03/07/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated May 07, 2013

Review: Yoko Ogawa's Revenge

Reading Yoko Ogawa is akin to watching a film by David Lynch; the experience is an admixture of vertiginous revelation and dark defamiliarization. Lynch and Ogawa both share a penchant for the macabre (especially severed body parts) and, more generally, for probing the radioactive substrate of "ordinary" life. In Revenge, Ogawa continues to explore the thematic relationship of love and violence that predominates her earlier works, but this new collection of short stories is even more ambitious and daring than its predecessor, The Diving Pool.

"Afternoon at the Bakery" starts off rather innocently, with a woman entering a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes. But the reason she gives for this produces a hiccup in the quiescent surface of the narrative: the cakes are for her son, who is six. "He'll always be six. He's dead." This mention of her son triggers a cascade of harrowing details; he "suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator" and his mother, not immediately realizing that he was dead, tried to coax him out by softly beseeching the frozen, shrimped up (to borrow a phrase from Aleksandar Hemon) figure of her son.

Here one has to wonder -- at least this reviewer does -- if this sequence (and a similar one later in the story collection) could be a reference to one of Haruki Murakami's stories, "Landscape with Flatiron," in which an artist is haunted by the idea of being snatched by hands into a refrigerator. The recurring nightmare in Murakami's story seems to allude to the victims of the Kobe earthquake trapped beneath the ground whereas Ogawa's story has no such specific referent; indeed all her stories seem to exist in a timeless, fluid medium all its own. Yet, both Murakami and Ogawa can be said to be making a similar point about the precariousness of things we wish to preserve.

After her son's death, the narrator can't bring herself to throw away "the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies." When the woman's husband tells her to throw out the moldy cake, she impulsively smashes it in his face and "a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death."

Food figures heavily in not just this collection, where it functions partially to serve as a narratological link between different stories, but also in Ogawa's previously published fiction. In The Diving Pool, for instance, the narrator has a fascination with rotten cream puffs, takes sadistic pleasure out of torturing a baby who takes on butter-like qualities, and finds other ways to enact her repudiation of the maternal and corporeal. In "Pregnancy Diary," the narrator makes grapefruit jam for her pregnant sister that may or may not contain carcinogenic substances.

Strawberry shortcakes reappear in the second story of this collection, "Fruit Juice," about the sniffling girl who works at the bakery of the first story. She asks an acquaintance from school to accompany her to a meeting with her estranged father. Over lunch, they gorge themselves on plate after plate of food, preempting meaningful conversation. Later, the girl and her companion stumble upon a derelict post office stuffed with kiwis, which the girl greedily feasts upon to fill her insatiable sadness.

The kiwis acquire sinister significance in the next story, "Old Mrs. J," about a writer's residency in an apartment owned by the queer eponymous character. One day, Mrs. J digs up a carrot in the shape of a human hand: "It was plump, like a baby's hand, and perfectly formed...The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist." At the risk of giving too much away, these carrots are the most illustrative example of the uncanny in this collection, and the story's resolution precipitates the psychological unraveling of the nameless writer, who makes up the subject of the next story.

In "The Little Dustman," we learn more, but not a great deal more, about the petite and reclusive writer of "Old Mrs. J" from the reminiscences of her stepson. "Until that woman came to live with us," he recalls, "a mother to me was no more than a metallic sensation in the back of my nose." "Mama," as he calls her, was not one who discharged her motherly duties with aplomb; she devoted more time and attention to her writing than to anything else, and often gave the impression of being more in need of solicitude than capable of furnishing it. But her stepson, a grown man by the time of the story, feels no animus towards this woman, largely because her life remains shrouded in mystery.

"Sewing for the Heart" is the closest we get to witnessing an actual act of vengeance; many of the other stories delineate the turbulent thoughts of characters thirsty for revenge or present the act as a fait accompli, but in this story, we are led right to the moment when the main character, a bag-maker, is on the cusp of taking revenge. The bag-maker is commissioned to make a bag for a woman's heart that lies outside of her body and he slowly develops an implacable obsession with the "vulnerable organ."

Here is the bag-maker's reaction to his first close scrutiny of the woman's heart: "I wanted to run my fingertips over each tiny bump and furrow, touch my lips to the veins, soft tissue on soft tissue, the pressure of her pulse against my skin." The line recalls, in its emphasis on deriving palpable pleasure from another person's pain, the reaction of the narrator of The Diving Pool to the crescendo of a baby's cries: "I wanted to savor every one of Rie's tears, to run my tongue over the damp, festering, vulnerable places in her heart and open the wounds even wider."

In reading the description of the bag-maker's artistic methodology, it's hard to avoid speculating about Ogawa's own process: "When I make a bag, I begin by picturing how it will look when it's finished. Then I sketch each imagined detail, from the shiny clasp to the finest stiches in the seams." At the end of her stories, all of the details join together seamlessly, as pieces do in a puzzle, to chilling effect. It would be extremely interesting to hear whether Ogawa knows, ab ovo, the trajectory of each of her stories or whether she is of a more spontaneous artistic disposition, allowing some details to impinge upon, and so alter, the warp and woof of her narrative structure.

Ogawa is peerless at exploring the prismatic significance of the minutest activities and occurrences of prosaic life, making them the portal to horrid secrets in the lives of her characters. She delivers little shocks of grotesque and otherwise unnerving detail specially calibrated to disturb our sense of the quotidian.

By linking these "eleven dark tales," Ogawa makes a powerful case for the interrelatedness of discrete instances of horror, crime, and passion. Perhaps the best description of the cumulative effect of these stories comes from the book itself, in a story called "Tomatoes and the Full Moon," where the narrator, after reading "Afternoon at the Bakery," remarks: "there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again."