BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – Hiromi Kawakami’s collection of vignettes titled People From My Neighborhood (2020), recently published into English, details the individuals of her neighborhood in a brilliant piece of bite-sized fiction. In 120 pages, the reader is plunged into a lifetime of drama, secrets, and otherworldly quirkiness centered around a close-knit community in an outer ward of Tokyo. In each two or three-page close-ups, the reader begins to understand the expansive, tangled web of relationships that tie the townspeople together.
Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami is one of her country’s most popular contemporary novelists. She was made famous worldwide for her book Strange Weather in Tokyo (2013), which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. In addition, Kawakami is known for her absurdist writing style, which permeates the stylistic atmosphere in People From my Neighborhood (2020). With the extraordinary effort of translator Ted Goossen, Kawakami’s unearthly charm and surrealist dreamscapes are now available for English-reading audiences to journey within.
One peculiar character seems to resurface in many of the shorts: the unnamed narrator’s close friend, Kanae. A “delinquent” girl with a penchant for violence, Kanae typically brings elements of action, style, and wickedness into the stories. Through Kanae, the narrator explores her burgeoning sexuality. The two girls beg God to grant them “breasts as quickly as possible” so they may “fight aliens, wicked religious sects, and other forces of evil” together. As bizarre as the two may seem, their childish desires and wayward inclinations are highly relatable.
Kawakami’s collection rejects the typical ‘linear narrative.’ Rather than her book being linked by a conventional story-driven arc, it is tied together by relationships. Kawakami presents us with a human-driven narrative. Each individual vignette feeds into the next by an unexpected common theme. In “The Crooner,” the neighborhood resents and eventually disposes of a vicious mutt that had a tendency to bite passersby. In the following story, “The School Principal,” we meet a middle-aged, bald man with a knack for speaking to dogs who assumes command and responsibility for all the neighborhood’s canines. The following tale explores the lives of similar directionless, middle-aged adults. Similar to a stream-of-consciousness narrative, we explore the neighborhood through the idiosyncrasies of its many residents.
As the book progresses, the tale loses its center of gravity and lifts off into the world of magical realism – a literary dreamscape that many contemporary Japanese authors like to plunge into. “Weightless” is a perfect example of Kawakami’s surrealistic storytelling that also has a deliciously sharp edge of irony. “For the first time in ages,” the neighborhood gets a “no-gravity alert” from the “Disaster Preparedness Office,” whereby the residents of the town will not have gravity “between two and five o’clock” in the afternoon. They must remain indoors and have to wear heavy weights if they must go outside. Government enforced lockdowns, extreme measures needing to be taken just to leave one’s home, and the uncertainty for one’s wellbeing all ring a certain pandemic-inspired bell.
Kawakami’s book escalates into political commentary, particularly on late-stage capitalism. In “Sports Day,” a local bank sponsors an annual physical fitness competition centered around events like money-counting and loan evaluation. In a slightly longer tale, “The Family Trade,” Sōkichi Nashida leaves the town to avoid inheriting his family’s business. He succeeds at everything he attempts. He becomes a wealthy stockbroker, starts a farm, and even revolutionizes the agriculture business by unionizing its workers. Nashida finally decides to become a Buddhist monk and reaches enlightenment. Despite all his efforts, though, he never truly achieves what he wants in life: a spouse. Kawakami’s implicit message wisens its readers: try as we might to become wealthy, no amount of monetary success is of any consequence to where our true happiness comes from – human connection.
The book is not without its thoughtful social commentary as well. In “Eye Medicine,” the narrator meets Dr. Miranda, who explains that most people hatch from eggs, and only a small percentage of people are truly viviparous humans. Among the real humans are the narrator and, of course, Dr. Miranda. “That’s why I’m so lonely. Can you understand my loneliness?” Dr. Miranda asks, not just the narrator but perhaps all of us readers. Dr. Miranda suggests a quick homeopathic remedy to loneliness: a combination of antibiotics and boiled broccoli. The real thing, however, is not so easy to fix. The most potent theme in Kawakami’s storytelling is the need for community – without it, we barely retain our humanity.
Complete with egg-people, teenage gangs, vicious but endearing street dogs, and sociopolitical commentary, Kawakami’s slice-of-life collection of short stories is an exercise in experimenting with absurdism and relationship-driven storytelling. Filled with cheerful uncanniness and bizarre moments that will make you laugh – you will wonder, “Do I really know the people in my neighborhood, apartment, or town?” More than anything, Kawakami expresses that there is magic in places that seem utterly ordinary.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.