Reading Mieko Kanai’s stories is an unsettling experience, like swimming underwater, existing in a new and shimmering medium, and coming up for air between stories just to make sure everything is still real — or as real as you remember it. Concurrently, it feels as if one were skating on a slippery surface, gliding along, glimpsing things possibly more substantial beneath — maybe even catching sight of your own double.
In “Rivals,” a standout among the stories collected in “The Word Book,” a writer travels north on a train, moving through dreamlike landscapes of forests and wastelands. She meets an encyclopedia salesman in the dining car who asks her to join him for a whiskey. He reveals that he used to be a writer; he tells her of his first love, of a rival for the woman’s affections, and how he found the rival’s notebook, identical to his own, with passages from his own works. This mirror effect, this fragmenting of self, forced the man to abandon writing. The story enfolds and explodes like a rose grenade, asking questions about originality and inspiration.
In “Windows,” a photographer meets an author in a teahouse; already an imagined character, he arrives just as the author is delineating his nature. He tells her of memories and photographs and the shifting relics of past and present, and how he took the same photograph every day for 20 years. Concerned with fluctuations of time and the impossibility of capturing memories and things, the story allows us into the writer’s mind.
“The Rose Tango” tells of a boy’s childhood in postwar Peking, his return to Japan, the death of his parents, his membership in a criminal gang and the formation of a musical group. It reminded me of Borges’ “Man on Pink Corner” with its tangos, violence and yakuza molls.
The history of memory, the hierarchy of recall, the question of fictive selves, autobiography, identity, and fiction about fiction are the subject matters of “The Time of One’s Life.”
“Vague Departure” and “Fiction” are mirror-image stories. The first deals with an act of loss, a lover’s departure and the different-depth perceptions of love and forgetting, while the latter is a story of longing for something insubstantial, something just out of reach. Both enact their own storytelling within their fictions — that is to say, both are self-aware that whatever our reality is, whatever stage our desire is at, then that “situation” may change in an instant or change imperceptibly over time until it is unrecognizable from the original.
Regaled by a rival and a reader, the narrator of “The Voice” questions what it is to be a character, and from where writers get their stories — how difficult is it to be original without appropriating others’ stories and others’ lives?
Three stories reminded me of Surrealist paintings. “The Moon” is like a Paul Delvaux painting. A ghostly paranoia pervades; the narrator, haunted by memory, realizes things are not quite what they seem. “The Boundary Line” — a nightmarish story about a drowned corpse — conjures images of Yves Tanguy-like beaches, where the boundary lines between the real and dream, life and death are vague. “Kitchen Plays,” with its chance encounters and dreamlike train journeys, is very Chirico-esque.
Kanai’s tales are fragmented and nebulous yet remain vivid in the memory. Smells and objects act as catalysts for narrative. The storyteller becomes a character telling a story about a storyteller. The stories tell of plays and films that are versions of the stories, and vice versa. These interconnected stories are concerned with travel, memory, identity and writing — like Roberto Bolano rewritten in the slow-motion prose of W.G. Sebald. Very good.