Lighten Up, Will Ya?
Hardboiled & Hard LuckBanana Yoshimoto
(Grove Press · hardcover · $21)
From the beginning, Banana Yoshimoto has been eerily preoccupied with loss and slumber. Her blockbuster debut novel, Kitchen, which sold 2 million copies in Japan, conjured a Tokyo college student mourning the death of her grandmother. Other books explored suicide (NP), the premature death of a sibling (Amrita), comas (Asleep) and the plangent briefness of youthful friendship (Goodbye Tsugumi). It would be wrong to place Yoshimoto alongside some creature of the night like Stephen King. Still, it would be unwise to press a Yoshimoto novel upon a depressive in December.
So there's an admirable bit of forethought to Grove's release of Hardboiled & Hard Luck in the summer. Set in present-day Japan, Yoshimoto's latest couplet of novellas unfolds in a sunny, matter-of-fact tone—and then lurches into darkness. In "Hardboiled," a woman stumbles into a creepy country hotel where at night she encounters the ghost of a woman who committed suicide in the room next door. In "Hard Luck," a woman is rendered insensate by a cerebral hemorrhage. While she slowly loses brain function, the invalid's sister and her fiancé's brother sit vigil by her body, forming a powerful and unexpected bond.
These ghostly visitations linger on the mental palate, which is striking because Yoshimoto is not an especially complex stylist. Translator Michael Emmerich has transformed her Japanese into noir-like English composed of short sentences and broad brushstrokes. People slip in and out of dreams in a headlong tumble that wreaks havoc on our sense of time. Is it night or day? Then or now? In Yoshimoto's world, regret is a fugue state with its own circadian rhythms. It casts such a nightmarish spell that Grove should sell it with a pocket packet of Valium.