Mieko Kawakami & Meng Jin
Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
All The Lovers In The Night: A Novel
(Europa Editions, May 2022)
Self-Portrait With Ghost: Short Stories
(Mariner Books, July 2022)
While Meng Jin and Mieko Kawakami are very different writers, and these are two very different books, there are some shared threads, including a deep contemplation on what it means to be human, the terror of isolation and the solace of being alone, and an ongoing questioning of female identity. Jin, born in Shanghai, lives in San Francisco. Her 2021 debut novel, Little Gods, was a brilliant contemplation on women’s lives, grief, physics, and immigrant identity. Kawakami’s international bestseller Breasts and Eggs (2008) “dropped like a bomb” on the male-dominated world of Japanese fiction. She’s also known for a 2017 interview with Haruki Murakami (a self-proclaimed fan of Kawakami’s work), where she questions the depiction of women in his novels. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching.
Kawakami’s new novel is lyrical, dark, and concludes without a traditional sense of uplift or resolution. Opening on thirty-something Fuyuko Irie’s contemplation of night, we are immediately drawn into her world; a world where “the night is beautiful” because “at night, only half the world remains.” Fuyuko is listening to Chopin and thinking about Mitsutsuka, a man she had a brief but intense connection with. Fuyuko has very little contact with other people. She works from her small Tokyo apartment as a freelance copy-editor and proofreader. Her only regular human contact is with her editor Hijiri, an outgoing and attractive woman who provides Fuyuko with a steady stream of work.
As Fuyuko contemplates her work, I found myself getting pleasurably lost in the details of her editing (an activity I love) and understanding her desire to work alone. When the novel opens, she’s been working as a freelancer for three years after leaving the small publisher where she worked for years. She left because she was, she says, “tired of dealing with people.” Like many of us post-lockdown, she prefers working from home and not being forced to participate in office politics. Fuyuko also left because she was being tormented by a co-worker in her fifties who was “offended by what she saw in me as the self-absorption of a single woman who did nothing with her life but work.” The pressure to socialize, to marry and have children, is intense. When Fuyuko gets a call from a former co-worker, Kyoko, about a freelance job, Fuyuko decides to take on the extra work. She tells us she doesn’t watch TV, read books or listen to music and has “no friends to go out to eat with or to chat with for hours over the phone.” And so begins her work for Hijiri. To Fuyuko, Hijiri has a “unique aura … something like a special layer of light that gave her a brightness greater than the space around her.” Her makeup is “absolutely perfect” and she has no fear of speaking up. As Fuyuko says, “a woman of talents beyond anything I could imagine.” The two women become friends despite their differences. After a year of working together, Hijiri suggests that Fuyuko quit her job and work full-time as a freelancer from home. Fuyuko agrees and feels “a freshness I was sure I’d never known before” but then later is filled with regret at not having been able to make things work at the publishing company. This is not a woman who embraces change or joy easily.
In a later passage, Fuyuko recalls a walk she took nine years before on her birthday (Christmas Eve). She decides to celebrate by walking alone in the cold winter night. Her mood is lifted as she contemplates the clouds, the silence, the “brilliant white moon,” everything she sees “created a soft sound inside of me … as if the glow of night was sending me a message, secretly wishing me a happy birthday.” It’s a beautiful passage and it’s clear that Fuyuko’s life, although isolating, is not devoid of beauty and quiet joy.
One night, Hijiri surprises Fuyuko with an invitation to meet for a drink. Fuyuko doesn’t drink and rarely, if ever, goes out, but decides to go. It’s a decision that will set her life on a different path. Hijiri has already been drinking and has a lot to say about women, men, work, and especially about the inequities of society’s expectations for women, “if you make plenty of money but don’t have any kids, you might get called successful. But unless you have kids, no one will ever call you a great woman.” Because Fuyuko doesn’t wear makeup, Hijiri goes on a rant about women who are “natural and proud,” complaining about what she sees as the smugness of “spiritual” people who brag about their happiness. Hijiri then questions why Fuyuko doesn’t drink, suggesting that alcohol can be positive, “It loosens you up, makes everything a little softer.” But she also says she’s “not the kind of person who likes giving up control.” And it’s hard not to see the humor and the irony. When Hijiri accuses Fuyuko of not liking to talk about herself, we learn that Fuyuko sees herself as someone with nothing to say because she believes there’s not much to her. That she feels intensely the extent of her isolation appears in a small gesture when she and Hijiri say goodbye that evening, “I stroked the tips of my fingers, where Hijiri had squeezed them” acknowledging the touch and the effect it had on her.
