LIFE IN THE CUL-DE-SAC, by Senji Kuroi. Translated by Philip Gabriel. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2001, 231 pp., $12.95.

To read this version of “Life in the Cul-de-Sac” is to experience two conflicting emotions. On the one hand, there is admiration for the storyteller, as the dozen linked vignettes that make up the book gradually coalesce into a bleak yet powerful portrait of life on a single dead-end street in the western suburbs of Tokyo 20 odd years ago. On the other hand, there is extreme irritation with the translator, whose tin ear and shaky grammar combine to make that portrait much more obscure than one feels it must be in the original Japanese. Senji Kuroi, an award-winning novelist and essayist, could not possibly write so badly.

Don’t be put off, however. Even though you may have to grit your teeth to keep reading, the picture that emerges from the fog of graceless prose is worth the effort. “Life in the Cul-de-Sac” is a provocative, severe, even joyless work, but it is one that will stay with you.

A life less communal

The novel was originally serialized in 12 parts and subsequently published in book form in 1984 under the title “Gunsei.” (The Japanese word, which means “gregariousness” or, more abstractly, “communal life,” is clearly intended ironically. Life in this particular cul-de-sac could hardly be less communal. The English title is not so subtle, but it is certainly apt, suggesting as it does the book’s governing theme of lives going nowhere, connecting with nothing.)

Prefacing the stories is a little map showing the layout of the eponymous cul-de-sac. The neighborhood is not identified, but lies somewhere in the teeming urban jungle that stretches west of Tokyo. A single north-south road runs through the neighborhood, and off to the right, as you walk north from the station, is a narrow dead-end street. Five middle-class families live here, the Takigawa, Oda, Yasunaga and Kiuchi households facing each other across the street and the Tanabes in a bigger house behind the Odas.

Fish that go with the flow

They have all been here for years and they all know each other, but not, as it turns out, very well. If the life of the mini-community in the cul-de-sac is imagined as a river, it is one that for some reason has long been split into separate streams. Even within individual households, people swim past each other with all the mute obliviousness of fish. One character, the unhappy Mrs. Yasunaga, actually dreams of herself as “a small fish named Masayo,” let loose “to swim in the flow.”

The stories move from house to house, circling and returning to focus on different family members, and in this way we gradually learn what is going on behind those blank walls. The first one, “The Toy Room,” is key, both because its sets the tone of bleakness and because it puts all this contemporary discontent and anomie into perspective. It appears that this is not necessarily the way things used to be in the neighborhood.

In “The Toy Room,” the Oda family is eating dinner, but one member — Kiyoko, the wife and mother — is unaccountably missing. Apparently, she stays out late quite often. When his children tell him that old Mr. Tanabe in the house behind them has just had his cherry tree cut down, the father, Fusao, reminisces about the big house that used to stand on the lot occupied by their present house and that of their neighbors. It had been torn down and the land parceled out after his grandparents died. “That tree’s older than I am,” he says sadly. “. . . Everything I grew up with is disappearing.”

In the growing darkness, Fusao sets out on a surreal exploration of the old house, which still exists, ghostlike, in his imagination. As the air around him “seems to stir” with memories, he shows the children where the living room of his boyhood home used to be, the bay window, the storeroom and the toy room where his grandfather died.

Then old Mr. Tanabe drops by, not interrupting so much as reinforcing Fusao’s mental journey into the past. He reminds Fusao that his new house was built over the old well. Now, Fusao realizes, the well is still there, under the new kitchen floor. As he thinks of the fearfully deep, dark hole beneath their feet, the well is transformed into an image of the past, “slowly seeping up through the floorboards,” an animate thing that can either nourish the living or suck them down.

Cut off from history

It’s a potent moment, which reverberates through all the stories that follow. To the extent that the residents of the cul-de-sac — disaffected Kiyoko, for one — have covered over the well of memory, they have cut themselves off from the flow of history and even from one another.

And that’s the way it is for this quintet of unhappy families. Couples are estranged and preoccupied, parents and children fail to communicate, neighbors scarcely know one another and, to the extent that they do, know only what they glimpse or overhear. Elderly Shizuko Takigawa worries, for instance, about what is going on with the young, childless Kiuchis across the street. In fact, their marriage is falling apart, but the curious Shizuko can only speculate about the meaning of their periodically empty house and wide-open front door, “dark-reddish light streaming out onto the concrete carport.” The light is red because it comes from a stained-glass fixture, but the image recurs more ominously in a later story when Masaki Kiuchi experiences “a dark red loneliness.”

Many of the stories are set at night, which serves to emphasize the utter disconnectedness and lack of direction of these people’s lives. At night in the cul-de-sac, the only light comes from windows or “the neatly spaced streetlights,” offering at best a fitful, partial illumination. Masaki feels at one point that if he doesn’t talk about something concrete with his wife, Michiko, “she really would vanish into the vast expanse of night.”

Because the novel is a series of interleaved vignettes (“rensaku shosetsu”) rather than a linear narrative, it does not really progress or even form a story. There are developments within relationships, some for better, some for worse, but the basic situation remains static. Kuroi himself is said to have described this novel as a “drama-less drama.”

Disturbing possibilities

Yet recurring images imply disturbing possibilities. The most striking of these is the reappearance of the well in the penultimate story, “Twilight.” Here, Kiyoko discovers that the old well has begun to leak, giving off a “moldy smell.” Her neighbor, Mrs. Yasunaga, is struck by the thought that the water is not swelling up under Kiyoko’s floor but inside her, and indeed, Kiyoko’s reaction suggests anxiety verging on mental disintegration. “Don’t you think it’ll take a long time for the water to fill up this whole space and for the house to start floating?” she asks.

It is a troubling image so close to the end of the book, indicating as it does a profoundly pessimistic view of life in contemporary Japan. What is remarkable is that Kuroi evidently formed this view in the early 1980s, when Japan’s future looked so bright. It is even more sobering to read it now, when, as some think, the nation’s house really has come loose from its moorings and begun to drift.

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