Tuesday, 1 January 2013

'Lizard' by Banana Yoshimoto (Review)

A Happy New Year to everyone out there, and welcome to January in Japan!  I hope you're all ready to get 2013 off to the best possible start - with some great J-Lit :)

My first choice for the month is a book by an author who can polarise opinions like few other J-Lit writers.  While some adore Banana Yoshimoto's female take on late-twentieth-century angst, others dismiss her work as over-hyped pop fiction - occasionally at the same time.  Which description fits best?  I'm not sure I'll be able to answer that question in one little post...

Lizard (translated by Ann Sherif) is a collection of six short stories, each of which is written in Yoshimoto's instantly recognisable style.  Once again we are taken on a tour of middle-class Tokyo to meet a group of characters who would probably be described on Twitter as having #firstworldproblems.  Despite this, the protagonists are, on the whole, interesting people, and the stories draw the reader in, time passing without your being aware of it.

The first story, Newlywed, sets up the collection nicely.  A man on a train decides not to get off at his usual station, bored with his stale marriage, and is joined in the carriage by a hobo - who suddenly turns into a beautiful woman.  This magical touch is also evident in the title story, Lizard, where a young woman with a dark secret has magical healing powers.  More than any of the other Yoshimoto books I've read, this one immediately seems to be drawing on a very familiar influence...

By the time the third story, Helix, appears, the Murakami parallels are uncanny.  In this story, a man goes on a surprise date in a café which has already closed for the night.  He ends up talking the night away with his girlfriend, discussing the concept of memory and the difficulty of deciding which memories are important.  The third story in a row with a male protagonist makes the collection seem a little different to Yoshimoto's other works, even if the themes are very similar.

The second half of the collection though returns to the familiar ground of the writer's twenty-something women struggling to cope with society's expectations.  Whether it's the heroine of Dreaming of Kimchee, who is learning to cope with her role as a scarlet woman, the main character of Blood and Water, who has run away from a benign cult to find herself in the big city, or the prospective bride of A Strange Tale from Down by the River, a woman learning secrets about her past but with plenty of her own - these are the characters readers have come to expect from Yoshimoto.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing...

If you like Yoshimoto's work, you'll definitely enjoy Lizard.  The writer is expert at creating a light, airy atmosphere in which her characters can talk about the things polite society politely ignores.  These people often stand out because of their belief in (or mastery of!) supernatural powers and alternative healing, and in a similar way to Murakami, Yoshimoto shows their struggles to find a place in a rigid, unforgiving society.

Yoshimoto likes to concentrate on the dynamics of relationships more than pushing the plot forward, and this can be successful at times:
"I liked just watching Lizard - the way she threw her coat over her shoulders, the way she bowed her head when she crouched down to tie her shoes, the way her eyes glittered in the mirror when she took a peek at herself.  I loved watching Lizard in her different poses.  The cells of her body dying and coming into being, the curve of her cheeks, the white half-moons on her fingernails.  I felt her brimming with the fluid of life, flowing with the universe.  Her every gesture, every move, brought life to me, a man who had been dormant for so long."
p.42, Lizard (Faber and Faber, 2001)
However, she can also be guilty at times of some very clunky, clumsy writing:
"In fact, we met at his father's funeral, which I attended in my boss's place.  The ritual moved me tremendously.  People had told me what a dignified, splendid man the president had been, how he had run his business innovatively and with integrity.  I had also heard that his employees loved working for him.  When I saw the many people who came to pay their last respects, I knew all these stories must be true."
p.126, A Strange Tale from Down by the River
The last couple of stories, in particular, contain far too much flat, informative prose, at odds with the mood of the rest of the collection.  As always with Yoshimoto though, you do start to wonder how good her translators are...

As to whether Yoshimoto is a hit or a miss, I'm still (and always have been) firmly in the undecided category.  Every book of hers I've read has had an indefinable something that I've enjoyed - but they've all also let me down ever so slightly at some point along the way.  Having said that, Lizard is one I would recommend.  While not all of the stories hit the mark, I enjoyed my little foray into Banana's world, polishing it off in a couple of hours.  When she gets it right, she can (just like old Haruki) hit a nerve with her views on the rigidity of Japanese society:
"It's the way society is now.  You're not supposed to be by yourself.  You get caught in the net, and you can feel it tugging at you as you try to get away from it, just as if you've walked into a spider's web.  You struggle to free yourself, but you can't.  It's in the air; there's no escape from this force, one so inferior to the life force, the energy within us.  You can pretend to ignore it, but it still obscures your vision."
p.75, Dreaming of Kimchee
Like I said - #firstworldproblems ;)