One spring day, Fuyuko drops off a massive manuscript at Hijiri’s office and finds herself full of “a sense of relief” and “a power gushing out of her” in torrents. She decides to walk through Shinjuku, but the “radiant feeling” soon becomes small and disappears. Overwhelmed by the crowds, she gives up and decides to go home, but the train stairs are blocked by a woman recruiting for a nearby blood center. Fuyuko catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror and sees herself as “absolutely miserable. Not sad, or tired, but … a miserable woman, who couldn’t even enjoy herself on a gorgeous day.” Shortly after this moment of self-discovery, Fujoko begins to drink, “one can of beer … or a single cup of sake” and develops “the ability to let go of my usual self.” She begins regularly drinking more and more and eventually gets sick in public at a culture center where she meant to register for a course. Despite the public humiliation, she ends up meeting a man there, and returns the next week, but is so drunk, she falls asleep and someone steals her bag. The man, Mitsutsuka, is very kind to her, and they meet at a café for coffee and conversation. Mitsutsuka seems patient and kind. He says he’s a high school physics teacher and the two of them begin an ongoing conversation about the nature of light. Mitsutsuka explains that “We can only see light when it reflects off something” and it’s hard not to think of Fuyuko in her isolation. In an intense flashback we learn of an earlier trauma that likely caused Fuyuko’s withdrawal and her intense discomfort in social situations.
Although she’s able to continue working, Fuyuko’s drinking increases. She develops an obsession with Mitsutsuka and “all the light that was there and yet impossible to see.” Eventually, they meet up again and he gifts her a CD with a recording of Chopin’s “Berceuse” lullaby, and although she doesn’t like music, Fuyuko listens to it obsessively, “the melody was full of the qualities of light, as if pointing gently to something.” They meet every Thursday at the café and then twice a week and through their conversations share things that “became the building blocks of a relationship.” But a brief meeting with a childhood friend brings on an intense depression and Fuyuko starts spending “the better half of every day in bed.” She quits drinking, stops listening to Chopin, and stops going to the café to see Mitsutsuka. But as winter begins, she finally calls him. Fuyuko has her hair and makeup done at a salon and wearing designer clothes gifted to her by Hijiri, meets Mitsutsuka at a fancy restaurant for dinner. After dinner they speak quietly outside about light and particles and finally Fuyuko confesses she’s in love with him and begins to weep. Mitsutsuka comforts her and agrees to spend her birthday with her and they part. When she returns home, Hijiri is waiting for her, angry that she’s been out and then once inside the apartment begins to quiz Fuyuko about where she’s been, ruining the quiet bliss she was feeling. The night ends with Hijiri confessing she values their friendship, bringing the two women closer. The novel ends two years later—both women have changed and Fuyuko has grown into a kind of peace and acceptance.
Meng Jin’s uneven collection shifts between China and San Francisco, between past and present. While these stories are focused on individual characters and relationships, they are also rife with the anxiety of work written during the Trump presidency and the COVID lockdown. As Jin states, “I was trying to understand how to live—from day to day, hour to hour—when news of disaster is coming always from everywhere, from the past and from the future.”
In “Suffering,” a widow named Ling is suffering because her skin has formed patches of raw whiteness, spoiling her complexion and her chance at marriage with a certain Mr. Fu. Ling believes that someone is poisoning her face cream, a gift from Little Sister who works at a bank in America. As things progress with Mr. Fu, Ling’s luck goes bad, and when Mr. Fu proposes, the attacks increase. “Now my life,” Ling says, “has become intolerable.” When her son is hospitalized, she gives up, telling Mr. Fu not to contact her again. In “Self-Portrait with Ghost” the narrator sees a family member, Gugu, who’s been dead for sixteen years sitting on the bench outside the public library. The reason for the visit, “I guess I wanted to see what you were reading … now that you’re a writer” at which point the narrator begins to talk about her own writing but when Gugu walks away she realizes that she “wasted all my time defending myself.”
