STATS: BOOK / YOKO OGAWA (trans. Stephen Snyder) / 162pp. / 2013
She’s written tantalizingly many in Japanese, but so far Yoko Ogawa only has a handful of books in English: two short novels, a volume of three novellas, and now Revenge, her first story collection. When a new translation comes out, it’s a very good thing. No matter how you define contemporary horror, hers is some of the best out there.
Each of the 11 stories collected in Revenge is a glittering, subtly dangerous object that, fractal-like, is composed of many smaller such objects, likewise expertly collected. Objective in the most literal sense, these stories trade in kiwis, tomatoes, carrots, hamsters, lab coats, refrigerators, eggs, and rotten scallops. Revisiting these objects across multiple stories, Ogawa teases out inklings of horror without ever letting them slip into the intangible.
Her selection of objects, like her selection of the events that make up each story, at first feels casual, almost random, like she’s describing whatever she happens to notice or think of. Once she begins to deploy her selections, however, she works with such agility and authority that you come to feel they are the only possible constituents of the story that’s unfolding, just as the events, improbable and disjointed in their own right, take on the gravity and coherence of the only possible events, each dark action necessitated by its environment.
In other words, her choice of objects is at once so idiosyncratic and so convincing that it doesn’t work on the level of choice at all: there is never the sense, in her work, of any alternative, neither in terms of how the fictional space is constructed, nor in terms of what transpires within it. This space is governed by no logic other than the hum of a unifying malevolence, leading you gently down a path you’ll never know to fear until you’ve gone too far to turn back.
Without making any sudden gestures, Ogawa slides a finger through the skin of quotidian reality and into the mess of raw nerves beneath. She touches these nerves as easily as the exposed heart that grows on a woman’s chest in the story “Sewing For The Heart,” massaging and tormenting them without admitting any authorial malfeasance. Read some of her work and you’ll start to wonder how far beneath the surface these nerves are buried. Read more and you’ll start to wonder if there’s any surface at all.
The first paragraph of the first story, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” initiates the process of object selection and deployment, setting a mood that will only thicken throughout the stories that follow: “Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings.”
Something strange is going on even in this brief progression, as it moves from things that obviously glimmer in regular sunlight (the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet), to things that don’t, and thus seem to glimmer with a sinister and internal luminescence instead: the cat’s eyes, and especially the base of the clock tower.
The unsettling genius of Ogawa’s breezy prose is to ensure that you never slow down to puzzle this through. You unquestioningly buy the realness of the scene as she draws it, even as she begins to conflate an objective picture of how it looks with a subjective picture of how it seems, of what spirits are afoot within it. “You could gaze at this perfect picture all day – an afternoon bathed in light and comfort,” she continues, at last dropping a hint that something is lying in wait inside of all we see, “and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.”
This, like the stories that follow, is a minor-key story, ostensibly small in scope and concerned with a world that bears a strong resemblance to an everyday one, even a boring one. But as it progresses into a scene of a mother reenacting the death of her son, who suffocated in a refrigerator, Ogawa ups the ante on her method of seguing seamlessly from the quotidian into the macabre. In the space of a few sentences, the mother’s experience shifts from emptying the fridge of “last night’s potato salad, ham, eggs, cabbage, cucumbers, wilted spinach, yogurt, some cans of beer, pork,” to climbing inside, feeling how cool the walls are, and wondering, “Where does death come from?”
The next story, “Fruit Juice,” darkens the everyday world a step further. A girl invites a school acquaintance to accompany her to a lunch with a man who is supposedly her long-lost father. After the fancy meal, the two girls wander around until they discover an abandoned post office full of kiwis and then … that’s about it. And it’s downright terrifying: “Indeed, they were kiwis, just like the ones they sell at the grocery store. But the scene before us was grotesque and dizzying.”
This post office, equally full of harmless fruit and dizzying dread, just like the refrigerator that contains both last night’s potato salad and the essence of death, straddles two orders of reality without breaking into two notions, or even buckling under the strain of double-duty.
Ogawa is so adept at simultaneously describing what things are and what’s latent within them that she can write a simple statement about what an object looks like or is made of, and, at the same time, convey the feeling of its being lethally spring-loaded. Her art of constellation and curation is thus a very developed art of seeming, of teasing an extraordinary amount out of things without elevating or undermining their ordinariness.
In “Afternoon at the Bakery,” a rotten shortcake comes to smell like the death of the boy whose birthday it was supposed to celebrate, its garnish of strawberries “wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies.” It serves as a conduit for death, and yet it sits easily within the suburban reality that generated it. The way in which it serves a symbolic function without becoming a symbol renders its danger real and immediate.
You can never be certain whether an object like this is causing or merely conducting the disquiet that seeps out; either this disquiet is inherent, like a seed at its center, or else it’s been breathed in from some unseen source, using the object as a temporary vessel. This means either that Ogawa conjures some alchemical effect from the exact objects she brings together, or else that disquiet oozes out of everything, no matter how innocuous, if you only look long enough.
