When good people write bad books: Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru

manazuruAlright, here’s the thing: I kind of hated Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru; or, at least, I spent about 95% of my time with it being alternately irritated, bored, and exasperated.

What’s wrong with it, you’re wondering? For me, pretty much everything, and I don’t think I can blame the translator (Michael Emmerich–I really admired his translation of The Lake, after all).

I hate the writing. Example:

After a rain, the scent of the grass is deeper. Young grass, not even high enough to count as undergrowth, grass like the fuzz on a baby’s skin, exuding its smell. We went out for a walk, circled back. Momo slung the strap of her small bag diagonally across her shoulder. The gusts had not stopped blowing. Our hair was whipping about. Momo took out a clip, gathered her hair, fixed it with a sharp snap. A stray strand fell across her forehead.

I didn’t pick this segment for any particular reason; it’s obviously not a very meaningful one. The thing is, the whole book reads this way, even the parts that are supposed to be meaningful. Everything’s flat, disconnected, boring. Just so dull and lifeless. Unimportant details are presented in exactly the same way as the bits that are important–all the ghosts, that may or not be real, that follow her, for example. If you cut away all the shit like the bit quoted above you might be left with an okay short story. Damn, I’m getting angry with myself now–for finishing this. It was only 220 pages, but it was too long by about 190-200 pages.

Aboutness: Nominally, Manazuru is about the narrator trying to let go of her husband, who disappears twelve years before the tale begins. Or maybe she murders him, literally or figuratively, I don’t know. I also don’t care. Nothing about her clinginess, her inability to communicate, her longing, her memories was made to seem interesting. Also, the disappeared husband thread kept getting confused and tangled up by other things, such as what it means for three women to live together, or how to deal with an annoying teenager. But these tangential bits weren’t interestingly or completely teased out, and neither were they in any obvious way connected to one another. I’ve never yearned so desperately for a good editor on someone else’s behalf in my life–which is serious, considering I coined the term “Haruki Murakami Syndrome.”

I keep asking myself why I beat my own head in with this novel instead of tossing it aside in favour of something better, but I know why: I met Hiromi Kawakami last year at the International Festival of Authors and she was lovely. Engaging, charming, thoughtful on stage, and super-sweet when I met her afterwards. Look how she signed the inside of my copy of Manazuru:

The adorable umbrella Kawakami drew refers to Hurricane Sandy, which was threatening to take down the building we were in.
The adorable umbrella Kawakami drew refers to Hurricane Sandy, which was threatening to take down the building we were in.

We shared a quiet laugh over her tentative drawing. It’s hard to dislike this book so much. In the past, I’ve worried about meeting favourite authors and finding out they’re dinks; it never occurred to me that it would actually feel much worse to meet a sweet person who also happens to be a famous writer whose work you don’t either enjoy or respect much.

Unpleasant to read, more unpleasant to write about. Moving on.

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