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ENTRY

Review: The Word Book
December 12, 2009

The short stories in The Word Book by Mieko Kanai begin with a prosaic remark or observation, typical of how we spend the vast majority our days. For example, the first line of ?Fiction? is ?The platform was crowded with commuters boarding the 6:58 a.m. train for Tokyo and with high school boys in uniforms, their hair slicked back with pomade.? Mieko Kanai, a well-respected author in her first book to be translated from Japanese into English, takes those mundane starts and delves into complex psychological and philosophical journeys.

When reading her carefully-crafted stories, the reader will experience a vague and restless uneasiness, a subtle but effective way to drive the plot. In ?Fiction?, a cleverly disconcerting point-of-view shift (from first to third person) makes us reconsider who the story is about, or even if it is truth or fiction. A young man, besotted with a mysterious woman, waits daily at the train platform for her return. But she never arrives and the man leaves disappointed. The story proceeds with a vague dread that perhaps something bad happened to the woman, perhaps that the man did something bad to her. He is staying in a cheap seaside resort inn, where the other visitors speculate that he is a writer, most likely a novelist, perhaps taking a break from writing. In the end, the man?s fate is not so much revealed as questioned.

In ?The Moon?, a husband sets out on an errand at night when the moon is rising. The sight causes memories to bubble up, transporting him back to times in his life when he the moon or weak, pale sunlight held him transfixed in the moment. We wonder why these moments have meaning, and how they tie to the present. In a few pages we come to know him as if we have known him all his life, and feel the weight of his existence.

Kanai?s stories, while each is unique, all have a meta-cognitive and meta-narrative experience. The characters, and readers, are thrown into a soup of wonder, sometimes addressed directly, other times revealed obliquely like shadow puppetry. We wonder about their thoughts and our own, and how they relate to the stories unfolding in many layers. Readers will have to consider their role in reading: to answer the characters questions and solve their problems, or perhaps to construct the characters fictional existence.

The settings, characters, and themes could be in Europe or South America, as much as Japan, but perhaps not in America which is often too transparent and requires a more conflict-driven approach to storytelling. Kanai?s stories remind me of Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, with their stylistically vague flatness yet strong character-driven underpinnings. They need to be read in a quiet room to fully appreciate their subtlety and power. But however you read the stories, I highly recommended them and look forward to more.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 1
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Lee Witte
Thanks for the review, sounds very intriguing. I'm just now reading some Italo Calvino.

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