The works of Hiromi Kawakami exude a strange and delicate light. This lightness, beyond any stylistic simplicity or lexical economy, stems partially from the presence of a kind of liquescent narrative terrain, as though each of her novels were unfolding at a soft point on the horizon where the distinctions between one world and another were beginning to blur. The events of books like Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop occur in a literary space where the ordinary quotidian events of life in contemporary Japan overlap with a surreal field, an otherworldly force that intermittently surfaces in the form of peculiar dreams, cursed objects, and a strange seascape that gestures towards a form of afterlife. On the surface, one might suggest that this terrain represents a manifestation of the coterminous overlapping of the ancient and modern in Japanese society, the hyper-capitalist modernity and a kind of folkloric imaginary, a characterisation which, however crude, captures some of the feeling one gets as a western visitor: the excess of neon and futuristic skyscrapers superimposed in and around quiet gardens, sacred temples. Nonetheless, such a suggestion goes little way in uncovering the shimmering effects of Kawakami’s fiction, how the ordinary and the extraordinary move within her work to produce something unstable, subtle, captivating.
One of the most obvious things about Kawakami’s inclusion of supernatural components into her narratives is their peripheral quality. The inexplicable and the fantastical more often than not present the characters with little more than a gentle oddity or surprise coincidence. In fact the novels are not only light but distinctly quiet. The frenetic urban existence of contemporary Japan, the flux and flow, appears to always be happening elsewhere, a fluidity of function into which they remain unable to subsume themselves, even if they might wish to. The shimmer of elsewhere is double: the magical field that never quite shows itself, and the dissolutive commercial functioning of the modern city. Both present a confusing and ambivalent prospect for the awkward objects, the human characters like: Takeo, Sensei, Hitomi, and Masayo that inhabit the textual space.
This displacement precludes any central guiding motion of plot in the conventional sense. However, the resultant work is not an abyssal retreat into the interior or unwinding into the void impossible to paraphrase. In fact, an adequate summation of the novels’ content is suspiciously easy to produce: a woman slowly forms a loving relationship with her former schoolteacher, or, the lives of the employees and customers of a thrift shop are told through a set of particular objects in the shop. Of course to do so would mean leaving out a huge proportion of what’s there in the work, like expressing a beach by grabbing hold of a mere two handfuls of sand. But then, what else is storytelling if not such a process? The question of storytelling, of what fiction is actually able to do, stands in the background of the novels. Attempts to establish a continuity, to forge a meaningful narrative, are confounded by the accidental, distracting, and fluctuating forces of the present. This is why, for all the gentle conversations, intrigues, and shared understanding, there are as many dead ends, missed connections, and abrupt lapses in time. Instead of being able to build something unbroken, certain, a series of shards are gathered: moments, evidence, memory, each of them proof of something (but what remains always partially unclear); and from these things the characters try to construct something like a life.
Kawakami’s recent short work Parade (translated by Allison Markin Powell and published in 2019 by Soft Skull Press) continues and distils these tendencies. The book acts as a companion piece to Strange Weather in Tokyo taking place as it does in the same “world” and featuring the same two principal characters: Tsukiko and her former schoolteacher and lover, always referred to as Sensei. On the title page the piece is described as a folktale and indeed the opening words of the book appear to be providing the narrative framing for such a story:
“Tell me a story from long ago,” Sensei said.
However, once the reader turns the page this attempt to initiate a folktale at least partially unravels. Tsukiko responds to Sensei’s request by asking what exactly is meant by “long ago”. The storytelling procedure is then abandoned by the two lovers as they cook and eat noodles and have one of their, familiar to anyone who has read Strange Weather in Tokyo, charming, warm, and softly argumentative conversations. Sensei suggests Tsukiko should take a nap and both characters soon fall asleep. It is only upon waking when Sensei repeats his request for ‘a story from long ago’ that Tsukiko begins, and even then, only by shifting the terms of the request: electing to tell a story from her childhood because, as she reminds Sensei, ‘I was not alive long ago’.
The story Tsukiko subsequently recites, albeit with a number of interruptions, is one of waking up one morning with two mythical creatures in her room making a great deal of noise. This pair of red tengu follow Tsukiko to school, interacting with several other mythical creatures which have attached themselves to a number of her classmates. At first Tsukiko is worried that her mother will be shocked to discover these beings in the house but, quite the reverse, she acts as though the occurrence were completely normal. The same thing happens when Tsukiko asks one of her friends about the old woman which has attached to her:
“Nishida, weren’t you surprised when it happened to you?” I asked.
She thought about it for a moment.
“Only at first,” she said. “I got used to her right away.”
