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.
There are two essays on the narrative genius behind The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, over at Berfrois: Michael A. Moodian on how using genre tropes allowed Serling to tell politically volatile stories during the McArthy era of Hollywood, and Christopher Cappelluti takes a look at how The Twilight Zone changed television history.
In 1826, the philosopher John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown, and one of its causes was pretty odd. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty.
In a way, Mill was being prescient: within a hundred years, serialist composers would forge onward, like the Vikings colonizing Greenland, to combinations of semi-tones that were not conventionally beautiful. But in another way, Mill was being ridiculous: no, a contemporary composer can’t use a tune that Mozart also used, unless it’s a deliberate allusion, but she can certainly use a tune that Weber also used, because no one listens to Weber any more. Mill’s nightmare of permutational famine would only be a real danger if any motif that any composer invented was registered permanently in some sort of giant musical database. Perhaps such a database does now exist, but no composer would be silly enough to check it. I only wish the same were true for narrative art.
Discovering that the website TV Tropes began as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer messageboard is like discovering that Borges’ “Library of Babel” began as a one-volume cricketer’s almanac. Since 2004, TV Tropes has swollen into a frighteningly comprehensive taxonomy of all known plot devices across all known media. Every story that’s ever thrilled you is there in microscopic cross section. In some respects it resembles books like Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations or Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, but it’s not nearly so reductive: it’s maximalist not minimalist, always delighted to add new categories. Really, its closest cousin is the Aarne–Thompson classification system, which attempts to anatomize all the world’s folklore into about 2,500 elements. And as a writer, I find it impossible to browse TV Tropes without feeling like Mill: how will anyone ever come up with anything new?
This fear isn’t abstract. Recently, I was on the point of starting my second screenplay when I thought I might as well check at the patent office for any prior art. On the TV Tropes page for Double Reverse Quadruple Agent, I came across a listing for Cypher, a 2002 film I’d never seen by Vincenzo Natali, director of the terrific Cube. The best twist in my outline was sitting there in Cypher. Dejected, I gave up on the screenplay. TV Tropes may have saved me from wasting my time on an idea that had already been wrung dry, but it may also have prevented me from developing that idea far enough that I could find something in it that was uniquely my own. So far, the same thing hasn’t happened with my prose fiction, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time.
Of course, this is only a problem because my writing happens to be so preoccupied with plot. Most literary fiction is inoculated against TV Tropes. When Zadie Smith updates Howard’s End in On Beauty or Cynthia Ozick updates The Ambassadors in Foreign Bodies, they are assuming that the storylines are not by any means the most gripping things about those novels. I once interviewed the critic James Wood, and he told me that in his reviews he deliberately describes the entire book because he likes “destroying the tyranny of plot.” In other words, if TV Tropes gives you writer’s block, then maybe you’re not much of a writer.
And you can even make that same argument starting from the other side of the field. I recently asked the author China Miéville about TV Tropes, on which he has his own lengthy entry; because his work wallows in plot, I thought he might find the website as lethal as I do. In fact, he told me that he loves TV Tropes but he doesn’t worry about it. You don’t need a database, he said, to prove that it’s almost impossible to come up with anything truly original – just riffling through the canon will do that. Your task is just to force new tricks on old dogs. (After all, both Cypher and my abandoned screenplay were basically variations on Philip K Dick. TV Tropes itself has an entry for this called Older Than They Think.) And I agree with Miéville up to a point. But a lot of the joy of his novel The City and the City, for instance, arises from its ingenious premise. If he’d read on TV Tropes that The Twilight Zone had used the same plot in 1961, he would probably still have written his book, but I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t have been disappointed.
And the horrible thing is, it doesn’t stop there. There’s a remark somewhere by (I think) Martin Amis about how all young writers have to confront the fact that there just aren’t many new ways left to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. It’s like peak oil for lyricism. And in the age of Google Books and Amazon Search Inside, we have to confront this even more brutally. Every time I come up with a simile that feels like it might be too obvious, I can put it into the search box and find that a dozen romance novelists have used it before me.
The answer, I think, is to think more about your audience. The average reader just isn’t as obsessive about precedent as the average writer. She is less likely to notice an echo, and if she does notice, she is less likely to mind. In other words, she is saner. To invent some contorted new plot twist because your previous one was already on TV Tropes, or some cumbersome new metaphor because your previous one was already on Google Books, is just self-indulgence: you like your book a bit more, but everyone else likes it a bit less. It’s best to spend just enough time on TV Tropes that you’re anxious to do something original, but not so long that you’re paralyzed. That’s easier advice to give than to follow, however, and whether or not I succeed, there is one pretty humbling circumstance I have no choice but to acknowledge: that the biggest existential challenge that I currently face as a novelist comes from a website that started life as a place for people to talk about whether Buffy should really have got together with Spike.
Previously: Trope is the New Meme
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