Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Yoko Ogawa - Revenge
Deciding exactly what Yoko Ogawa’s collection Revenge is in a top-down, definitional fashion does not work particularly well. The collection is subtitled “Eleven Dark Tales,” and that is certainly accurate. But dark is not the most precise of terms, even if it may end up being all that we are left with. Of course, any reader that has held the volume in their hands (but not yet turned its pages) is likely unsure what I am so confused about. True, the blurbs come from varied sources. Hilary Mantel and Junot Diaz, figures of Literature both, serve to somewhat complicate the picture. But the cover quote from Joe Hill and the large-font of Peter Straub’s endorsement seem, at least insofar as marketing is concerned, to seal the deal: this is horror.
Indeed, Revenge does achieve many of the same effects as Horror – but its meaning of achieving them are so different from those used in the Horror genre that, while Horror may be its destination, that leaves the journey unilluminated, and this is very much a work about the journey and the process. To be fair, there are some moments of genuine Horror-style horror. There are murders here and grisly disfigurements. Lurid descriptions of torture, too. For the most part, those moments did not work particularly well for me. They felt like some of the collection’s weakest. The heart of the collection was not those few violent motions but the general picture that it built, the quiet collection of observations and experiences. This is not a book about a grand event that is seen but rather about the process of observing.
The eleven stories in Revenge are each told by a different first person narrator. Though this is not a mosaic novel – there is no single story that is being crafted throughout – the narrators do encounter one another, and those passing glimpses of another’s pain or catharsis give the reader a powerful reminder of how different those experiences look from outside that character’s head. The effect does not end there. Within the stories themselves, Ogawa is always playing with differences, with what we see of each other. Often, the answer is not much. Near the beginning of the collection’s opening piece, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” Ogawa writes that You could gaze at this perfect picture all day – an afternoon bathed in light and comfort – and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing (pp. 1-2). From there, the collection becomes a subtle teasing out of what is out of place – and how horrifically off it is – and a reminder of how all pain is hidden in plain sight.
Crowded together in this modern world that we inhabit, it’s easy to think that nothing is hidden anymore. The narrator of “Old Mrs. J.” certainly thinks that. Living in close proximity to innumerable neighbors, he believes that: Just as I could see everything that went on in her apartment, she missed nothing that happened in mine (p. 30). But such surface transparency really serves to hide so much. This can be seen when Mrs. J. is in his apartment. Such encounters are uncomfortable. But, more than that, they show how much we miss. Mrs. J. reads the titles off of the narrator’s bookcase and, even standing right there, “got them all wrong” (p. 28). No matter how clearly we see, the world is not exactly as we perceive it. And that lesson is rammed home at the story’s close, as no one in any of these seemingly transparent, seemingly visible apartment notices the murder in their midst.
Direct, onscreen action is a rarity in Ogawa’s stories. It would remove all the layers of ambiguity and perception that underlie so much of what she is doing here. Rather, the tragedies in these stories are glimpsed out of the corners of our eyes, are talked about or remembered or even just imagined. “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” my favorite tale in the collection, is composed of the last of those and also serves to tie together and comment upon the collection as a whole. The narrator, questioned by the police about a murder that occurred in one of the other stories, finds the whole procedure exciting. Her boyfriend finds that disgusting. “Do you find it amusing that someone died?” (p. 84) he asks. That’s not an unfair question, really, to ask of readers of Ogawa in particular and of Horror in general, but Ogawa does not simply ask it and wander off.
Pained by her boyfriend’s leaving her for her answer, the narrator enters the nearby Museum of Torture to take her mind off of things. What happens next is not what you think. She is not tied down and brutally tortured. No, she is simply shown through the museum, and the kindly, attentive curator describes the exhibits to her. The interactions between the curator and her are some of the easiest, most connected conversation to be found in the whole collection, and the narrator knows it: “He certainly was interested in what I had to say, unlike my boyfriend” (p. 93). This moment of genuine human interaction occurs amidst pain. None of the torture devices are used onscreen, but each is described, and the narrator and reader imagine their implementation. It is horrific. To give just one example, in the curator’s words: “Next we have this leather strap and those pliers. The victim’s wrist was attached to a table with the strap, and the pliers were used to extract the fingernails. Note the unusually delicate tips of the pliers” (p. 90). Yeesh!
But why wander the halls of the museum of torture? Well, the aforementioned connection is part of it, but it’s not the only part. To start with, it must be admitted that, yes, there is something (horribly) amusing about death. As the curator says, “The desires of the human heart know no reason or rules” (p. 90). But even that is not the whole picture, for to say that we encounter death because we are interested in it is to wholly flip the equation. After all, as the narrator knows, “torture was everywhere” (p. 91). This is confirmed by how, throughout her tour of the museum, the narrator hears of devices that the reader has seen in previous stories, albeit in less extreme contexts. Those encounters, too, were torturous. And if pain is all around us, then our choice is not whether to seek it out because it is amusing or to healthily prevent it. Our choice is whether to acknowledge reality or to pretend.
Ogawa, needless to say, does not pretend. She approaches pain in all its guises, approaches loneliness and vulnerability and murder. Very occasionally, Ogawa does break the slowly woven web with a moment of abrupt violence, or at least the sudden revelation of one. This occurs in “Lab Coats,” where a conversation takes a sudden and drastic shift at its end with the disclosure that one of the participants killed her boyfriend. Though twists like that do shock the reader, they were my least favorite parts of Revenge, because the sudden upset left me less rather than more engaged with the narrator’s perceptions. Thankfully, such sharp turns are rare. Generally, the hurt at the center of each story is only slowly brought out as the narrator tries to go about their life. It comes on stage calmly, gently, until it is, by the end, all that the reader can see or think about.
Though not a speculative fiction author exactly, Ogawa does toy with impossibilities and fantastic metaphors. This can be best seen in “Sewing the Heart,” in which the narrator meets a women with a bizarre defect: her heart is outside of her chest. Just before seeing it for himself, the narrator realizes that he has “never seen a human heart before, and the thought filled me with fear and disgust” (p. 65). The moment of true and very literalized insight into another, though, does not actually leave him disgusted. Rather, he finds it impossibly alluring. He wants to caress her heart. By the end of the story, he wants to possess it. The story, before long, becomes one of the collection’s most troubling. We are too far from one another to ever truly see them, it seems to say, save in the most extraordinary circumstances. But, if we actually could, that might not help matters. It might be only our distance that prevents us from doing even more harm to one another.
No matter how far from each other we may ultimately be, though, writers as skilled as Yoko Ogawa can give us a glimpse behind the curtain of other minds. In the way that it builds and progresses, Revenge is a soft collection filled with pathos. It is also a cutting knife.