I’ve been sitting on this book for a couple months now because I couldn’t quite figure out what I thought about it. This happens to me more often than you’d think, given the generally strong opinions of which I am possessed. Forming those strong opinions takes time, and until I have really let something simmer in my brain, I can be pretty wishy-washy on a topic. And so it was with Seia Tanabe’s latest novel, Ningyo no Ishi. I liked it? Maybe? I didn’t hate it? I kept reading all the way to the end? But why? What was the point? Which isn’t to say the book isn’t good or isn’t worth reading. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was worth reading.
I picked this one up because Tanabe’s been on my mind a lot recently. She’s married to science-fiction author/former physicist Toh EnJoe, and that pairing has always made me wonder what dinner is like at their house. I mean, she writes ghost stories; quiet, atmospheric things about yokai and bakemono that go bump in the night. And he writes ouroboric stories about space and the future and who knows what else because sometimes I feel like I am not smart enough to read EnJoe’s work. I can understand how the two met; the literary world in Japan is surprisingly small (much like the manga world), and it feels like everyone knows everyone else somehow. But how did they make it to marriage?? And what must that marriage be like?? Who knows, maybe they’re both super into rom-coms, and their respective writing interests just never come up. But I doubt that, given that they jointly published a collection of essays last year called Shodoku de Rikon o Kangaeta, which roughly translates to “We considered divorce through our reading.” Uh. Is all not well in the land of Tanabe/EnJoe? (Yes, I have that book, and yes, I will almost certainly write about it when I have finished it.)
It’s strange enough to me that these two wandering souls grabbed onto each other; stranger still that I have actually translated both of them, before I knew they were married. I translated a couple Enjoe stories a few years back, and I did a Tanabe story for the Haika Soru anthology Phantasm Japan. And sometimes, I think about this common thread between them that I have become and I think about the differences in their writing styles and subject matter, and then I wonder all over again at the fact that they are married.
But! Lest this turn into a J-lit gossip column, consider now the work in question. The basic premise of Ningyo is pretty straightforward for a monster tale: Yukio heads out into the mountains to take over his grandfather’s abandoned shrine. He hasn’t really been able to make a proper go of it in the city, and he is drawn to the idea of inheriting his grandfather’s position as a country priest. But the shrine and the house are pretty run down given that it’s been years since his grandparents died. So Yukio sets to work cleaning and fixing things up, including the pond in the yard. He drains the murky water, thinking he might have a nice koi pond or something, and finds a milky white man curled up in the mud at the bottom. The man wakes up, annoyed that his sleep was disrupted, and informs Yukio that he is a merman.
Having been around since the days of Yukio’s grandfather, the merman—named “Uotaro” by Yukio much to said merman’s displeasure—has some secrets to share. In particular, Uotaro tells Yukio about “stones” found in these mountains, stones with a variety of strange and special powers that can only be discovered by Yukio’s family. Each chapter of the book is named after such a stone and is loosely structured around that stone, although not in any kind of procedural, episode-of-the-week sort of way. The stones are more like catalysts for the next bit of meandering story, allowing new characters to step in and out or giving Yukio a reason to keep moving.
And this is the thing that I can’t quite figure out about this book. Yukio is the most passive protagonist I’ve read in a long time. The story happens at him; he himself doesn’t do much to propel it forward. About the only thing he does of his own volition is go back to the shrine in the first place. The rest of it feels like he is a pinball being bounced around by Uotaro or the stones or the sudden and mostly unexplored appearance of his older brother. He moves from incident to incident without much agency of his own. I feel like this is deliberate on Tanabe’s part; he’s meant to drift along through life, he’s that kind of character. And it gives the whole tale a dreamy, ephemeral quality. You just drift along with Yukio. Oh, now we have to go dig up rocks because reasons. Oh, now we have to go to the next town because monsters. Yukio himself doesn’t really feel changed or seriously affected by any of these bounces.
So when I finished the book, it felt more like waking from a strange dream than anything else. Like, you remember all the weird little moments, but they don’t really change anything inside you. You just get up and start your day the way you always do. And maybe you remember the dream while you’re eating lunch—that bit about diving into the earth was weird, you might think to yourself. It’s a strange feeling to have after reading a book and probably the reason that I haven’t really been able to figure out how to talk about this one.
But Tanabe’s writing is perfect for this kind of story, pared down with just the right amount of detail so as to be evocative rather than entirely descriptive. She lets characters wander in and out of the story as they please, adding to the dreaminess, but this occasionally frustrated me, mostly when I tried to read the book in a more literal way rather than letting myself slip through its shadowy pages.
It’s funny at times, though—Tanabe has a sly sense of humor that we mostly get to see in the character of Uotaro. And there is a more traditional-style plot happening here, a mystery revealed that upends what Yukio thought his life had been. Another writer would have ratcheted up the tension as we drew closer to solving the mystery, but Tanabe maintains her atmospheric dream state and lets her readers drift toward an actually shocking conclusion that doesn’t actually shock. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it, and given the number of books I read, I feel like that in and of itself is an accomplishment.