To watch someone undetected, to observe them from afar, to steal a glance without getting caught—these are powerful pleasures. But it's also a high-stakes game, for there is always the chance of being found out, the met glance and the blushing look away. The narrators in Yoko Ogawa's collection The Diving Pool, which brings together three novellas published in Japan almost twenty years ago, are all consummate watchers. What Ogawa makes abundantly clear in these stories is how being put in the position of an observer (not so different from the position of the writer) changes you: to be the owner of a secret gaze is to be granted both anonymity and crushing isolation. The women in Ogawa's stories are supremely alone, removed from any kind of human connection even as they are surrounded by, perhaps even overburdened by, other people.
The Diving Pool is the first collection by Ogawa to appear in English. Because she is relatively unknown to American readers, Picador, which will publish Ogawa's novel The Housekeeper and the Professor next year, has gone out of its way in promoting the book to assure us that she "has won every major Japanese literary award." On the evidence of this collection, Ogawa deserves whatever accolades have come her way. The three novellas included here, "The Diving Pool," "Pregnancy Diary," and "Dormitory," manage the neat trick of combining an even, placid, and endlessly readable tone—the three narrators, all female, remain resolutely deadpan throughout—with a roiling undercurrent of desire, loneliness, and cruelty.
The title story has the clearest—and the most heartbreaking—presentation of these themes. The teenaged narrator, Aya, is the sole biological daughter of a husband and a wife who run a Christian orphanage called the Light House. Her parents treat her just as they do the other children in the orphanage, which means that Aya never feels quite at home with either her parents or with the other orphans. The main solace she has found is in secretly watching her foster brother, Jun, practice with his diving team down at the pool. Aya obsesses over Jun's young, strong body, "the body as a physical specimen," as a character in "Dormitory" puts it. (This sort of aestheticizing of the diving form has echoes in Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi-era film Olympia, a connection that seems less far-fetched once we see the sadism that Aya is capable of.) But because Jun is considered her brother, she can never fulfill her desire—she can only watch, and hope for the occasional moment of stolen intimacy. Near the beginning of the story there is a remarkable flashback—Aya calls it her oldest memory—in which Aya holds Jun in her lap and feeds him the "opalescent liquid ooze" dripping from the broken branch of a fig tree "like a baby at the breast." The idea of a forbidden or incestuous sexual drive appears again in "Dormitory," when the narrator can't help but assess the build of her much younger cousin: "The relaxed lines of his neck and arms were brought together neatly around his muscular frame." What Ogawa gives us is a sort of reversal of the idea of the male gaze, in which the female gaze toward the object of desire expresses not power but helplessness and separation.
The isolation felt so acutely by these women is the strongest link between these novellas. The narrator of "Dormitory," for example, has been left behind in Tokyo by a husband who's taken a job in Sweden; their only contact with each other are the lists he sends her of things for her to do before she too leaves Japan. "I found myself rattling around in the empty days," she says, "like a silkworm in a cocoon." The narrator of "Pregnancy Diary" shares an apartment with her pregnant and married sister and is thus, like Aya in the orphanage, something of an outsider in her own home. She describes her job setting up free samples in supermarkets as ideal because "my boss always sends me to a different supermarket in an unfamiliar part of town, and I never go to the same place twice." All three try to cover up their loneliness through obsessive routine—Aya watches Jun dive; the sister in "Pregnacy Diary" makes batch after batch of grapefruit jam; and the wife from "Dormitory" is constantly stitching together quilts in her husband's absence. In fits and starts they gesture toward a need for companionship, but they repeatedly fall short. They all share something with the narrator of "Pregnancy Diary," who writes of married couples: "They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me—a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker." Not the body as specimen, but love as the van der Waals equation.
And it is primarily this inability to feel either empathy or sympathy that leads Ogawa's characters to cruelties both large and small. The loneliness these characters experience deforms them. (Picador's reading-group guide for The Diving Pool assumes that the book-club reader doesn't share this deformity. "The man who runs the dormitory is a triple amputee, who nonetheless can open doors, prepare a pot of tea, hold down a job, and have a life," begins one discussion question. "How would you manage under similar circumstances?") The wife in "Dormitory" slowly shuts herself off from her husband even as he pleads for her to respond to his letters. The narrator in "Pregnancy Diary" remains aloof from her sister even as her morning sickness becomes so overwhelming that it makes her weep: "It was remarkable to watch," the narrator remarks, "almost like a scene from a play." Later, when she goes in for a dentist appointment with her sister's fiancé, she admits that "As the tip of his finger ran over the inside of my mouth, I fought the urge to bite down with all my might." Aya makes a similar confession about her foster sister Rie, a toddler whom Aya begins to abuse in increasingly severe ways—hiding from her, trapping her in an urn, poisoning her with spoiled food. "I wanted to savor every one of Rie's tears," she says, "to run my tongue over the damp, festering, vulnerable places in her heart and open the wounds even wider." Each of us, Ogawa implies, is capable of such casual cruelty, just as we all have felt the same loneliness and longing that afflict her characters. "My desires," Aya tells us, "seemed simple and terribly complicated at the same time: to gaze at Jun's wet body and to make Rie cry." To give in to them as Aya does, however, is to damn yourself to a life spent alone: when she finally confesses her feelings to Jun, he responds by telling her that he knows about what she's done to Rie. "I was always watching you," he says. And with that, a door between them closes.
Ogawa's ability to look at the most mundane and the most reprehensible parts of human behavior without blushing or blinking makes this book devastating to read. None of her narrators are monsters, yet the stories are suffused with a sort of horror-movie feel, as if the shrieking violins were waiting just offstage. The characters in her stories remain just this side of any truly decisive act—and thus ultimately more mundane than reprehensible—but also just short of the connection, the friendship or love affair, that they so deeply desire. That Ogawa is able to capture so acutely the sadness in these lives deferred makes one wonder—and worry a bit—about how much time the author spends, notebook perhaps in hand, gazing silently down at the world below.
Christopher Cox is associate editor of The Paris Review.