I finished reading Contemporary Japanese Writers, Vol. 2 over the weekend, and found seven writers/books that I wish were translated into English:
Asagao (Rose of Sharon) is a masterpiece from Furui’s middle period. In a commentary to the paperback edition, writer Hisaki Matsuura remarks on the author’s dogged efforts to finish the book, grappling with it until his mid-forties: “Through his struggles, he must have looked hard at the potentials and limitations of this writing format and fully experienced the inherent inconsistencies between it and his own temperament.” By “this writing format,” Matsuura means maintaining the framework of the modern novel while incorporating elaborate devices in a style reminiscent of Nabokov.
Kariojoden shibun (Accounts of Provisional Rebrith: A Draft) sounds most interesting to me. It’s a collection of personal essays interspersed with episodes of the “hapless deaths of various eminent Buddhist monks.” Two collections from Furui have been published in English: Ravine and Other Stories (Stone Bridge Press) and Child of Darkness: Yoko and Other Stories (University of Michigan).
In his novel Veruka, hoenai no ka? (Bark, Veruka!), the author’s epic imagination is compressed to such amazing density that the work conveys a sense of tremendous speed. Half of the story is a historical tale that traces developments in the latter half of the twentieth century through the propagation of military working dogs. [. . .] The other half of the book is a suspense story about a former KGB military dog handler who kidnaps the daughter of a Japanese yakuza gangster. Eventually the two stories merge, developing into a richly textured faux history in which military dogs are, it would seem, major players in world history.
Steve Erickson is one of the authors cited as an influence on Furukawa, which is intriguing as well. (As is the fact that Steve Erickson is cited over and over and over in this book . . . I think that’s great, but I didn’t really that Erickson had such a huge reputation in Japan.)
His short story collection Nigotta gekiryu ni kakaru hashi (Bridge Over a Muddy Torrent) contains nine works. A swift-moving stream divides the town into Right and Left Bank sectors, while repeated improvements to the lone bridge linking the two sides have left it an involuted, fantastical structure impossible to grasp in its entirety. A collection of odd people live in the town: a clan with bulging heads; a woman who has single-handedly organized the “Bridge Improvement Volunteers’ and stands o the bridge day in and day out campaigning for safety; a mayor who is able to communicate only with cats and lives the life of a recluse, yet whose preternaturally keen political instincts are intact. Each story interlocks organically with the next, revealing a richly imagined universe. In the last chapter, the characters reappear in unexpected fashion and the story ends as though swallowed in the waters of the torrent.
Her novel Tobo kusotawaka (Dang Fools On the Run) (Ed. note: “Damn Fools”?) is about a manic woman (the narrator) and a depressed (and possibly deluded) man escaping from a mental institution. “The pair head south in a beat-up old car, quarreling along the way, with the narrator bothered by aural hallucinations of a voice repeating a mysterious line from Marx’s Das Kapital.“
Oboreru shimin (Drowning Citzens) is a collection of fourteen short stories numbered from 0 to 13. Each one describes the ordinary yet odd daily lives of the residents of Nemurigaoka, or “Sleepy Hill,” a neighborhood that might be found in any Tokyo suburb. In the fourth story, “Chonai bika” (Town Beautification), Mr. Kodama bids his wife goodbye each morning and sets off for work. Ever since he retired, she has somehow lost the power of speech and can say only “Goodbye, dear” and “Welcome home, dear.” Kodama’s “work” consists of picking up litter, and the townspeople call him “Volunteer Guy” or “Trash Master.”
Shimada’s Dream Messenger was published in English back in 1994. The PW review was less than enthusiastic: “In this trying-too-hard-to-be-hip contemporary novel of fantasy, kinky sex, and emotional insecurity, young Japanese writer Shimada explores the fate of ‘rental children,’ who grow up willing to do anything—for a price.”
Takahashi is compared to Pynchon, Barthelme, and Calvino, in part for his novel Sayonara, Gangsters, which came out in English from Vertical back in 2004. According to PW:
Takahashi’s first novel to be translated into English can be amusing, sexy, moving, intelligent and maddeningly obtuse-often all at the same time. Which is exactly what Takahashi, acclaimed author of postmodernist romps and former porn director, intends. Somewhere in a future time and place, people have no names. Lovers find this inconvenient, so they begin naming each other. he two main characters settle on the following names: the woman is the Nakajima Miyuki Song Book, and the man, who teaches at a poetry school, is Sayonara, Gangsters.
(“Naming” and confusing signifiers seems to play a large role in Takahashi’s work. His novella “John Lennon versus the Martians” “starts with a prologue in which a third base coach gives a batter the incomprehensible sign, ‘John Lennon versus the Martians.’” And the narrator of the novella receives a postcard from a guy named “Japan’s Wonderful War.”)
The novel Nihon bungaku seisuishi (The Rise and Fall of Japanese Literature) sounds like the most promising of his works.
To discover why it is so hard to write fiction today, Takahashi examines the history of modern literature, with the Meiji period (1868-1912) as his startying point. He summons literary giants of that era such as pioneer Shimei Futabatei, who like Takahashi agonized over his inability to write, and attempts to share his agony. [. . .] The author himself barges into this epic fantasy. Is he writing a fictional history of Japanese literature, or is he merely ridiculing writers?
Tsutsui is most well known as one of Japan’s “Three Great” science-fiction writers. That said, apparently he’s continued to expanded his interests and writing style, and has published a number of metafictional and slapstick books. (His novel Hell was recently published by Alma Books in the UK and was part of the JLPP program, and sounds a bit Philip K. Dick-esque.)
A book which stirred great discussion is Tsutsui’s satirical novel Bungakubu Tadano Kyoju (Professor Tadano, Faculty of Letters). This hilarious work of metafiction exposes the inner workings of a faculty of letters at a private university in Japan. At the same time, through samples of literary theory interpolated into the story, it mocks the absurd underpinnings of contemporary literature and thought.
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .