The last time I was in Japan, I had a meeting with some people from Kodansha about our then super top-secret, possible guest star for TCAF, Konami Kanata, among other things. They wanted to know about what kind of festival they were potentially sending one of their star artists to, and we wanted to convince them that we were one hundred percent awesome and that Konami would have a great time. Obviously, we were successful since we were lucky enough to have Ms. Konami and her editor join us at TCAF in May, but the point here is: I went to Kodansha! Kodansha, where the books happen! They publish so many things! Including my and Ms. Konami’s favourite, Ekoda-chan!
You know you are a book fangirl when you get tremblingly excited about visiting the head office of one of the largest publishing companies in Japan. Your book fangirldom is further confirmed when you basically squeal at the sight of the company bookstore past the lobby and the security sign-in. Which means that not just any yahoo off the street can walk in and buy a book. No, no, this bookstore is only for Kodansha people. And for people who get visitor passes because they have meetings at Kodansha.
So you can see why I really wanted to buy something there, even though my book suitcase was basically already full to capacity. Because this would be the most special book! A delightful souvenir of my visit to a faceless publishing corporation! And then I saw Subete Mayonaka no Koibitotachi faced in an eye-catching display at the front of the shop and I knew it was meant to be.
Those of you who have encountered my brain before may remember that it really loves Mieko Kawakami. She is one of those writers who makes me jealous that I am not as incredibly talented as she is. In “Chichi to Ran”, the narrator’s ramblings in Osaka dialect were just so spot on, exactly the right tone, the right voice, that the character was fleshed out in surprising depth. And she shows the same mastery of characterization with Fuyuko Irie here.
Irie is a freelance copyeditor/proofreader. A very shy, friendless, virgin copyeditor. And Kawakami creates some serious drama from this. For real. I spent a large part of my time reading this book with a feeling a dread in my stomach. And also that feeling of embarrassment by proxy when you see someone else doing something awkward, like when you watch someone on TV propose to a woman you know is in love with someone else. You feel bad for them and wish they wouldn’t do it, and yet you know it has to play out the way it has to play out.
What has to play out for Irie is her slow, awkward descent to somewhere approximating rock bottom. She leaves the company copyedits in-house to go freelance working with Sei Ishikawa (or at least I think that’s her name. There’s no furigana and I’ve never seen the name “Sei” before) after doing a favour for Sei’s company at the request of her former co-worker Kyoko. She works diligently out of her home, earning Sei’s favour, because Sei is a woman who truly appreciates a person who devotes themselves to their work. At one point, Irie decides to start drinking. A *laht*. She downs a couple cans of beer in the morning, carries a thermos of sake around with her when she goes out, and basically maintains a loose drunkenness all day. After an incredibly awkward encounter, she meets a man about twenty years her senior, Mitsutsuka, with whom she begins a series of incredibly awkward and uncomfortable silence filled meetings that may or may not constitute a relationship.
I could tell you every detail of the plot and it wouldn’t change the reading experience. It is one of those stories. The joy in reading Subete is Kawakami’s skill in creating characters that are uncomfortably real and guiding them down the paths she’s chosen for them. These people are not the kind of people you usually read about or see on TV or in the movies. You know, those weirdos who only seem to have jobs and imperfections when it serves the plot? Kawakami’s characters are the opposite of that. They struggle to define themselves outside of their daily grind, to find meaning in the series of mundane tasks that they perform daily. And they find moments of beauty that are all the more meaningful because of how rarely they appear.
About halfway through reading it, I realized that the only male character to have a voice in the story as it unfolds in the present is Mitsutsuka, through his meetings with Irie. The other people Irie has contact with are all women, and all different kinds of women in a way that feels deliberate, as if Kawakami is looking at the way women are set up and against each other in the society around her. Sei is the brash, independent modern woman, putting her career above everything and taking lovers when and where she pleases. Kyoko is the spiteful older woman, gossiping mercilessly about other women, especially Sei. And we get a brief chance to look at the closest thing Irie has ever had to a friend and her marital unhappiness, her feelings of being stuck in a life she didn’t really choose. Only Sei gets more than a few pages here and a few pages there, and she is so sympathetic and fleshed out that you can’t help but feel that her decisions and the cathartic release later in the book are inevitable and stemming completely from her personality and her relationship with Irie.
This is one of those books that I wish would be translated into English not just for selfish reasons, but because I think it would have a real chance. It’s beautifully written by an award-winning author whose work has shown up in English here and there (see the latest Words Without Borders for an excerpt of “Chichi to Ran”, for instance, or the Waseda charity collection story), with serious, thoughtful undertones and some interesting ideas on what it means to be a woman. But I guess it’s that last part that kills it since any book that deals with womanhood and the meanings thereof is automatically relegated to “Chick Lit”. Because you know, the experience of ladies is only meant for ladies while the experience of men is universal and lit-er-a-ture. Sigh.