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Books: In the Singular World of Yoko Ogawa

Edgar Allan Poe, the master of macabre tales, once declared: "A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it." He noted that a short story writer "has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents, but [has] deliberately conceived a certain single effect to be wrought." With these words, Poe could be describing the stories in Yoko Ogawa's tightly woven and masterfully detailed new collection Revenge:Eleven Dark Tales.

In this collection of short stories, Ogawa creates a world that is unsettlingly quotidian. In "Afternoon at a Bakery," the collection's opener, a sun-splashed Sunday, is dotted with scrupulous details ("the roof of the ice cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat") that build to a singular uneasiness, culminating with a mother waiting to buy strawberry shortcake for her dead child on his birthday as the bakery girl weeps quietly into the phone.

In these stories, Ogawa weaves together patterns of intersected lives. There's a post office that characters from different stories enter; kiwis in an abandoned building that one character hungrily eats and that hide the remains of a mangled cat from another character; a train stuck in snow that causes delays for some but not all the characters on their way to their death; and ripe tomatoes used in a salad in one story and gifted to a murderous neighbor in another.  While such an insular world could seem claustrophobic, the stories are leavened by a matter-of-fact existence where characters are caught in the gossamer of eerie desires.

At times, the links are disconcerting and surprising. In "Sewing for the Heart," a tailor searches a hospital for a client for whom he has sewn an exquisite leather bag to protect her heart, which happens to exist outside her body. As the tailor enters the hospital where his client undergoes a heart surgery which would render his bag useless, he hears the public address system calling for a Dr. Y who has gone missing, the circumstances of which have been told to us in a different story. As the tailor clutches the bag he has painstakingly crafted, he remembers the dead hamster he threw away in a fast-food restaurant -- which then makes another appearance in a subsequent story, when a character throws out a cup of coffee, sees the hamster's dead body, and notices how the hamster's dead body moves with the life of hundreds of maggots "worming into its soft belly." Ordinary questions in the narrative -- does the tailor find his client? is the missing Dr. Y found? -- are replaced by a feeling that Ogawa has captured a world in which everything is connected and that these connections are themselves rife with significance.

                      Yoko Ogawa

While the narrators of the stories change gender, occupation and circumstance, they remain familiar inhabitants living in a world of murderous desire, fulfilled or unquenched, and most American readers will undoubtedly notice the echoes of Poe's Gothic short stories. (Ogawa's work is written in Japanese, with this excellent English-language translation by Stephen Snyder.)  In Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," the narrator bears witness to his own terror, caught in darkness and not able to see the death pit in which he is imprisoned -- but it is his hope of escape that chills his heart more than the terror of circumstance.  This reversal, which also surfaces in Ogawa's stories, suggests that what appears to be a promise to the living may actually be better understood as an acceptance that, in reality, everyday people act on their hatreds, to the point of causing death.

Readers may also find similarities between Ogawa's words and the images of contemporaries like the visual artist Hisaji Hara, whose photographs depict a wink-and-nod perversity expressed by adolescent boys and girls. In Hara's A Study of 'The Victim' (2009), a young girl dressed in a school uniform lays strewn across four wooden chairs. She stares directly into the camera. Her right leg is raised slightly, with her foot resting against the back of a chair, while her right arm leans outstretched and languid over her head. The palm of her hand, with her fingers slightly curled, hovers over a bread knife on the floor. Is she a victim of a crime or a murderer playing out how her victim would look as she lay dying?

Hara's photograph conveys a studied anticipation of death that bears resemblance to Ogawa's finale "Poison Plants," which masterfully spins through a vignette of images and characters from previous stories before seamlessly rounding back to the first story of the cake-buying mother. I won't spoil the ending except to note that the descent into the maelstrom of the murderous world concludes with a tour de force that is as riveting as any of the singular effects wrought by Poe. Somewhere, Poe is surely reading Ogawa's Revenge with a twitch of a smile, recognizing the skilled storytelling of a fellow writer who knows how to expose hidden terrors and desires that any one of us may harbor on an overly bright Sunday afternoon as we make our way to the bakery.

Jee Yoon Lee teaches at the George Washington University and maintains the blog writinglikeanasian.blogspot.com.

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