‘The Word Book’ by Mieko Kanai (Review)

After a couple of posts looking at the work of Yuko Tsushima, both long and short, it’s time to move on to another author (even if we’re still stuck in 1979).  Mieko Kanai is a writer I’ve encountered before, in the form of a fun short novel called Oh, Tama!  However, she’s obviously very versatile as today’s choice has very little in common with that work.  In fact, I had to check that the two books were by the same writer – you’ll see why…

The Word Book (translated by Paul McCarthy) is a collection of short stories (mostly) narrated by an unnamed writer.  From the very first piece, ‘Rivals’, the reader is clear about the nature of the book, with a chance meeting in the dining car of an express train merely a springboard for a change of direction:

All sorts of unusual things, some of them quite abnormal, kept happening, but never to me, only to these others.  That made my lonely existence seem still more lonely, but I suppose I must count it as a plus.  Because I – no, I really don’t have to talk about myself.  I am merely the intermediary of this story.
‘Rivals’, p.5 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009)

At which point we plunge into a metafictional tale where the writer suspects himself of having a rival in writing and love – that might just be himself…

‘Rivals’ has severals themes and motifs that run like a thread through The Word Book.  Many of the pieces focus on writing and writers, with a good example being ‘The Time of One’s Life’.  Here the narrator casts a critical eye over an author’s career, only for Kanai to confuse us by blurring the line between reader and writer.  In a slightly different tone, ‘The Voice’ has Kanai herself (the only time she names her narrator) plagued by phone calls from a young reader, a girl who claims that the writer has stolen her ideas – the writer then turns these calls into the story.

The train theme also crops up several times, with many of Kanai’s (slightly passive) protagonists going on journeys, often with no clear destination.  ‘The Moon’ sees the narrator as a boy, sent off on a shopping trip, only to return as a man decades later, but possibly the same day.  In ‘Vague Departure’, though, a man is actually haunted by trips he didn’t take, remembering broken promises that can no longer be fulfilled.  These journeys often appear to take place in the mind more than in reality, with the characters attempting to return to their past in a rather unsuitable fashion.

A couple of the earlier stories play the nostalgia card a little more conventionally.  In ‘The Rose Tango’, a young man growing up in the post-war era inherits his father’s musical talent, and this allows him to enter a seedy night-time world where he meets gangsters and a beautiful femme fatale.  Meanwhile, ‘Windows’ has a man fascinated with the past take on a project of recording the gradual decline of an abandoned building:

He dreamed of a single photograph that would be marked with a peculiar rarity as a pure stopping of the instants, cut off from the continuous progression of time: at once the sum total of the time of one’s life and a fixed instant that had attained eternity.
‘Windows’, p.22

While this proves to be unattainable, he does manage a project that condenses a whole life into a few brief moments.

Hopefully, it’s clear that The Word Book is not exactly your average set of short stories.  There’s a magical air pervading the collection, in the sense that the stories often unfold like dreams, with their own internal logic of sequencing that doesn’t always make sense, yet flows along naturally.  McCarthy does an excellent job of balancing the strange twists of the stories with the seamless style, and one of the pieces that best shows this is ‘Fiction’.  Here the writer focuses on a man on a lengthy stay at a hot spring resort, waiting at the train station for a woman who may not come – and may not even exist.  It’s the sort of story that could fall flat, but in the hands of Kanai (and McCarthy), it works beautifully.

The Word Book culminates in a trilogy of linked short stories that take all of the themes the writer has been playing with and blends them into a series of dream-like scenes.  ‘Kitchen Plays’ has a boy setting off on a train journey and arriving as an adult, but as he attempts to find his way back home, reader and character alike get caught in loops of time, forever walking up the same paths, tripping over the same rock:

When he got off the train, his feet easily touched the concrete platform, so probably I realized that I was already an adult.  If so, perhaps his mother was already dead, and there would no longer be any need to take the money home.  He grew sad, wondering what in fact he’d been doing all this time.
‘Kitchen Plays’, p.116

You may notice the switch between first- and third-person there – another common feature of the text, further blurring the line between writer, reader and narrator.

Eventually, he meets a woman and ends up following her through the corridors of a strange building, only for the next stories, ‘Picnic’ and ‘The Voice of Spring’, to continue his journey.  Which is merely a series of circular walks and train rides.  There’s something very Kafkaesque about these stories, but they have their own style, with a dreamy detached air along with some sexual elements and a sense of dirt and decay.  As the stories continue to touch on elements from the earlier stories, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll end up somewhere surprising, but somehow exactly where we need to be…

Where Oh, Tama! was an enjoyable romp featuring a family of misfits and a pregnant cat, The Word Book shows a very different side to Kanai’s writing.  Some readers may struggle with the lack of concrete plots, names and closure in the stories, but if you’re willing to go with the flow (and go along for the ride), you might just like this one – I certainly did 🙂

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