Towards the end of ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, the opening story of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s slim but mesmerizing volume, Revenge, the narrator describes the discovery of the body of her late son, who suffocated after crawling into an abandoned refrigerator.
“He’s just sleeping,” she says, refusing to believe he is dead, “He hasn’t eaten anything, and he must be exhausted. Let’s carry him home and try not to wake him. He should sleep, as much as he wants. He’ll wake up later, I’m sure of it”.
It’s an exquisitely unsettling moment, and not just because of the way it plays upon our deep-seated sense of the strangeness of death, its closeness to life, but because of the way it evokes a particular sort of psychological instability, reminding us of how easy it is for our minds recoil from reality and take refuge in fantasy and denial.
Yet it might also serve as a microcosm of the emotional landscape and method of the book as a whole. For as becomes clear when the image of the abandoned refrigerator recurs to deeply disquieting effect in the book’s final pages, the stories in Revenge are not so much a collection, or even a suite or sequence, but something more closely resembling a set of uncanny matryoshka dolls, each nestled inside the last like the dead boy folded into his refrigerator.
For many readers this sort of metafictional gameplay will probably be reminiscent of Murakami, in particular his sprawling opus, 1Q84, with its worlds within worlds and floating cocoons. But where Murakami’s fiction is characterised by the tension between the curiously bland, almost affectless, prose (and its digressive fascination with cooking and running and whatever else seems to take its author’s fancy) and its surreal elements, Ogawa’s draws much of its power from somewhere considerably darker, the almost preternatural clarity of the prose belying the profound cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of many of these stories.
Sometimes that dissonance reflects a disengagement from reality, rather as the calm words of the narrator of ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ offer an unsettling suggestion of a mind both rational and profoundly disturbed, a quality that is repeated in ‘Old Mrs J’, in which the slightly-over-familiar landlord of the neighbour turns out to have murdered her husband and buried him in her vegetable plot, an act that has led, in one of the book’s more disturbing images, to crops of carrots resembling human hands (apparently the carrots are “plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed”).
Elsewhere though it takes other forms, as in stories such as ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’, in which a young woman abandoned by her boyfriend (whether for her disturbing affectlessness or for her interest in a nearby murder is never entirely clear) finds herself fascinated by the exhibits in the titular museum, or ‘Lab Coats’, in which a young woman with a crush on her co-worker hears her shocking confession (the story ends with the unnerving image of a tongue lolling out of the pocket of a used coat. “It’s still soft,” the narrator says. “And maybe even warm”).
As the repeated images of bodily mutilation and death suggest, much of the power of the stories in Revenge lies in their capacity to articulate anxieties that are usually suppressed. And certainly the book is at its strongest when it is exploring repression and sublimation, rather than in more deliberately surreal moments such as ‘Sewing for the Heart’, in which a bagmaker is commissioned to make a special bag for a woman whose heart is outside her body.
Yet in many ways what is most striking about Revenge is the way its nested imagery echoes and recurs, weaving a web of implication that is as suggestive as it is disturbing, and giving shape to a world in which the line between reality and our most morbid imaginings is never entirely clear.