A Dimension of Mind: Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge

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There is a quality of placelessness to Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, and the sparseness of the neighborhoods she imagines is made even more eerie by the simplicity of her prose. As with the earliest episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, these stories put one in an immediate state of ineffable unease and frequently creep to their ends without providing their audience the closure of a cathartic shock or scream. And like The Twilight Zone, each of Ogawa’s stories transmits from another dimension — not quite that of late night black and white television, but one with an echoing memory undergirding something parallel to our own experiences. Revenge is a mirror with an especially uncanny crack.

The book’s cover does it a disservice; that slasher typography and dirty canvas-colored background cast an impression of a much more contemporary genre of horror. In truth, one of the gifts of Revenge is its subtle psychology. While there are multiple bloody amputations — including a gruesome beheading — a couple of phantoms, a whole museum full of tools designed specifically for torture, Ogawa’s “dark tales” unfold, surprisingly, without overindulging on gore. Such restraint initially scans as a tidy elegance of form, but by the middle of the book becomes a skillful and sinister instrument of disquiet in its own right.

Ogawa is not fucking around. Though critics are right to call her work cinematic, Stephen Snyder’s translation of these stories is not precisely visual — the effect is more like a dream than a film. In “The Little Dustman” a novelist takes her step-son to the zoo, but because it’s winter most of the animals are taking indoor sojourns. Once grown, the step-son recalls the snow-filled day: “we found we could imagine the animals even without seeing them.”

Minding the unseen might be a useful strategy for reading Ogawa; her stories circle around the buried and the bagged, full pockets and the border between what’s hidden and what’s in view. “Sewing for the Heart” describes a bag maker charged with the task of crafting a leather case for a woman’s heart. But it’s her actual heart, the blood-beating organ, and it’s on the outside of her body, a life giving polyp annexed crudely to her chest. The boundaries between inside and outside blur, and the woman charges the man with crafting an artificial interior, a place to put her heart.

While it would be loathsome of me to ruin the delight of discovering for yourself the connective tissue between each story, I can’t help but touch down on at least one of those threads. The book opens with “Afternoon at the Bakery,” a story about a woman and her ritual of ordering the same cake to mark her dead son’s birthday year after year, and closes with “Poison Plants,” which ends with a woman discovering the body of the first woman’s son. Somewhere in between these bookends, the work morphs into a metafictional ghost story, a work haunted by the dark impulses of its myriad interlocked characters, or those of some authorial hand.

That the stories link up is one thing, but Ogawa moves this world forward and backward and through itself with such economy and grace that you lose track of how much it’s been shaken. Certain characters are willfully alienated from larger systems, hermetically sealing themselves into apartments or professions, but nonetheless the presence of other people ripples on the self-stilled pools of their lives. These characters exist in separate stories but are in tight proximity; they make the world they inhabit and yet the world is still a thing that happens to them.

While the turn to metafiction is not by any means a sharp one, it’s the slow cognitive dawn of the work as something not quite what it initially seemed that hints at the ancient horror of gradual change; the beginning of the book overlaps with its end, but you’ve become a different reader of some other unknown text in the meantime. You end up more or less where you started, but it’s impossible to trace your steps. So at last, Ogawa gets her revenge, and you’ve come through her forest only to find yourself still lost.

A Year in Reading: Emily M. Keeler

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Years ago, a lover read me a John Ashbery poem, “At North Farm.” We were sitting at his kitchen table, and my head was on my arms, and his voice as he read was ringing through the old wood, through my hands and into my head; the poem and his voice walked through me arm in arm.

A few weeks later, I asked him to read me the one about the cat again. He had no idea what I was talking about — the poem wasn’t about anything, as far as he could tell, even if it had a narrator — I mean, speaker — who puts out a dish of milk at night. He still reads poetry like a perfect kind of pop music, near-meaningless lyrics that nudge you toward a feeling and let your own mind suggest the rest.

I accepted that here was another thing I knew nothing about, and that though I might like a good poem or pop song every now and then, I’ll always be on the anxious, vigilant look out for characters and narratives — in essence, I will always want something to interpret. I want to know what it’s all about.

So it was a relief this year to be given Eileen Myles’s Inferno. I started reading it almost as soon as it was in my hands, and I couldn’t put it down. Inferno is, of course, “a poet’s novel” and so it hit me at the perfect half way point; Eileen is the poet, Eileen is the narrator, and the book is about her and New York City and poetry and sex and love. I felt all shook up by the messy intractable beauty of some of the lines, but even more so by the willfulness of this narrator, this character, this poet writing herself into being. “So I’m beginning to wonder about the book I’m in”, this poet, Eileen, says in the middle, and I think to myself, yes, what is this about? And she answers: “You always get to know how the real person fared,” you come away knowing that something happened. And because she wrote it down, in some way it also happens to you, the reader. This, it dawned anew on me, is what it has always been about; some magic thing is transferred from the page to your mind, and room is made for the richness of a new feeling or thought.

Afterward, I was changed and ready to explore. Guilluame Morrisette’s I Am My Own Betrayal was a great next step — a combined poetry and short fiction collection on the theme of willful alienation that reads with a warmth and humor I wasn’t expecting from this Montreal based member of the so-called “Alt Lit” community. Here’s a real good part from “I Don’t Know What A Poem Is But It’s Not Preventing Me From Writing Poems,” one of my favorite of his poems — perhaps for obvious reasons: “and licking your face/ is a sensation poetry cannot reproduce/ but fuck nature I rejected nature.”

Natalie Zina Walschots, another Canadian poet, tickled me with her newest book, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillians, getting down into deliciously crackling and submissive syllables the eros of imaginary evils—I just melt as she supplicates to King Pin: “my body / a blister / that you squeeze”.

Michael Robbins’s Alien vs Predator is like an album I’ve played on repeat; the poems are hard and funny and stuck now like ear worms in some old part of my brain. They’re sitting there waiting for when I just really need to catch up to my breath by hiccuping along to the short stepping swagger of “My New Asshole” until I hit that humbling, defenseless last line…or for when I’m hit with the urge to be pushed further into the delight and despair of being alive today, being not quite punk as fuck or as hard like metal in this mercurial and fast moving world, by tugging petulantly on the black jersey sleeve of “I Did This to My Vocabulary.”

And of course, I went back to Ashbery, too, to page through his Selected Poems and give myself over to his about-nothingness, to the seeds of feeling that are planted by language.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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