[Soft Skull Press; 2021]
Tr. from the Japanese by Ted Goossen
Ask any connoisseur of Japanese literature to recommend a surrealist writer and they’re all but guaranteed to cite the dreamlike mystery novels of Haruki Murakami, with their parallel worlds, vanishing cats, and raining fish. In terms of method, though, Murakami’s work isn’t actually very surrealist at all. In his 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism,” André Breton defined the movement thus:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
Despite Murakami’s stated indebtedness to jazz music, his prose itself doesn’t often feel improvised; to the contrary, he’s on the record as a painstaking craftsman and dogged reviser. Authentic surrealism, by contrast, while great fun to write in my experience, isn’t often much fun to read. There are exceptions, but most surrealist texts have the feel of someone relaying a dream. The reader may delight in the whimsy, the uncanny juxtapositions, the normalization of taboos, but a little goes a long way.
Which is why I find Hiromi Kawakami’s People From My Neighborhood such a delight. This collection of dreamlike vignettes strikes me as a rare work of true surrealism that’s also great fun to read. Of course, I can’t say for certain that it emerged automatically, and I don’t doubt that Kawakami revised her prose, but overall the book gives the impression of a writer with a direct line to her unconscious and a gift for letting stories grow out of their own linguistic enzymes. I’ve read several of Kawakami’s novels, and while I vaguely remember some departures into non-realist modes here and there, nowhere (to my knowledge) has she indulged in the fantastic with the abandon she does here.
The frame is straightforward enough — a portrait of the residents of a small town — but unlike Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Kawakami’s town is of the thoroughly marvelous sort (“The marvelous” was a kind of holy grail for the French surrealists; Louis Aragon, in 1926’s Paris Peasant, defined it as “the eruption of contradiction within the real”). Kawakami draws indiscriminately on the resources of various sub-genres of speculative literature, connecting her stories here and there for unity’s sake, but never straining for consistency as a straight-up fantasy writer might in conjuring a magic “system.” In this town, anything can happen, and does.
Take the first story, “The Secret.” The narrator discovers a hirsute, gender-ambiguous child living under a cloth at the foot of a tree. The following day, the child moves in with the narrator, and for the next thirty years, doesn’t age a day. The narrator concludes that the child must not be human after all. “Why did you come here?” she asks. The reply: “It’s a secret.” That’s it. Like so many of the tales in this book, “The Secret,” in keeping with its title, refuses to offer itself up for easy interpretation. Kawakami eschews close description, favoring a straightforward, unadorned prose style, and the characters’ inner lives are barely hinted at. Moreover, she compresses over thirty years into just over two pages. I think of stories like this one — and there are a few — as examples of Kawakami in fairytale mode. As Philip Pullman observes of tales from the Brothers Grimm, the story “moves with dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.” Japan has its own folktale tradition, of course, and there is plenty of precedent for Kawakami’s brand of weird and uncanny in well-known stories like “Issun-boshi,” about a one-inch samurai, “Bunbaku Chagama,” about a racoon dog that shapeshifts into a valuable tea kettle, and “Kobutori Jissan,” about a man having a tennis-ball-sized tumor removed from his face by demons.
The air of uncertainty in “The Secret” is characteristic of the dream logic and ontological flickering to be found in many of the stories in this collection. In “The White Dove,” for instance, a character finds a stinky, dove-like “thing” inside a plant. The thing grows and roams free, shapeshifts into a large grasshopper, and then into something very much like a boy. Eventually, they are married — that is, until the thing sacrifices his life to save the earth from a coming meteor. And, with that meteor, we see Kawakami pivoting into science-fiction mode. Other sf-tinged stories include “Weightlessness,” in which gravity shuts off for a few hours, and “Refrigerator,” in which time itself grinds to a halt. Other pieces in this mode involve the acquisition of strange abilities. In “Lord of the Flies,” a character has exceptional “kinetic vision,” which allows him to know the exact number of flies buzzing around a pig. In “Falsification,” a character develops an ability to manipulate people’s memories, a powerful tool in the “secret yet intense war” being waged in the neighborhood.
Still other stories scan as magical-realist, as if Kawakami’s town were a subsection of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. In “Grandpa Shadows,” a man has two shadows. In “The Six-Person Apartments,” a character’s feet “developed puddles. Not water blisters, but real puddles . . . said to have tadpoles merrily swimming around in them.” In “Hair,” a god shows up at a sand festival to dispense virtue left and right.
It might be a stretch to call some of the pieces in this collection “stories.” More than a few are narratively static, preceding less by cause and effect than the piling on of desultory details. These I think of as Kawakami in her riffing mode, where she begins with some evocative sentence and then embellishes it as a skilled musician might a melody; she turns out to be the prose improviser Murakami is not. Very often that generative bit is the first sentence and gets a paragraph unto itself, as in “Uncle Red Shoes always looked worried” (“Banana”), “The Music house sat right next to the park” (“The Elf”), and “A new baby made its way to us, so we threw a big party to celebrate” (“Baby”). Reading these pieces, I was reminded of the language-animated fictions of such writers as Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, and even Sandra Cisneros, whose Mango Street bears some orthogonal relationship to this town. Kawakami has a knack for coming up with arresting final lines too, often non-sequiturs of a WTF variety, which I’m loath to spoil.
In the margins of the story “The Baby,” I penciled a note to myself: “This will not be for everyone, but I love it.” It’s probably fair to say that’s true of this whole collection. There was a time when I would have said that all innovations in the arts are in the name of some higher realism (the literal meaning behind sur-realism) and that stories like those in People From My Neighborhood tweak and defy the conventions of realism by way of rendering how reality actually feels.
Fair enough. But I’m compelled to add that I enjoyed spending a few hours in the altered state of Kawakami’s town for its own sake too. It was a trip.
Tom Gammarino’s most recent novel is King of the Worlds. Recent shorter works have appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Bamboo Ridge, Entropy, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and The Writer, among others. He teaches literature and creative writing at Punahou School in Honolulu. tomgammarino.com