Kawakami marks the literary map of Japan with a warning that beyond here lie dragons—or snakes and ghosts, at any rate....

RECORD OF A NIGHT TOO BRIEF

A supersurreal triad of stories from Japanese novelist Kawakami (The Nakano Thrift Shop, 2017, etc.).

Kawakami, winner of the Akutagawa Prize, delivers three evocative tales that, as if from the notebooks of Kafka, concern strange transformations that happen to perfectly ordinary people going about their lives. In the title story, the narrator feels an itch—and then is suddenly galloping down the streets and amazing the onlookers. “That’s a sight you don’t see every day,” says one, and when the poor changeling tries to respond “Get the fuck outta here,” it becomes apparent that, yes, our narrator, gender uncertain and in any event provisional, has turned into a horse. It’s the first of many transformations in a dream that turns to horror, with talking dolls, shriekingly accusatory macaques, and ranting kiwis. In a closing moment, while the landscape is being scraped clean to make a town, the narrator has become a tree, and more: “Then I grew old, very old, and rotted away.” The narrator’s lot is no better or worse than those of the characters in the succeeding stories. “Missing” is an enigmatic fable in which people and huge porcelain vases alike go disappearing in the night, while those left on this plane say bizarre things: “My love for you,” says a matter-of-fact bridegroom (by proxy, as it happens), “is wider even than the floor area of the largest apartment in this apartment complex.” The narrator of the closing story, meanwhile, might want a similarly large space in which to hide in a world where everyone and everything, it seems, is a snake in disguise—including, in the end, that very narrator, a young woman who lies in the darkness “experiencing in equal parts a sense of dread and a sense of calm expectation, the tears falling, as the night continued to deepen.”

Kawakami marks the literary map of Japan with a warning that beyond here lie dragons—or snakes and ghosts, at any rate. Astonishing, strange, and wonderful.

Pub Date: Dec. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-78227-271-7

Page Count: 158

Publisher: Pushkin Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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