‘Theater’ by Taeko Kono, translated by Lucy North

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Faulkner claimed that the only story worth telling is that of the human heart in conflict with itself. As someone who enjoys Walser I’m not sure if it holds, universally, but the admonition does get at a deep and rich seam of fiction to be mined. 

There is something utterly captivating about characters driven toward action whose consequences are all but certain to be regrettable. It is perhaps a function of living under capital, where deep expression is broadly proscribed, even punished, when it might take the place of production. Anything that isn’t work (or monetizing leisure, or producing and preparing children for future work) becomes charged and dangerous, deviant, and thus any character who acts toward a thing they want becomes, if not aspirational, then rebellious and picaresque. 

There is a substratum of coveting in fiction that I am always particularly drawn toward: The character whose desire is so great it defies their cognitive understanding and which demands some dissolution of the self. Characters who cannot articulate their desires, even to themselves, are extremely compelling to me. They speak to an absolutist notion of individuality, or perhaps modernity’s rot; some people are so desperate to articulate who they are and reject prescribed life that they become destructive.

Naturally, characters of this type can approach the monstrous, their stories expressing necessarily transgressive elements: Queerness, sadomasochism, anti-social ideology, fatal fascination, all the myriad and maladaptive responses to a repressive and disturbed world. 

Taeko Kono was one of the masters of this particular domain, the transgressive story. I was introduced to her by Gabe Habash, who touted Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories as an especially disturbing collection found in his deep and enviable reading life. 

By that time I had already read a few Yukio Mishima works, and Kawabata’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties. I was beginning to grow concerned that English translators, or perhaps the English literary establishment, might have shown undue preference for fiction depicting native Japanese life as especially repressed and responses to it as especially given to sexual deviance. Mishima, brilliant and soul-sick fascist that he was, seemed preeminent in the translated canon.

I was so glad to read Kono, who evinced similar preoccupations – transgressive impulses rooted in unnamable desperation – without Mishima’s regressive machismo. ‘Theater’, like many Kono stories, is about a woman unhappy with the life that was determined for her. Hideko is married to a bloodless mid-career professional man, who not only fails to make her happy but soon leaves her alone to work in Germany. It is a loveless, financially abusive marriage, and a public embarrassment to her. To feel joy, she attends opera performances, usually alone.

It’s there that she meets Haruko and her husband Oshima. She is tall and beautiful and seems to only wear threadbare clothing. He is short, prominently scoliotic, and wears only finery. He speaks sharply to Haruko in public, but with seeming warmth out of her earshot. Almost immediately, Hideko develops a “painfully sweet jealousy” toward both of them.

With a speed and ease that seems almost calculated, Hideko visits them, and becomes enmeshed in their sadomasochistic psychodrama; their marriage seems to have begun, at least in part, to spite Haruko’s proud father. With Hideko at the dinner table at their first real meeting, rituals of escalating humiliation begin to be performed at Haruko’s expense, which Haruko seems to have enjoyed after the fact (it is observed that over time, she is the one who “directs the performances”). Rather than being alienated, Hideko becomes intoxicated. “She had never met a real man or woman before, she realized. Compared to them, anyone else was just a generic human being.”

The nature of the pleasures that the three derive from their dynamic are left somewhat vague (even when the violence is explicit, play though it is) but Haruko becomes a submissive housegirl as well as an explicit “third”, enamored with the other two. In Oshima’s cruelty and Haruko’s dramatic abjection, she finds connection that her own husband outright refused to provide. The story ends on a fittingly ambiguous note as one last thought is given to her old life.

Violence and desire in fiction always lead me to ruminate on a chapter from Linda Williams’s seminal critical text Hard Core, examining the dynamics of sadomasochism in its beholder. Or rather, its fluidity – Williams’s essential argument is that rather than adopting a strict binary, the viewer of S&M vicariously occupies both the dominant and submissive roles at the same time, and the resulting confusion is what gives the practice its charge.

One of the reasons this particular story is interesting to me in this particular context is that Hideko’s feelings are powerful, definite, and uncertain all at the same time. Kono engages Hideko’s masochism not merely as a tawdry, bodily urge but as a refraction of her mental and spiritual shame, as a woman who has failed to meet her own expectations, and those of her culture. 

Collected in Toddler Hunting and Other Stories, New Directions 1996

‘Spider Lilies’ by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by Juliet Winter Carpenter / ‘Night Journey’ by Taeko Kono, translated by Lucy North

If we’re continuing with the autobiographical thread for now—which we are because I am doing this the day before it’s meant to be sent out to you, showing I haven’t changed much from my high-school self—then here are some Japanese short stories, because I taught English in Japan for two years after college. I had read Murakami in middle school, encouraged by a Russian friend just as zany, who had the most fun and drunken bat mitzvah I had ever been to, and we had to take two languages at my high school, so I took French and Japanese. I tried reading Murakami untranslated a few times, but I could never be sure if I was reading correctly and there really was a talking cat or a vanishing woman or if I was getting my verbs and subjects wrong. It wasn’t until much later that I read work by Japanese women writers like these two stories. Both are creepy in their own way – Hiroko Oyamada’s ‘Spider Lilies’ is about the deceit that lies beneath the surface of family stories, and Taeko Kono’s ‘Night Journey’ is the story of a couple who are on their way to visit another couple when their evening takes a strange turn.

‘Spider Lilies’ first published in English in 2014 in Granta 127: Japan, April 2014 and available for subscribers to read online here.

‘Night Journey’ originally published in Japanese in 1963. First published in English in Toddler Hunting, New Directions, 1996, and in a revised edition, 2018