Every so often, a book mirrors my own existence to the extent where it freaks me out slightly. Maybe it’s the surface details, maybe it’s the protagonist’s inner life, maybe it’s the world she lives in, but there are books that send a bit of a shiver up my spine when I think about how much I relate to them. The first book I remember being wholeheartedly and unstintingly devoted to in this way was the Trixie Belden series. Her poverty, her tomboyishness, her love of animals, her admiration of Honey’s beautiful blond hair, I saw myself in all of it. (Not so much in the farm part of her existence, being a lifelong city girl, but we pick and choose what to identify with in our art.) Then there was She Came to Stay, the book that swallowed my identity when I was nineteen or so. Ever since, there have occasionally popped up these sorts of books which make me gasp and look around my apartment for the secret cameras reaping the minute details of my life.
I never expected to have that feeling with a Japanese novel, given the many differences in my life and upbringing, and the way things happen on this side of the ocean. And yet. Here we are. A book whose protagonist is a foreigner living in Japan who speaks the language fluently and studies theoretical mathematics in university. A book whose title in fact, derives from those very mathematics. Seriously. The first line of the book is “There is no i in this world,” and our heroine gasps. This reader also gasped. The “i” the speaker is referring to is the imaginary number i, the square root of -1, a number and a world view I have spent a large part of my life with. But it’s also the name of our stunned protagonist. Ai. Her parents gave her this name in katakana, rather than assigning the kanji normally associated with it, to leave room for all the possible interpretations. The most obvious of which would be the word “love”, which is often a name for girls. So we have a hero whose name is caught in a Schrodinger-style uncollapsed wave of “love”, “imaginary number”, “English first person”, and more. And she herself is caught in a similar uncollapsed wave.
Ai is unsure. Born in Syria and then adopted by an affluent couple living in New York, she grows up wanting for nothing. Her Japanese mother and American father are almost impossibly kind and endlessly patient. They give her the space to develop her own thoughts and self at her own pace, but this is painful for her. She doesn’t know what she wants, she doesn’t want to have to decide. She is paralyzed by the question of “why me?”. Why was she chosen to be lifted out of an increasingly bad situation in the country of her birth to live an easy life on the other side of the ocean? Why not some other child? Her parents are leftist and socially aware, working for NGOs and so on, so they make a point of telling her about all the terrible things that happen in the world and how they have to do whatever they can to help, given their own relatively fortunate situation. But this knowledge only makes Ai suffer more. Why is she alive, safe and sound in Brooklyn Heights, when other children are starving to death in far-off countries? She starts keeping a notebook of the dead, a running tally of the deaths in every disaster she comes across, every war, every famine, every earthquake and tsunami. She feels an urge she can’t articulate at first to recognize their deaths.
It’s a relief for her when they move to Japan because of her father’s work. All the rules, the order, it takes the burden of deciding off of her shoulders. And then her math teacher tells her that she does not exist, and this line comes to haunt her, to live on her shoulder, ready to remind her of her own uncollapsed wave-like self whenever necessary. And this is the question at the heart of the book. Not whether or not she actually exists—because, of course, she does—but what it means to exist and what gives existence meaning. Is the fact that you are inhaling and exhaling air in this world enough? Does what we do matter? How do we make it matter? And how do we reconcile ourselves with horrors beyond our grasp?
This is a lot for one book to tackle, but Nishi has a deft style and a light touch, so it’s never overwhelming. She stays laser-focussed on Ai and Ai’s relationships with this world. She leads us through essentially every major tragedy of the last twenty-five years through the lens of Ai and her own anxiety about her place in this world. The fact that Ai is a Syrian adoptee living in Japan makes her an outsider in all kinds of ways, and this is really what makes her relatable to readers, even if you’re not also a foreigner living in Japan who studied theoretical mathematics.
Ultimately, Nishi being Nishi, it’s a hopeful book, despite the pages and pages of disasters and death tolls. (Seriously. Seeing them all laid out like that is pretty grim.) There is hope in this world along with Ai, and her relationships with the people around her are what save her from herself in the end and collapse her waveform into something she can live with, into an existence that has meaning because she gives it meaning. And Nishi writes so poetically about math! Lines like “Mathematicians are people who bring beauty into existence.” and “Unlike Engineering, mathematics doesn’t use math to be useful in some bit of knowledge; the pursuit of the study of mathematics is itself the point.” And yes, she writes with her usual lyrical bent about everything else in the book too, but no one ever writes about math, so I’m choosing to get excited about that. Learn a little math in a non-threatening way with i, friends!