Ariel Starling is a writer and student of literature in Paris.
Written largely as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the obvious image at hand for A True Novel’s structure is that of the Russian matryoshka doll. But perhaps a better metaphor would be an origami crane, for reasons as aesthetic as cultural. Beginning with the premise of one mysterious character, Mizumura folds her narrative in intricate and occasionally surprising ways, carefully turning over her material and examining it at all angles, to produce an ornate, singular, and solidly three-dimensional structure.
In her prologue (which, by the way, contains what is probably the best piece of writing about writing I’ve ever read), Mizumura outlines her intent in A True Novel to execute a sprawling epic in the tradition of western classics—what in Japanese is called honkaku shosetsu, loosely translated as ‘true novel’. This form is presented in contrast to shishosetsu, or ‘I-novel’, the more traditionally Japanese novelistic form of autobiographical narrative. To this end, she employs none other than Wuthering Heights, reimagining Brontë’s classic in postwar Japan.
However, A True Novel is much more than a recasting of Wuthering Heights—and much more than simply the formula of the western novel told in Japanese. I would argue that the meat of what makes A True Novel so exceptional is contained in its prologue. At nearly 200 pages, the prologue could well satisfy as a novella in itself. Though it begins as a more or less traditional prologue about Mizumura’s decision to write the book, it quickly becomes a metafictive account of the narrator’s relationship with Taro Azuma.
Though Mizumura (or presumably her fictional alter-ego) was never close with Azuma by any means, she meets him in New York as an adolescent girl through her father’s network of Japanese businessmen living in America. He first enters the story as the reticent yet highly-motivated private chauffeur of an American acquaintance, but we learn along with Mizumura through hearsay of his meteoric rise to powerful multi-millionaire. This branch of the narrative not only establishes the charisma of Taro Azuma, but follows the rise of Japan as a global economic power and analyzes the ideas of the American Dream and self-made man as things impossible in the rigid social order of Japan. While the young Mizumura longs for her homeland, Azuma states that there is nothing for him in Japan, and that he has no interest in returning. This friction between East and West as Mizumura resists assimilation and the English language—even as she devours western classics in Japanese translation—is only the first of many tensions of opposites which Mizumura handles deftly in A True Novel. Another tension is structural: while Mizumura sets out to write a honkaku shosetsu, by placing the autobiographical prologue as the first frame of the narrative, the “large” western honkaku shosetsu is contained in the “small” Japanese shishosetsu.
This framing occurs when, as a visiting instructor at an American university, Mizumura is visited by a stranger from Japan. On a dark and stormy night, he tells her how he came to know Taro Azuma. Mizumura is struck by the resemblance of Azuma’s life story to Wuthering Heights and feels compelled to write it down—and thus the honkaku shosetsu component of A True Novel is born.
While the central love story between the impoverished Azuma and well-to-do Yoko is undeniably powerful, it is this intricacy of structure that propels A True Novel from being a good book to a great one. Azuma and Yoko’s relationship is placed firmly in its historical context, and Mizumura uses their relationship to illuminate generations of Japanese history and carefully examine the westernization of Japan and the downfall of the Japanese aristocracy. All the while, this westernization is turned on its head in her original form of containing a western honkaku shosetsu in an eastern shishosetsu, effectively “Japanizing” western literary tradition.
All told, A True Novel is a masterful work of contemporary Japanese fiction, which fully deserves a place on the global stage of world literature—as well as the Best Translated Book Award.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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