’t give Lisa the time of day; when he wants to get married, he forces her to plan everything according to his schedule; when she starts to express passion and ambition concerning her own life, he asks her (at least two dozen times) to re-evaluate her priorities. And then, when he breaks their engagement because she brings up the possibility of pursuing a career in the same part of New York City where he will be working, she acts as if the failed relationship were entirely her fault, an assumption that the author is almost completely uncritical of. Of course, it can be argued that people are silly when it comes to love, and that men sometimes get to be selfish too, but this sort of relationship pattern is repeated again and again throughout the novel. It perhaps comes as no surprise that none of the relationships that follow this pattern are ever successfully resolved – at least they weren’t to me.

It therefore seems that the moral of this book is that you can be a strong, independent woman with dreams and aspirations as long as you are still meek and submissive to anyone who has any real control over your life. I found this to be a problematic message, personally, and it ended up undermining a great deal of the fun I felt I should have been having with this book. That being said, however, there’s still a lot of fun to be had, and I would still recommend this novel, which is on the whole well-written and well-edited, to any of my fellow Japan dorks who have always wanted to live the Tokyo dream. Also, to any of my fellow Japan dorks who have not yet lived the dream but are considering it, I believe Turning Japanese offers a painfully accurate portrayal of reverse culture shock, or what happens when you go abroad and return home to find that everything has changed. I also believe that it is its honesty about this particular phenomenon that makes the novel worth reading not as popular fiction but perhaps as literature in its own right.