[Two Lines Press, 2022[
Tr. from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter
For anyone unfortunate enough to have experienced Toddler YouTube, animated characters who feature lumps that move “as if bugs were rampaging under the skin,” and who “open their eyes as if raising window shades” will sound familiar. But by the time we reach the children’s television program in Masatsugu Ono’s At the Edge of the Woods, the novel has already made the case that all of parenthood is just as strange.
First published in Japanese in 2006, At the Edge of the Woods is now Ono’s third novel to be translated into English, this time by Juliet Winters Carpenter. (He has many more books still waiting for their moment.) On its surface, it’s the story of a father and his young son, living alone in a secluded house in an unnamed foreign country. As they wait for word from the boy’s mother, who has decided to deliver her second child in more comfortable environs, they struggle to separate the real from the fantastical.
Unspecified atrocities unfold on the TV while the narrator and his son attempt to play peacefully in their home. Evidence of society’s dissolution also infiltrates our characters’ world directly. Refugees, downtrodden and miserable, walk in the mud alongside the roadway, “their heads moving like blades of grass lifted by a passing breeze only to droop again.” When a half-dressed elderly woman, and later two uninvited people of short stature emerge onto the narrator’s property, their arrivals provoke mystification and awe but still feel inevitable—the landscape’s way of saying hello.
Less explicable are the barrages of coughing and laughter that seem to come from the woods themselves. Or perhaps they come unbidden from within our protagonist. Or somehow from both. “It was as if the memory of all the sounds made by the world and humanity had been contained in my amniotic fluid.”
Hyperbolic statements like this one never feel out of place for this narrator, overwhelmed as he is by difficulties both global and domestic. Better to be a child, unconcerned with the larger picture. Indeed at times, our narrator says of his son: “I was the one clinging to him.”
Reading Ono’s novel is like thinking you’ve seen something flash into your kitchen cupboard, or heard a creak in the floorboards of an adjacent room, or felt a strange hand brush against the back of your neck – never being sure if you did. Facing the world in all its horror without trusting our own powers of observation—many of us can surely relate to this sensation amidst our current global trauma. But while the specters of climate change, war, and displaced populations do make their way into At the Edge of the Woods, Ono’s true subject is parenthood and all its dizzying contradictions.
Children depend on their parents to meet their every need, yet they are very much on their own. The novel’s first section ends with the gorgeous sentence: “In the smooth windowpane without flaw or distortion, my son was alone in the living room.” Parents love their kids with an unmatched fierceness, but can also find themselves overwhelmed by anger. “Knowing myself capable of such rage only made me more depressed,” the narrator reprimands himself after acknowledging that he felt like slapping his son during an airport tantrum. Infants are helpless, yet possess, “a look that transports others outside those bounds,” of both gravity and time. No one understands how this happens, yet who can deny it does? Mothers and fathers learn to let go of understanding, to stop asking why.
Parenthood lends itself to a narrative that sits on the fuzzy border between natural and supernatural. There is a strange yet persuasive logic when the trees “pat each other familiarly on the shoulders and back and sometimes wiggle their hips.” When a letter carrier rants about imps that are “trying to steal the inside of our heads!” he sounds almost plausible.
Living in a foreign country, father and son share an ignorance of the local language. For a boy who has just acquired his first words, the issue isn’t all that vexing. It’s more distressing for Dad, who has grown accustomed to a certain ease of communication. Sometimes he simply can’t understand a common phrase. Other times the words themselves manifest as leaves that pile up on his floor and threaten his peace of mind. Words land “with a thud” and appear to be “bodies enveloped in green flames.”
As obliquely as the novel approaches its setting, its characters, and even its own reality, it is brutally direct when confronting the everyday upheaval of having kids. Sleep is gone for parents, and the only hope is to rationalize away its absence. (“It wasn’t as if there was some reason I had to sleep.”) The toll on the body is of course even worse for Mom. “Her round belly had attacked her, pushed her over, and snatched away her life.” The partnership between those who enter a co-parenting arrangement will never be the same—not because they feel differently toward each other, but because in their partner’s eyes, they’ve been replaced by some amalgam of their child and their former self. “I’d never be able to really see her again,” the narrator says of his wife.
In an interview with World Literature Today, Ono said he identifies as part of the post-Murakami generation of Japanese writers, who came of age after Murakami brought a style, “new and unique in its lightness and gentle humor,” to the nation’s literature. At the Edge of the Woods shares Murakami’s oddness and employs similar tropes, but the mood is decidedly darker and less gentle than the style Ono describes. (Murakami himself might have been influenced by the “post-Murakami” generation, as his tone has trended more menacing over the course of his career. Ono’s imps, who legend says emerge from the woods to steal unborn children, could’ve walked off the page straight into 1Q84.)
Ono’s other two novels with English translations aren’t nearly as surreal. Children are a big part of the milieu to be sure, but the parents are largely absent or relegated to the background. The kids’ perspectives that remain tend toward the straightforward, jaded by their lives’ early challenges into a clear-eyed determination. They suffer few illusions.
At the Edge of the Woods, by contrast, never takes a step outside the murk. The narrative jumps through space and time, seeming to mock our confusion as the trees mock the father and son sharing a home. Between the aura of uncertainty and the bleak picture it presents of modern life, some readers will likely turn away rather than immerse themselves in this novel. But by the final, (anti)climactic scene, where the father eventually succeeds in acquiring candles for a birthday cake, the images start to add up.
If you’re ready to relocate to wholly unfamiliar territory, where sights, sounds, and even language constantly shift meaning; and if you’re willing to trade your marriage in for some new partnership of an as yet unknown form; then you too can earn the right to shepherd another person through their first steps, first words, first sadnesses, and first disappointments in a world where evidence of humanity’s failure appears at every turn. Don’t forget to always remind your charge of the importance in finding joy among the chaos. Got all that? Great! Go forth and raise a kid.
Matt Matros lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. His work has previously appeared in Electric Literature, The Chicago Review of Books, Necessary Fiction, The Washington Post, the Ploughshares blog, and The Westchester Review, among other places.