I was only a few pages into this book when I realised I was gritting my teeth, despite admiring the author’s sharp observations of teen angst, existentialism and desire. That’s because the prevailing mood of this slim novel is dread.
The protagonist is a 14-year-old boy. Brutally tormented by school bullies who call him Eyes because of his lazy eye, he becomes friends with another of their victims, a girl named Kojima. Their relationship is tentative, mundane and revelatory, as first relationships often are, and Kawakami’s dialogue captures the meandering wisdom of young teens whose ideas are beginning to coalesce into something approximating a world view. The pair bear witness to each other’s misery and pool their secrets, wounds and the private practices that offer solace or control, or at least an interruption to their daily terror.
Kawakami’s terse, utilitarian sentences render the violence with devastating clarity: “My pulse crunched in my ear, like wet sand.” Our protagonist is made to eat chalk, toilet water, a goldfish; he is beaten to a bloody pulp. It makes for uncomfortable, claustrophobic reading, as though you are party to the cruelty but unwilling to intervene. Although the story is set in Japan in the early 1990s – a period of economic stagnation and pre-Y2K foreboding that mirrors the novel’s undercurrent of anxiety – the Gothic qualities of the text feel timeless and universal. The author’s delight in viscera brings to mind Georges Bataille.
Through the teen characters, Kawakami explores competing understandings of life and pain. Kojima’s attitude squares with Christian and Buddhist theology: she believes she can rise above the experience of victimisation through forbearance. “Our will is intact,” she says. Everything happens for a reason and suffering has meaning. Momose – one of the bullies – provides a nihilistic counterpoint. “People do what they can get away with,” he tells the protagonist.
The novel swings between these perspectives and between hot and cold. In climactic moments Kawakami’s prose is feverish and high-pitched; elsewhere the narrator’s voice is cool, almost clinical. She compares Kojima’s voice to a 6B pencil, “soft and rigid at the same time”. Beyond the horror at school is an adult world with its own banal humiliations and opportunities. Whether suffering means anything, what is certain is beauty, clarity and change
Picador, 192pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "Heaven, Mieko Kawakami".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.