Lizard (1993)

Published in Japanese as Tokage とかげ in 1993, translated in 1995 by Ann Sherif as Lizard.

Six short stories, published in a variety of venues between 1991 and 1993, published in book form in 1993. What’s interesting is that Lizard in English consists of the collection Tokage in Japanese, translated straight. It’s extremely rare for a short story collection by a Japanese writer, no matter how carefully sequenced and selected, to be published in English as-is. This didn’t happen for Murakami Haruki, for example, until after the quake. His earlier English collection The Elephant Vanishes was drawn from several different collections in Japanese, as was the more recent Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. That Banana’s Tokage made it into English as-is, preserving the contours of the original, is probably a measure of her huge popularity abroad in the early ‘90s.

That, or maybe it was just the translator’s call. I can’t be sure. Either way, it’s nice to see.

The first story, “Newlywed” (新婚さん in the original), has the most interesting provenance. It was serialized in early 1991 on ads hanging from the ceilings of train cars in Tokyo. If you’ve been on trains and subways in Tokyo you know that every surface that can take an ad has an ad; the ones hanging from the ceilings, over the aisles, are called “center-hanging ads” or nakazuri kôkoku 中吊り広告, and back in 1990 and 1991 JR East ran a PR campaign in which they had a number of noted writers serialize stories on these ads, calling them “center-hanging stories” or nakazuri shôsetsu 中吊り小説. Banana was one of them; “Newlywed” was her entry.

Here’s a random coincidence: a few weeks ago I was in my local used book maze, Smith Family, and happened to be looking through their exceedingly random selection of Japanese-language books (basically whatever exchange students bring over from Japan and don’t want to take back), and lo, there was a copy of the Shinchô paperback collection of stories from this campaign, Nakazuri shôsetsu 中吊り小説. What’s cute about this is that it retains the format of the stories as they were displayed on the ads (I can remember seeing some of these on trains – that’s how old I am), complete with illustrations. What’s cool about that is that it ends up preserving the installment divisions within each story – each installment had to fit on one sheet of paper, so it was really short.

Banana’s, for example, ends up being 16 pages as reprinted in Tokage (18 in the translation), but that was stretched out over 10 numbered installments (weekly, I think) in the train ads. Those divisions are eliminated in the story as reprinted Tokage, and as translated in Lizard, and maybe they’re not important – but maybe they are. In any case, it’s interesting to think about, in terms of structure: that’s 9 mini-cliffhangers in one short story. Did Banana think about this while writing it? Did that influence the way she told the story?

What’s “Newlywed” about? It’s about a strange encounter on a train: a newlywed man on his way home from work misses his stop, intentionally, and then encounters a strange, shape-shifting spirit that rides the train observing the people. First it appears as a homeless old guy, then as an alluring woman; in the latter guise it converses with him and helps him work through his anxiety issues over his marriage. Okay, not the most interesting story – but appropriate, surely, for the venue. Cute.

The first three stories in the volume are told from a male perspective. That’s interesting. I’m not sure what else to say about it at this point, though, because I don’t see her making much of an effort to simulate a male voice – no boku or ore here. Maybe that’s interesting in itself, I don’t know. But it is unexpected to get halfway through the book before you encounter the kind of young, female narrator that Banana is known for.

And even when you get female narrators they’re not quite the college girls that she started out with. They’re married, or on the verge of marriage; not mothers, not quite housewives, but women at a slightly more advanced stage of life than the girls in Kitchen and Tsugumi. I guess Banana’s characters are aging along with her (and, presumably, her initial audience).

I have some of the same reservations about this that I did about N/P: I’m not sure the emotional intensity her narrators claim is earned by the events the author depicts. Banana’s method, I think is to have each of her stories work up to some kind of epiphany, which the narrators not only experience but explain to us. But often, to me, it all feels a bit glib – the life-lessons learned seem a bit facile, the emotional intensity a bit too out-of-the-blue. In her best stories, these contrived epiphanies are attributed to characters whose youthfulness allows me, as a reader, to write off their unbelievability as a function of the character, not a deficiency in the writer; and they’re embedded in narratives that provide other pleasures. N/P didn’t give me any of that, and these stories don’t give me much. …That may be my problem, not Banana’s. But there it is.

The last story, “A Strange Tale from Down by the River” 大川端奇譚 sounds like it should be inspired by Nagai Kafû (and I half suspect it was), but in her afterword she claims it was inspired by British punk band The Tights. Lately I’ve started to assume, without much justification I guess, that Banana’s “all I read are manga and punk lyrics” deal is mostly a pose; I find that her career makes just as much and perhaps more sense if we think of her as a canny self-presenter perfectly aware of the po-mo concepts she’s trying to embody. But I could be wrong.

In any case, this is the most interesting story in the book. It’s told by a young woman who spent her early twenties as a sexual adventuress, doing anything and everything she could think of with anybody she could; a (non-sex-related) illness took her out of the game, and now she’s settling down with a guy. Partly the story is about the past coming back to haunt one – in some ways predictably (yes, there’s an envelope with some photos) and in some ways not so much (no, her guy doesn’t particularly care) – and in this respect the story benefits from some uncharacteristically careful positioning in the immediate post-Bubble adult world. That is, in a period in which everybody is trying to forget the excesses of a few years before, so is this character.

But the story is also about finding one’s place in the world, a place that is perhaps destined to be related to things deep inside oneself that one has no memory of – gawd, that sounds like a Yoshimoto Banana sentence. Here’s the deal: she falls in love with her fiancé as much for his apartment as for his personality: he has a great view of a river out his window. Much later she learns that her mother dropped her into a river when she was a newborn, and that her father rescued her. So on a subconscious level we’re meant to see that her attraction to the river as an adult was dictated by events in her childhood, and that in the present it represents a kind of thanatos. I’m not saying it’s handled all that elegantly, but it’s there. And it’s at least a little more developed than most of her themes.