rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Today's review, and caught up.

It's very difficult to portray good people well, in fiction. I don't mean people who are heroic, necessarily, or unusually courageous, or self-sacrificing, or working on plans which are good things for the world: I mean people who are simply good people, on a deep level, who do good things because they are loving and wise. It's hard to write those people, and it's hard to read them, because they are usually portrayed as overly saintly with no flaws whatsoever, or as incredibly self-righteous, or something like that. And then there is the conviction, popularized by among others Tolstoy but hovering in the air in general, that evil is always more interesting than good and that bad things make better news and better stories. Jo Walton over at torcom has talked about searching for books which do not contain violence, because they are rarities; the believable portrayal of genuine human decency is just as rare, and incredibly rare in a viewpoint character. I collect these portrayals when I find them. (The most notable to date is Tenma-sensei, in Naoki Urasawa's manga Monster, which has major flaws but is an amazing portrait of a good man faced with an unbearable moral crisis.)

Chihiro, the narrator of Banana Yoshimoto's most recently translated novel, The Lake, is one of the most unselfconsciously, matter-of-factly good and decent people I have encountered in fiction. It is very restful. Chihiro herself would deny it; her ideas of goodness have to do with energy and force and wanting to better oneself and the world and do heroic things, whereas she is a mostly ordinary person, and she drifts, and she is rather spoiled, and she makes a living painting murals but does not consider herself an immortal painter or even a professional caliber of painter. Nor does she aspire to be a greater painter than she is. Her one goal, with her murals, is to paint something that while it is not necessarily good will in ten years or twenty or fifty still fit its surroundings and not look dated; she is happy with that. And she's been very busy and confused since her mother died, after a long illness that was traumatic for everybody.

The thrust of the book is about her relationship with Nakajima, who is probably her boyfriend. She is falling in love with him slowly and almost reluctantly, because something that happened to him when he was younger, something too large to talk about, has left him irrevocably broken (and when we find out what it is, it is in fact that bad). She knows she can't save him, because she isn't a hero. She's not even sure if she can love him, because that might be too much for them both, and if she fails him it will be messy and may kill him.

But because he is never willing to lie down and give up, and because she is at the core of her relatively wise, they can try to learn every day to take it one day at a time.

Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite writers, almost always evanescent and subtle, sometimes peaceful, sometimes frightening, sometimes both at the same time. Her protagonists tend to be women who are aware of their own flaws. There is often a breath of the numinous across her work, something which might be the supernatural if you looked at it more closely, or might not. She has the misfortune of being best known in the U.S. for her worst novel, Kitchen, which isn't terrible but plays to very few of her real strengths. The Lake is Yoshimoto at her best, a book without a wasted sentence, one of the few books I've seen about trauma to realize that healing does not come as a single revelation but as incident after incident of things getting slightly better, and that sometimes what you are aiming for is 'as good as it can get', and that can be enough. This is a minor masterpiece, and I am very glad to find that she continues to be translated. I would like everything of hers I can have.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
My immediate thought about this was, it feels early, it feels like early work. And then I looked it up and it is in fact solidly mid-career and one of the later things of hers translated into English. Huh.

So Banana Yoshimoto. I first heard of her because of her novel Kitchen, which is I suspect her most famous work, and also decidedly my least favorite of hers. I'm not sure what my favorite is, although I do have one, because most of her stuff is collections of short stories or novellas, and they are similar enough in material and theme that I can't remember which stories go with which collection title. My favorite is one of Asleep, NP, Lizard, or Hardboiled & Hard Luck, and whichever one it is it's the one that has the breathtakingly creepy horror story in which a small black stone follows a woman home from a Buddhist shrine. Which may or may not be the same one that has the story about the prostitute who doesn't have sex with people, only watches them sleeping, so that when they wake up in the night there will be someone there to make them tea and read them stories and tell them everything will be fine, and she gets so she can't sleep in a bed anymore and has to hang a hammock from her ceiling.

Yoshimoto is comfort reading for me, subtle, evanescent with occasional anchoring details, full of self-sufficient women who like sex (sometimes with other women), have interesting things to say about Tokyo, and have sudden quiet breathtaking encounters with the numinous.

Amrita is very much an outlier, despite having every feature of her other things. It is, for one thing, six times as long. As in, usually there are novellas and this is a four hundred page novel. It's also oddly and purposely unfocused, because amrita, at least in the definition given in the text, is from the Sanskrit for 'water, flow', the flow that moves through all life, the endless cycling current of the entire universe. The shape of this book is that it goes around and around and doesn't appear to progress though it does move, and that's the point.

The protagonist is a young woman who has fallen down a flight of stairs, hit her head, and suffered a disjunct in herself because of it. She doesn't have a lot of her memories, and the ones she does have are very clearly of someone else: there's her-before and her-now, uneasily inhabiting the same spaces, sometimes the same body. The fall also appears to have made her able to see ghosts and have other psychic experiences, and she has calmly decided to go with this because she does not want it medicalized. Either it will go away on its own or it won't. In addition, her younger brother seems to be developing either mystical powers, childhood schizophrenia, or both, and everyone in their house is trying to recover from the sudden death of the middle sister.

There are many very good things about this book. It's good about other books, for one thing, about the power of reading and the way that the protagonist, who has so little space in her head sometimes, can literally open up new aspects of herself by reading new books, because new texts open new rooms in our heads that we haven't seen before, new places in the imagination. It's good on family relationships and the way nothing is ever easy. I like her younger brother, who is trying to do the best he can for himself and other people in a difficult and odd situation. I like how everyone is aware of the ambiguities of what may be the supernatural, and just accepts it as what it is. I like the interlude on Saipan, a place I've never seen in a book before, an interesting place.

It's just that I don't think the intentional lack of focus works. Yoshimoto's story shapes are never conventional; like Chekhov or Woolf she never stops where you expect her to, but at the right spot. I am used to her as a master of subtle precision, of carefully nebulous and floating things that suddenly coalesce at you. I realize that this isn't supposed to coalesce but I still find it very frustrating that it doesn't. (By which I don't mean it doesn't end. It does, and in a conventional sense I think it even has a plot resolution. It's just there's this other thing that Yoshimoto usually does and I kept waiting for it, and no.)

I wouldn't say this is a bad book, mind you. I may appreciate it more on rereading, when I know what it's trying to do and can avoid wanting it to be something else. It is not where I would start with Yoshimoto (anywhere else but Kitchen, a book which a) has transfail and b) is the most conventional and least strangely, luminously odd of her entire output). But I would suggest reading it, if you already like her; it certainly tells me more about her as a writer, and I enjoyed the protagonist, and spending time in her head.


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March 2017

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