[New Directions; 2023]
Tr. from the Japanese by Polly Barton
In a 1931 speech to the National Society for Women’s Service, Virginia Woolf confessed that the first time she was paid for her writing, she didn’t use the money on any of the necessities of life: food, shoes, or rent. Instead, she bought a cat: “What could be easier than to write articles and to buy Persian cats with the profits?” asks Woolf. The problem, as Woolf quips, is that “Articles have to be about something.” In Mieko Kanai’s novel Mild Vertigo, what could be easier for housewife Natsumi than buying expensive silk blouses the color of milky tea, as long as she ignores the fact that her husband’s paycheck bought it for her? The problem is that being a housewife is far from a recognizable profession to Natsumi’s career-oriented friends, and barely acknowledged as a set of skills by her husband—let alone herself.
If pursuing a career is the only difference between feeling alive and simply existing, then in Woolf’s words, Natsumi isn’t “about” anything. And, if Woolf was able to write novels about housewives only by killing the so-called “Angel in the House,” the ideal woman who conforms to social expectations, then Natsumi finds herself dressed in the Angel’s robes but can’t remember how she came to be that way. As she tries to discover the answer, Natsumi reels from “the sensation of being sucked towards the ground, feeling that it would be easy to jump.”
Most of Mieko Kanai’s novel takes place in the claustrophobic interior of Natsumi’s mind, cluttered with shopping lists, stray threads of gossip about her neighbors, and memories about her favorite uncle from Yukigaya. The flood of Natsumi’s thoughts is unrelenting and impressive: She can list the exact contents of her local grocery store’s aisles, she worries about what kind of guy her husband might be, and she fights against a piercing feeling of dissatisfaction by sculpting her children’s dinners of ketchup-flavored butter rice into star shapes. Anxiously re-organizing, Natsumi attempts to assign an order to the clutter of existence, to make sense of the world she inhabits, whose contradictions undermine the tranquility she keeps telling herself she should feel as a housewife. At the same time, Natsumi’s lists are works of bias, determined to mold and shape our perceptions. The sentences often stretch for pages until a lonely period finally arrives, a long-awaited breath. Reading Mild Vertigo, I begin to feel light-headed: excited to peek into Natsumi’s thoughts and concerned that I’m being led into a labyrinth with no exit.
Throughout the novel, Natsumi outlines a metaphysics of domesticity. While she is unable to fully articulate the rules of her world, she experiences eruptions of strange, unnamable feelings. Once, while washing dishes, Natsumi finds herself mesmerized by the flow of water from the tap. Later, she tells her husband,
And it’s strangely pleasant, that feeling, of course it’s no big deal, but you kind of zone out, as if you’re dreaming, although it’s not any dream in particular that you’re having. And then you come back to yourself with a jolt as you realize that you’re wasting water, I guess you just wouldn’t understand it as a man, especially one who so rarely does any form of housework . . . it was just a minor sensation—the feeling of comfort and hollowness that came from looking at water flowing from the tap and thinking of nothing, letting oneself fall into a daze—that she was trying to explain, and she couldn’t help but feel faintly irritated by the way her husband met that explanation with a suspicious look.
Natsumi pushes herself to an almost ascetic state of boredom that her husband can neither recognize nor relate to. She adheres to this “minor sensation,” an embodied ideal which only takes shape according to the strict conventions of housewifery.
Mild Vertigo was originally published in 1997. Since then, Kanai has written extensively on film and photography, oftentimes using her short stories and novels to confront expectations of images’ ability to speak clearly about what they represent. In Mild Vertigo, photography emphasizes the slippery way that history appears and recedes from our grasp. Natsumi attends a photography exhibit sentimentally named “Love You Tokyo!” with work by photographers Kineo Kuwabara and Nobuyoshi Araki. The exhibit offers Natsumi a glance back at the city of her parents’ youth, her childhood memories, and the seedier, less visible aspects of her present. Natsumi expresses both attraction and repulsion to the sense of nostalgia exacted by the photographs taken before her time and dissociates from the images of sex workers she sees in the photos of the 90s. Presented with a candid, everyday Tokyo in which people scuttle through the same city streets, Natsumi realizes that she hasn’t done anything for herself for a long time. This is the first time in a while she has eaten dinner out as a personal treat, since she rarely leaves the house except to run errands or buy groceries.
Photographs must shore up the risk of flattening their subjects. They must practice an ethics of both making images and of looking at them. Describing the power of Kuwabara’s photographs in the exhibit, Kanai writes,
. . . it is [his] photographs that place a bet with the ethics of the finger and the gaze on that apparatus known as the camera, turn to face the present time of the viewer, and speak for the power in the presence of those people living through this moment in time, this moment in space, which can only exist in this photograph. We will not become flattened, even if we are captured on film.
Kuwabara’s photographs confront viewers with their images of the past as present reality. These photographs do not reduce the trace of the subjects’ existence to mere images—their existence screams out at the people who look at them, who in turn, become more aware of their own presence as they look at the moments captured by the camera.
Strangely, given Kanai’s compact thesis on photography, there is not a single photograph reproduced in the novel, even though an exhibition of Kuwabara’s and Araki’s photographs really did take place at the Setagaya Art Museum in 1993. With this and other details of the real that invade Kanai’s carefully sculpted realism, Mild Vertigo evokes a vagueness and a familiar discomfort. For Kanai, it’s not just housewifery that’s uncanny, but the whole endeavor of being a person in historical time, wrenched into place by the proliferation of photographic images in the twentieth century.
Kanai toys with her audience’s perceptions of women’s fiction, ripping through the genre’s seams to expose the strange elements of its plot structure. If Virginia Woolf’s advice to women seeking professional advancement is to kill the “Angel in the House,” what happens once the Angel is dead? The woman is finally left alone, but “what is ‘herself’? . . . what is a woman?” demands Woolf. Like the English writer, Kanai’s protagonist can’t stop thinking about the beautiful Persian cat that her beloved Yukigaya uncle used to own; like Woolf, she notices the strange feeling that creeps into her body and mind when she begins to pay too close attention to her daily routine. Natsumi knows she’s bored, but she keeps trying to convince herself that boredom is comfort, safety, and happiness. In actuality, boredom is the closest thing to Natsumi’s identity; it’s what she’s “about.”
In Kanai’s writing, Natsumi is rarely an “I” nor a “me.” Written in third person, there is always a degree of distance between Natsumi and her own thoughts, between the reader and Natsumi. Kanai never leaves Natsumi to her own devices, teasing out that sickening feeling that the boundaries of Natsumi’s consciousness are not as distinct as they may seem. This prose is rich and stimulating even when all it reports is the contents of Natsumi’s local grocery store. I am struck by how much I relate to Natsumi, never mind our differences. What draws me in the most is not this sense of recognition but the world that Natsumi carefully constructs, seemingly just for me, by constantly sifting again and again through the objects and flashes of nausea that permeate her thoughts. Somehow, Natsumi intervenes in my own routine, gossiping in the hallway of my apartment and helping me write to-do lists. I’m made better by her presence, more sensitive to the emotions that confuse me and the circumstances that I’ve grown accustomed to.
Lora Maslenitsyna is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD in Film and Media Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University.
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