This latter interpretation suggests that there is something rootless in the world, some force of evil or madness that can manifest through anything, and anyone. Maybe it’s a kind of haunting, or possession, but the stories don’t need to make this claim in order to work on their own terms. Without naming or even acknowledging this force, Ogawa conjures it again and again.
Hers is a threadbare world. Composed of extreme, acute detail, it’s all sharp cuts with no broad strokes. Objects exist in isolation, plucked from the universe’s infinite variety in a way that highlights their smallness and transience but that also feels absolute, like she hasn’t chosen objects at all but has rather created or discovered a realm in which only they exist. Reality, in her stories, feels both barely there and claustrophobically saturated.
Revenge’s central story, over which the first and second halves reflect, is called “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” which could well serve as a title for the collection. The feeling of wandering through a space in no particular order (the stories are interrelated, but, as long as you read all of them, your reading order shouldn’t matter), seeing the same things in different contexts, lulled into a state between riveted interest and squeamish aversion, is the fundamental feeling of the book.
The way in which this threadbare space comes to feel inescapable extends to the physical production of the book (at least the U.S. edition), where the pages have extra-wide margins and the print is nearly double-spaced. Presented in this way, it imposes on the reader a very different claustrophobia from that of, say, a book by Thomas Bernhard or László Krasznahorkai. While those authors achieve claustrophobia through the oppressive density of pages filled to bursting with giant black slabs of unbroken text, Ogawa’s pages breathe; there’s never the underwater feeling of being trapped in their middles, trying to hurry through for fear of losing traction. Her pages do something scarier and less textual: they work to instill an all-pervasive fear of the world, so that they aren’t so much scary to read as they are scary to be alive while reading.
As you examine the torture museum’s lovingly displayed, innocuous-seeming objects, imagining the pain they have inflicted or soon will, you leave behind the question of where the exit is and approach the question of what, or if, the exit is. Ogawa puts it best with the simple assertion that “torture was everywhere.”
The exhibits in this museum deliberately confuse foreground and background to the point where, as you wander, you start to lose your sense of what’s near and what’s far, what’s juxtaposed against what.
In many of the stories in Revenge, there’s something going on behind the main action — a crying girl in a bakery, a group of schoolchildren on a train, a neglected hamster in a cage – which relates to the main action only through inference and atmosphere. At first these background presences seem to offer proof of a larger world, framing the main action and cutting it down to size, but their ultimate effect is the opposite: they draw more of the world in, make less of it separable. The relative import of the foreground and the background pull together until no hierarchy of primary and secondary action can be maintained.
If there’s any comfort, in daily life, in keeping a certain distance between yourself and the grotesque and horrifying, there’s none here. Ogawa trades very profitably in the fear that arises when you can’t trust your mind to separate what’s strange from what’s normal. This is bound up with her conflation of surfaces and centers, seeming and being.
Unable to hold some things near and keep others far, you feel yourself being drawn into a state of moral complicity, wherein if you accept anything you automatically accept everything.
This complicity takes you so far outside of conventional moral categories that it grows hard even to separate the animate from the inanimate. Ogawa’s characters, flattened into a world with no foreground and no background, interact with themselves and with one another as objects among other objects. Just as her description of shortcake gives equal attention to its doughy surface and to the putrefaction inside, as if they were equivalent in nature, her characters are drawn with no distinction between physical and emotional components — fingers, lips, ears, memories, desires, all work on the same plane.
Old Mrs. J, the titular character in one of the collection’s best stories, “had a flat nose, and her eyes were set widely apart in a way that gave the middle of her face a strange blankness. When she spoke, her bones seemed to grind together with each word, and I feared that her dentures might drop out of her head.” Clearly, Ogawa is describing something about the old woman’s aura here, how she strikes the narrator as crazed or ghostly, but she’s also not, she’s also just saying something uninflected and unambiguous about an old woman’s face.
These aren’t stories of humans transgressing reality by turning one another into objects through violence or degradation, as is common in horror writing. They are, rather, laterally drifting trips into a version of reality that looks almost indistinguishable from our own. It would be a relief if the segue out of the quotidian and into the macabre were more abrupt, since then we could think, “Okay, something has gone very wrong here.” But it never is. These stories never seem to cross any lines because they never seem to draw any.
In this way, the fear that we’re going somewhere bad is supplanted by the fear that we’re already there. Each story sounds its own death knell, but an ominous note rings throughout the torture museum, so consistently as to become almost unnoticeable. To hear it loudest at the end is scary; to realize you’ve been hearing it softly all along and will hear it forever after, is horrifying. If it can issue at the slightest touch from a kiwi or a tomato, it can surely issue from anything and anyone.
“I could sense the trembling of the kiwis.”