‘Lizard’ by Banana Yoshimoto (Review)

A Happy New Year to everyone out there, and welcome to January in Japan!  I hope you’re all ready to get 2013 off to the best possible start – with some great J-Lit 🙂

My first choice for the month is a book by an author who can polarise opinions like few other J-Lit writers.  While some adore Banana Yoshimoto’s female take on late-twentieth-century angst, others dismiss her work as over-hyped pop fiction – occasionally at the same time.  Which description fits best?  I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer that question in one little post…

*****
Lizard (translated by Ann Sherif) is a collection of six short stories, each of which is written in Yoshimoto’s instantly recognisable style.  Once again we are taken on a tour of middle-class Tokyo to meet a group of characters who would probably be described on Twitter as having #firstworldproblems.  Despite this, the protagonists are, on the whole, interesting people, and the stories draw the reader in, time passing without your being aware of it.

The first story, Newlywed, sets up the collection nicely.  A man on a train decides not to get off at his usual station, bored with his stale marriage, and is joined in the carriage by a hobo – who suddenly turns into a beautiful woman.  This magical touch is also evident in the title story, Lizard, where a young woman with a dark secret has magical healing powers.  More than any of the other Yoshimoto books I’ve read, this one immediately seems to be drawing on a very familiar influence…

By the time the third story, Helix, appears, the Murakami parallels are uncanny.  In this story, a man goes on a surprise date in a café which has already closed for the night.  He ends up talking the night away with his girlfriend, discussing the concept of memory and the difficulty of deciding which memories are important.  The third story in a row with a male protagonist makes the collection seem a little different to Yoshimoto’s other works, even if the themes are very similar.

The second half of the collection though returns to the familiar ground of the writer’s twenty-something women struggling to cope with society’s expectations.  Whether it’s the heroine of Dreaming of Kimchee, who is learning to cope with her role as a scarlet woman, the main character of Blood and Water, who has run away from a benign cult to find herself in the big city, or the prospective bride of A Strange Tale from Down by the River, a woman learning secrets about her past but with plenty of her own – these are the characters readers have come to expect from Yoshimoto.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing…

If you like Yoshimoto’s work, you’ll definitely enjoy Lizard.  The writer is expert at creating a light, airy atmosphere in which her characters can talk about the things polite society politely ignores.  These people often stand out because of their belief in (or mastery of!) supernatural powers and alternative healing, and in a similar way to Murakami, Yoshimoto shows their struggles to find a place in a rigid, unforgiving society.

Yoshimoto likes to concentrate on the dynamics of relationships more than pushing the plot forward, and this can be successful at times:

“I liked just watching Lizard – the way she threw her coat over her shoulders, the way she bowed her head when she crouched down to tie her shoes, the way her eyes glittered in the mirror when she took a peek at herself.  I loved watching Lizard in her different poses.  The cells of her body dying and coming into being, the curve of her cheeks, the white half-moons on her fingernails.  I felt her brimming with the fluid of life, flowing with the universe.  Her every gesture, every move, brought life to me, a man who had been dormant for so long.”
p.42, Lizard (Faber and Faber, 2001)

However, she can also be guilty at times of some very clunky, clumsy writing:

“In fact, we met at his father’s funeral, which I attended in my boss’s place.  The ritual moved me tremendously.  People had told me what a dignified, splendid man the president had been, how he had run his business innovatively and with integrity.  I had also heard that his employees loved working for him.  When I saw the many people who came to pay their last respects, I knew all these stories must be true.”
p.126, A Strange Tale from Down by the River

The last couple of stories, in particular, contain far too much flat, informative prose, at odds with the mood of the rest of the collection.  As always with Yoshimoto though, you do start to wonder how good her translators are…

As to whether Yoshimoto is a hit or a miss, I’m still (and always have been) firmly in the undecided category.  Every book of hers I’ve read has had an indefinable something that I’ve enjoyed – but they’ve all also let me down ever so slightly at some point along the way.  Having said that, Lizard is one I would recommend.  While not all of the stories hit the mark, I enjoyed my little foray into Banana’s world, polishing it off in a couple of hours.  When she gets it right, she can (just like old Haruki) hit a nerve with her views on the rigidity of Japanese society:

“It’s the way society is now.  You’re not supposed to be by yourself.  You get caught in the net, and you can feel it tugging at you as you try to get away from it, just as if you’ve walked into a spider’s web.  You struggle to free yourself, but you can’t.  It’s in the air; there’s no escape from this force, one so inferior to the life force, the energy within us.  You can pretend to ignore it, but it still obscures your vision.”
p.75, Dreaming of Kimchee

Like I said – #firstworldproblems 😉

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15 thoughts on “‘Lizard’ by Banana Yoshimoto (Review)

  1. This is a great review. I have Amrita with me which I still yet to read. The problem with her short stories is like you said, I don't always remember them. I only remember her longer novels like Kitchen or Goodbye Tsugumi.

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  2. Happy Old Year, Tony. Good post to get the month started – it's still December here, although it's January in Japan.
    I'm going to clear my TBR shelves of the (few) Japanese books on them and then it will be time to fill them back up again with the most interesting sounding books covered during the month.

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  3. Aaarrrggghhh! ; ) No, actually, I think time has been unkind to my recollections of reading The Lake. It was by no means the worst thing I read last year. It was just that foggy lake metaphor… I will try another one of hers to get over the bad memory. Perhaps you can suggest one. In the meantime, Kawakami awaits… Oh, and happy new year!

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  4. Mark – My favourite would probably be 'Amrita'. It's a longer, slightly meatier work, even if it's pervaded by the same general, undefined, supernatural atmosphere present in 'The Lake'.

    Just (literally) started 'The Briefcase' – three chapters in and liking it so far 🙂

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  5. I've read this collection before. It's a really nice one. Actually, I started reading this book as a Yoshimoto's fan already so may be I was a little biased. I think I clearly see her usual style in all of these short stories and that's why I enjoy reading them. I totally agree with you with the airy, light atmosphere in her stories and also with the “Yoshimoto likes to concentrate on the dynamics of relationships more than pushing the plot forward.” That's exactly how I feel about her writing. I'm glad to find somebody that think the same about her.
    THanks for the review.

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  6. anakishortie – I always enjoy Yoshimoto's work, but that's usually as far as it goes. Few of her books really stay in the memory. My favourite is probably 'Amrita', a longer story that seems to work well 🙂

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  7. Yes. That is true. Most of her short stories did not stay well in my memories either, I have to admit. I love 'Kitchen'. That is the book that makes me her fan. I have never finished 'Amrita' (that's her only work that I haven't finished) because well, it's a little long (that's not a good reason I know). But I definately finished it next month when I have more free time 🙂

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