When Tsukiko questions the presence of these mythical creatures, asking why they have appeared, Nishida replies:
“I’m not really sure. But you know, there are plenty of other things out there that don’t make sense, right?” I was impressed by the lack of concern in Nishida’s response. She was right about that. The truth was, I myself wasn’t all that interested in the reason. I had just felt like asking the question.
The exegetical function of the folktale, the expression of a particular knowledge through narrative means, is short circuited. It cannot quite get off the ground, at least, not on its own terms. Tsukiko is unable to speak of what came before her own life, but when she is able to talk, to create a thread to follow, the meaning of what she conjures remains inscrutable. This act of conjuring is further dispersed by the dreaminess which blows gently through the story, lulling reader and narrator with the warm room and the clicking murmur of cicadas. The strange mix of clarity an inexactness work to cut away the heavy directness of interpretation and indeed the content of the story mirrors its formal framing. The appearance of the tengu, their illness and recovery, and the strange girl Yuko who, unable to see the tengu in lieu of having no creatures of her own, starts (in Tsukiko’s mind) to lose her existence, are related with a puzzlement and mild amusement seem deliberately designed to frustrate the quest for answers. What is captured in the narrative frame is always and of necessity partial, and though the parabolic and the mystical are still able to be brought forth, the diffuse elements they contain are unable to be grounded in a higher explanatory power. This means that any meaning it may seek to impart is likely to be as fragmentary, as suspect, as the knowledge of everyday experience.
The elusiveness of the novels then is not that there is no meaning to be attached to any particular object or event, but that the objects and events to which meaning might be attached remain obscure, difficult to judge. The importance, the intensity, of individual experiences is blurrily rendered, deliberately out of focus. The surreal textures Kawakami employs emphasise this with deliberate intrusions of the other, the outside, into the fictional realm. These elements are not to be questioned or subsumed into some kind of grand allegory because, after all, there are plenty of other things out there that don’t make sense. This is why so many questions of narration are asked but never completely answered. From the tengu in Parade to Sensei’s chiding of Tsukiko for not knowing her Japanese poetry, literature remains a decidedly ambivalent presence.
Kafka addresses this navigation of meaning and the meaningless that inheres within out attempt at narration was discussed by another in the self reflective fragment On Parables:
Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have… All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.
A conversation follows which shows the incompatibility of the two kinds of understanding: that of daily cares and that of the ‘fabulous yonder’. Of course the tension between the usefulness of literature (it isn’t) and the possibility of expressing the incomprehensible (it can’t be done) cannot be resolved by one side or the other. Similarly, what Kawakami does with Parade is to encourage us to think about meaning in literature whilst similarly teaching us that meaning can only ever be withheld (and in fact the revealing of this concealment can only be done when literature and reality begin to question one another). This capacity of literature is, potentially useful (in the same way that it is unhelpful) for life because the inexplicable is as much part of one as it is the other.
The idea of the self as a continuous whole, with a meaning and purpose, is as much a defence against the incomprehensible as the most heavy-handed allegory. That we unavoidably narrate ourselves as selves and that we search of meaning behind the most fantastical tales and mundane occurrences is one of the ways we face life. However, narration compresses, unifies, but, whatever useful function this might perform, the awkward uniqueness of each of us, our haecceity, always eludes its capture. The response to such a condition however is not abandonment, absolute dissolution of the self (such a renouncement of capacities of self-narration is ultimately pathological) and of telling stories. Rather, it is merely to recognise, as have many writers and thinkers have across the last century, that the internal tension of knowledge: the assumption that there is something that can be known, is continually frustrated by the quivering, fragmentary human life it tries to contain.
As many have pointed out, Kawakami’s books are subtle and evocative explorations of love, friendship and loneliness; often with distinctive characters that exist in the cracks of, or at odds with, the society that surrounds them. That Kawakami does this with a lightness of touch and elliptical, questioning narration makes her more successful books, including Parade, a great pleasure to read and demonstrates a deep understanding and appreciation of the oddness of contemporary life. However, what makes her writing move beyond this is her capacity for using a myopic narrative landscape, a plane on which the parabolic and the prosaic soften one another’s edges. In doing so her work demonstrates how the fictional intrudes into our lives, indeed at the very core of our ideas of who we are, complicating, discomforting, and shimmering; always beyond any simple meaning, outside any systematic framework of knowledge. This is not a call to abandon the search, to reject the pursuit of meaning altogether, a kind of crude postmodern golem, but rather an acknowledgement of the wild incompleteness of any attempt at the task, a call to grasp the sand around us and build something together before it inevitably slips through all our fingers, shining as it falls.