‘Earth Mother’ Randy Taguchi wins plaudits for her fiction

by Janet Ashby

The novelist Randy Taguchi, known as queen of the e-mail magazine, is enjoying something of a boom. Although she started writing on the Internet in 1996 and now draws some 78,000 readers for the weekly essay she posts on the Web, she came to more general attention when her first novel, “Consent,” was praised by Ryu Murakami last year as one to the best novels he’d read in a decade and was a finalist for the prestigious Naoki Prize.

Seen as an Earth Mother figure, Taguchi has called herself an uneducated, hard-drinking country wife. She broke away from her violent home life in Ibaraki — her father was an alcoholic — and came to Tokyo after graduating from high school. She cofounded an advertising agency in 1985 but in 1994 quit and moved to the country. Afterward she had a child and started writing on the Net.

Like the recent winner of the Naoki Prize, Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Taguchi is not the most polished fiction writer, but there is great vitality in her writing about contemporary Japan. “Consent” was based on the actual “hikikomori” (shut-in) death of her brother; since then, she has completed the loosely linked trilogy with “Antenna” and “Mosaic.” In addition to essay collections, a diary and a book about her travels in Vietnam, Taguchi also had a collection of short stories, “Midnight Call,” published earlier this year.

I especially liked the story “Akashiya no ame ni utarete,” in which a 30-year-old single woman is drinking in a Shinjuku bar with a male friend. At the end of the evening, he puts her in a taxi and leaves to go home to his wife. Arriving at her dark apartment alone and feeling dissatisfied with life, she drunkenly throws her handbag against the wall. When her address book falls out, she looks through it at the names of the disappointing men she’s known over the past few years and starts calling them and remaining silent when they answer the phone.

She finds a certain pleasure in annoying them and at the same time making a connection with others. Finally she calls the man who had gone out with someone else while still informally engaged to her. When he accuses her of always bothering him with her neurotic calls, she unthinkingly speaks up and protests that it’s the first time she’s called him.

She tells him off but is still feeling lonely when the friend she had been drinking with calls her on his mobile phone while in line for a taxi at the station. He tells her very sweetly that he likes drinking with her because he feels a certain link with her, that they are both sometimes very depressed and lonely. After he hangs up, she continues to hold the phone, thinking that men can sometimes be nice too, cruelly so.

In the afterword to “Midnight Call,” Taguchi recalls an old custom in which people exchanged stones instead of letters to show their feelings. Communication between men and women is like that too, beyond words. But before you can find someone who will understand your stone, you have to know your own heart to find the stone to give him or her. Taguchi wanted to write in these stories about women still searching for their own stone, their true selves.

In an interview in Hata Yo (April) Taguchi cites Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Herman Hesse as favorite authors and Latin American magic realism as an influence on her writing. In her trilogy she wanted to write about continuing to have some sort of relationship with family members after their deaths. In her next novel, “Hiroshima,” she is widening that to include the death of strangers and after that perhaps to the death of a whole people (“minzoku”) in “Arutai.”

Taguchi thinks the sexual element in her work was probably the result of her gradual loss of a sexual identity as a woman after the birth of her child. After two years of child care, she was losing her confidence and starting to be afraid of turning into an “obasan.” She thinks she started being active on the Internet as a form of self-expression to avoid being buried in the mundane details of daily life.

She has no pretensions to writing healing fiction but did make a vow when reading other authors not to write anything that would leave an unpleasant aftertaste. She thinks the characters in “Consent” and ‘Antenna” are actually seeking not healing but stimulation (“shigeki”).

A rather odd profile in Aera (March 12) by Tsukasa Yoshida presents Taguchi as a poster child for the dysfunctional family and dysfunctional society. Yoshida sees her life story as part of the postwar story of Japanese parents and children, as a single daughter trying to break the spell of the family. When Taguchi was 17, her battered mother left her husband and planned to live together with Randy, but Randy resolved not to sacrifice herself to her mother but to leave and live life to the full.

Her father had lost his identity when the war ended before his kamikaze unit was deployed. He was a violent drunk, and Randy’s mother largely entrusted the raising of her son to relatives. Out of guilt, she found it difficult to refuse her son anything when, unable to meet his father’s expectations, he quit his job after a year and lived shut up at home with his parents.

Yoshida feels that this life story is emblematic of a lost world in Japan, one that developed as the alternative world of yakuza and prostitutes, in which people who did not fit into straight society still had a firm identity, lost its legitimacy in the ’70s and ’80s when Japan became a major economic power. Those not able to keep up or fit in were now dismissed from society, and the family was forced to become a sanctuary for them, to become a womb for victims of “ijime” or for hikikomori.

Still worse, in Yoshida’s view, is that some assumed multiple faces, or masks, noticing that they could get by if they pretended to be “normal.” He feels that Taguchi’s father was an early example of this kind of schizoid identity and that she could only survive life with him by also becoming schizoid and performing a role. He notes that the Internet is becoming another escape for those who find it hard to live in Japan today and that Web handles (like “Randy”) are another form of multiple identity.

I’m not sure that I find such amateur psychoanalyzing fully convincing. Perhaps a more apt comparison is the one made by a Hata Yo interviewer who sees Taguchi as having much in common with Bjork, in her vitality and strong individuality.