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from the March 2013 issue

Yoko Ogawa’s “Revenge”

Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao

The experience of reading Revenge is like getting caught in a beautiful, lethal web.

If an enterprising reader were to map the through-lines linking the quiet, twisted (and subtly interconnected) tales of eccentric strangers and mysterious deaths in Yoko Ogawa’s new collection, Revenge, the resulting diagram would likely look something like a spider-web: Delicate, spindled, and perfectly designed for entrapment. The experience of reading Revenge is like getting caught in a beautiful, lethal web—or maybe, like wandering through a labyrinthine haunted mansion. These stories’ charm lies in their treacherous unpredictability. In each tale, it’s impossible to anticipate just what particular nightmarish turn the plot will take, or to guess what shadowy character or tiny detail from an entirely separate tale will reappear (a dead hamster left in a trashcan, a brace designed to make the wearer taller, a three-digit number used in a report). There is a spooky fun-house quality to this collection.

Even the collection’s one tale of relatively conventional romantic revenge plays out unexpectedly; in “Lab Coats,” Ogawa makes the spurned lover an employee in the sterile, rational confines of a hospital and taps an unsuspecting (and slightly enamored) colleague of the murderer to be the story’s narrator. When the dark deed is revealed, it’s not the murder itself, but the reaction of the killer’s confidante that’s most chilling: “I feel a scream rising out of me but somehow I stop it, hold it back,” the narrator explains, “and instead I calmly imagine the scene: the knife in her pretty hand; the blade slicing into him again and again; skin ripping, blood spurting. But she’s spotless.” The real horror isn’t the death, but the drugged blindness of the narrator’s infatuation on the murderer—a fixation intense enough to anesthetize an appropriate moral or emotional response.

Translator Stephen Snyder has compared Ogawa’s work to that of Murakami, going so far as to call her “the next Haruki Murakami,” (perhaps in part because of the dream-logic of her plots and the diffidence of her protagonists); some reviewers have cited the influence of Borges and Poe as well. These comparisons are tempting, but there’s something facile about them too. Though there are dark, supernatural elements underfoot in these stories, it does not take long to notice that Ogawa works in a register entirely of her own—and is much more interested in experimenting with form than with paying tribute to any particular style. As she put it one interview:

One of the constant themes in my work is the problem of “deficient excess.” Something that should, by all rights, exist is lacking, while the extraneous thing that is left achieves a kind of warped excess. When I look back at my work thus far, I’ve described this sort of family over and over. I can’t say it was by design—it has just happened that way.

Nowhere is Ogawa’s singular knack for contorting psyches and plotlines into unexpected arrangements (and her fascination with “deficient excess”) more on display than in “Sewing for the Heart,” a dark tale about a lonely tailor who specializes in making custom bags:

You may be thinking that a bag is just a thing in which to put other things. And you’re right, of course. But that’s what makes them so extraordinary. A bag has no intentions or desires of its own, it embraces every object that we ask it to hold. You trust the bag, and it, in return, trusts you.

The bag-maker’s craftsmanship finds the ultimate test in a young woman who asks him to make something with which to hold her beating heart. Because of an apparent birth defect, it rests outside her chest, exposed and “cowering in fear, the blood vessels trembling with each contraction.” Almost instantly, the bag-maker becomes obsessed with the bag his client has commissioned, and, as he grows more and more engrossed in his work, gradually, with the client herself. Doom hangs over the entire project, but the final outcome of the bag-maker’s work remains hidden until a casual conversation in the next story.

The name of that next story alone (“Welcome to the Museum of Torture,”) sums up Ogawa’s talent for summoning dread with a few quick strokes. The ambiance Ogawa creates does half the work in this collection. In “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” the mere appearance of an odd stranger in the narrator’s hotel room immediately casts a pall over a brief resort vacation. Ogawa’s scene-setting is so powerful that midway through Revenge, even produce has acquired an eerie quality. Whether it’s the piles of tomatoes found abandoned on the highway after a truck crashes; the store of ripe kiwi inexplicably left in an empty building; or the mysterious, five-fingered carrots that grow in the yard of one narrator’s eccentric neighbor; in Revenge, the reader quickly discovers that what’s inexplicably sweet, ripe and appetizing always has a dark back-story.

Readers familiar with the book’s Japanese title will note that Revenge is not a literal translation; in fact, just a few stories deal directly with payback and vengeance. Still, the word’s dark psychological shadows—its connotations of obsession, its invitation to violence—conjure the right mood for this collection, and Snyder’s steely translation only enhances it. “Revenge” is an ambiance, one that comes with a reminder that even the stealthiest dark acts leave echoes and open the door to epilogues—which is precisely what the book’s final story feels like. In a crucial stroke of symmetry, Ogawa links the collection’s opening story with its last. “Afternoon at the Bakery” follows a grief-numbed mother buying a birthday treat for her dead son (“He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”) while “Poison Plants” finally reveals how the child’s listless body came to be curled in an abandoned refrigerator.

The conclusion, like so many others in Revenge is mesmerizing but elusive. Although Ogawa’s characters, scenes, stray artifacts, and memories overlap from story to story, their connections are opaque. The reader is left to the maddening task of resolving just how all the strands finally weave together. The only way to do so, of course, is to reread all eleven tales. It’s as though, upon completing Revenge, the reader is waved off with the parting words of the curator of the Museum of Torture to his newest visitor: “Whenever you feel the need, please come to see us. We’ll be expecting you.”

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