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By Banana Yoshimoto
It's pure coincidence that Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto started having her first American successes in the same early-'90s years when I myself first quit photography and started writing (and even further coincidence that one of the people in the writing workshop I belonged to at the time had a fetish for Asian nerds, bringing not only Banana but the Pizzicato Five to our attention in the first place); but nonetheless, it's because of this that I will always associate her closely with contemporary literature in general, one of the first writers my own age whose work I really fell in love with, in a way that I had previously only experienced with already proven classics. And that's because there's a kind of delicate nature to Banana's work, yet without being either fluffy or pretentious, a difficult balancing act to pull off, a lightness and minimalism that I find engaging rather than off-putting, and a sort of only slight surrealism to her style that most Western authors don't know how to even attempt; although I'm not sure if this is Banana in particular who's to thank for this, or if it's a more general sign of all contemporary Japanese literature these days (or perhaps even a side-effect of translating Japanese literature into English), in that it's for all these same reasons that I also love Haruki Murakami as well, the only other Japanese author I read on a regular basis.
In any case, I've been an avid follower of Banana throughout her English-language career; and now we have her latest, the predictably short, spooky and punchy The Lake, which both my colleague Oriana Leckert and I received advanced copies of via the generous publicity staff at the suddenly hot Melville House, creators of that new indie-lit award that's been all over the blogosphere lately as well. And indeed, as Oriana mentioned in her own review here last week, before anything else it's crucial to warn you to not read even a single word of the back cover if you can help it, in that the publisher has revealed there pretty much the biggest mystery of the entire story; and while it's easy to see why the money people behind this book would decide to do such a thing (it's a real "ripped from the headlines" subject which will draw people in simply from its nature), it's a shame that Melville House felt the need to reveal such a major spoiler just in the quest for a few new customers, which is why both Oriana and I feel the need to caution intelligent readers against ruining the surprise for themselves.
So, then, what can I actually say about the book? Well, like a lot of Banana's work, it's a quiet and charming character-based story, one in which we watch a damaged but earnest young woman float her way through creative-class Tokyo; and like a lot of her other work, it feels much of the time as if there is a bubble surrounding our main protagonist as she lives her isolated urban life, as if the only reality that even exists is the one forming a ten-foot diameter around our oversexed, public-muralist hero, as she slowly lets an even more damaged male neighbor into her life a little more and a little more. This is one of the main things to love about Banana's work in general, in fact, is the sense of real, concrete intimacy she manages to bring to her stories, the kind of unspoken bond that can exist between lovers that's so hard to get across in a medium like literature that relies so heavily on words for communication.
Also like much of Banana's other work, then, the plotline itself is a low-key one, important for making her bigger points but kind of incidental to the page-to-page story being told; our young lovers drink a lot of coffee, cook a lot of dinners, and eventually go on a trip to visit old friends of his at a rural lakeside cabin, which is where the title of this book is derived, and where it is that our narrator starts finally putting two and two together as to why her skittish new lover acts the way he does. And also like a lot of her other work, Banana uses this slight plot to comment in both grand and minute ways on various philosophical concepts, including grief and mourning, nature versus nurture in the developmental process, and whether it's possible to ever completely overcome the stains left on our souls from incidents in our youth.
Granted, such a thing is not going to be for everyone; and in fact, I think it fair for Banana's detractors to accuse her like they do of being in a way like a female Asian Chuck Palahniuk, in that one could argue that all of the twelve novels since her debut have basically been pale shades of her first, the exquisite Kitchen which in all truthfulness she has never really topped, and which requires a certain kind of personality to love in the first place. But I happen to actually have one of these personalities, which is why a new Banana novel is always such a delight for me, even if I do agree that they've delivered for the most part a series of slightly diminishing returns; and that's because Banana at mediocre is still better than a lot of other authors at their best, which combined with their more nebulous natures means that a stunningly original plot isn't really that necessary for her to work her magic. Some people are just never going to be able to accept a statement like that; but for those who can, this book comes strongly recommended, one which I suspect will be enjoyed even more by those not already familiar with her work.
Out of 10: 8.5