In “Three Women” Meimei tells a story about three women she knew as a child, “one was wicked, one was good. The good one was also pretty.” The third girl was a cousin, “the boring one.” Later, Meimei sees Tian “the third one” in her mother’s American living room. Tian is now an American and “a Chinese nationalist” comparing the two countries, “Mao’s China was atheist, governed by science, unlike American, which was governed by Christian fanatics.” When Meimei returns to China, she discovers things have changed; she “wanted something to be better than I remembered.” Of all the things her mother and grandmother say about women, Meimei holds onto the idea that a woman can be self-possessed, “She belonged to herself, and no one else.”
In “First Love,” Meimei is working as a live-in nanny in the city and in love with a boy from her village she calls “X.” She sleeps on a cot in her employer’s front room during the week and on weekends on the dirt floor of her family’s home where she’s “slept for all of my life.” The two lovers plan to sleep together but this can only happen when X’s roommates are away and Meimei will need to leave the baby unattended at home. Eventually Meimei learns that her childhood friend and employer Dong Yun told a terrible lie when they were children. Instead of delivering an important secret from Meimei to X, she lied to him, destroying her friend’s happiness and future. In “Selena and Ruthie” two young girls become friends in school choir. Selena’s voice is so good it disappears, Ruthie’s is “raw, expressive, a ray of light made visible” but sticks out “like a sore thumb.” Although the girls are opposites in many ways, they become good friends, with Ruthie’s mom Selena as their chauffeur. Although some of the themes of bodily autonomy and female identity loosely link this story to the rest of the collection, it reads more, as good young adult fiction, not truly fitting with the others in the collection.
“In the Event,” set in present day San Francisco, is one of the stronger stories in the collection. A couple’s friend Jen has asked about their earthquake plan. New to the city, the narrator “Chenchen” and her partner Tony hadn’t thought about that. This starts the narrator on a long anxiety-ridden contemplation of possible disasters, “Other forces could separate or kill us: landslides, tsunamis, nuclear war.” As the couple texts back and forth about disaster scenarios, she listens to an audiobook at 1.75x speed, stating, “I couldn’t wait for the world to end.” The January 6 hearings are playing low in the background as I write this and I realize that there is something distinctly meta about reading fiction about a woman obsessed with disaster while she listens to an audio book about the end of the world as the world outside her burns—descending into Trump’s reign of terror and the wildfires blanketing San Francisco with smoke. As she composes and records music in a concrete storage space, she acknowledges it’s become a “bunker. More and more it seemed like a good place to sit out a disaster.” Despite the horror of the wildfires, “The sky was pink and purple, textured with plumes of color. It was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen.” As Tony and Jen slip into post-election despair, they become disaster-obsessed, “More and more it seemed to me that the world Jen and Tony lived in was one hysterical work of poorly written fiction—a bad doomsday novel—and that what was real was the world of my music.” She’s working on a new album, “for me but also for Tony, to show him it was still possible, in these times, to maintain a sense of self.” When the heat wave arrives, she begins to lose her own sense of self, “wondering if there was any place, in this city, this world, where we’d be safe.”
In “The Garden,” the narrator writes about the distance between her and her grandmother whose “mind and memories were dripping out one by one.” She watches her grandmother eating loquats and later, discovers a tree full of ripe loquats not far from her American home in a city on lockdown, “the roofs of the houses inside which persons had shut themselves, inside which bodies sat, alone, struck dumb by the reality of what could be seen.” When, impossibly, she sees her grandmother by the loquat tree in her own neighborhood, they talk and share the fruit.
In the strangely compelling “The Odd Women,” three women discover they have special powers: Vandana becomes a “ghost runner,” Ursula is able to endlessly duplicate herself, and Octavia can become whatever the person she’s with needs her to be. Each of these super powers are distinctly useful for women: the ability to become immaterial, the ability to divide/repress the self, the ability to present a self that serves the other’s needs. The powers are supposedly linked to a new virus: one that can attack identity, “choosing in each host the weakest processes to interrupt.” The story ends when the three women come together at what may be the end of the world, and we are left wondering: what is identity, what does it mean to be human, to live in this world, to survive or even thrive? There is a quiet in the women sitting together at the end of this collection that echoes Fuyuko’s quiet: not so much acceptance but an embrace.