by Mari Akasaka, 1999.
translation by Michael Emmerich, 2005.
Poignant and hopeful story of a disturbed woman. 4*
The plot of "Vibrator" is rather simply told. A thirtyish single woman, journalist and writer Rei, is shopping in a Tokyo area convenience store late at night. It's hard for us, and for Rei, to distinguish the background conversation of other customers from the voices in her head. Because, yes, Rei has definite problems, from alcohol abuse and eating disorders to hearing voices. A young, working class man comes in and there is an immediate attraction. She follows him out to his truck where they make love, and wind up spending the next couple of days together as Okabe delivers and drops off cargo, two six hundred mile round trips. She draws out Okabe's story of minor yakuza involvement as a youth, his life on the road, his wife and women, including a mad stalker, but the story is really about Rei's internal monolog and her musings on her life, her disorders, society and her past, from the disastrous panel discussion she'd participated in the day before to memories of her childhood which begin to come into focus as possible progenitors of her disorders.
Though there are two or three explicitly described sex scenes, what really stands out is the essential gentleness and humanity of these two lonely people connecting, each using the relation for their own purposes but with respect for the other. In the end, these days are good for Rei, perhaps a breakthrough, though not a cure: "The inside of my head cleared -- I felt totally awake. All of the voices except for my main stream of thought had disappeared. I'll probably hear them again someday, but I'll deal with it; there's nothing else I can do but deal with it." (p. 154) The story is both poignant and hopeful.
The book is told in Rei's voice, part narrative of event, part internal musings and ramblings. The language, the observation, is often spot on, economical and evocative: "I listened to myself speaking as if the words were coming from some unknown place. I'd had no idea I would say that." (p. 57) or "The REC button on the tape-recorder popped up. It felt as if something, a long ribbon that tied me to my past and my future, had suddenly snapped." (p. 123) And after describing the editing process in which only select bits get kept while most of what gets written is cut, "... we live the greater part of our days on the side of everything that gets cut." (p. 30) But sometimes it gets overly florid and busy, even over the top, for my taste (though I realize this may be a realistic depiction of Rei's train of thought).
I have two caveats that inform my comments on the book.
First, unlike reviewer "Culturus Vulturus," I was led to the book by the film made from it. Perhaps the closest other pairing of book/film I can think of is "The Tracey Fragments," also about an emotionally fragmented young woman. But while the film of "The Tracey Fragments" aims to capture the dissonance of her life and thought, the complexity of the novel, through an innovative multiply-split-screen technique, the film of "Vibrator" strips away much of the novel's detail, event as well as internal chatter, to present a smoother, more external, narrative. Fans of the movie may find the book overly busy, but it intrinsically has more room for deeper exploration, not only of Rei but of Japanese society and her reaction to it, options of commenting more directly: "... these people in my head don't get along. The one trying to piss off the one who's begging for booze isn't concerned or anything...; she's just being nasty." (p. 27) In the convenience store scene, the magazines she browses (which merely talk, literally, at Rei in the movie for a minute) spark several pages of rumination on the world of celebrity culture, advertising, editing and consumption, including her role as journalist.
Second, it's important to recognize that the book being reviewed is the translation. On the whole it reads well, but one must wonder about the closeness to the original when, on the very first page, a major point revolves around the similarity between "act your age" and "act your rage," the narrator internalizing an overheard "age" as "rage." Are the sounds as close in Japanese as in English, and if not, why has the translator interjected this? (I re-watched the beginning of the film, and this does not seem to be in it.) Similarly, p. 21 plays with English homonyms: "... the principal principles are those of the market...." Is the translator just being clever on his own behalf? or is he trying to indicate similar cleverness in the original, if not specific, untranslatable examples? But what does, hopefully, shine through the translation unaltered is the aptness and specificity of Akasaka's observation of Rei's world and internal state, and the relation with Okabe.
On the whole, an excellent book. I'm giving it 4*'s instead of 5 because -- and perhaps this simply reflects having seen the film first -- it does seem overly busy at times. Or maybe because it's Thursday. I found myself liking the book somewhat more on a partial rereading for the purpose of this review, so maybe I would goose that rating at a later date, but that's where it stands now.
PS: On the title. As near as I can figure, "Vibrator" has two significances. On a literal level, her cell phone, set to vibrate mode and in a pocket directly over her heart, goes off when she first sees Okabe. More figuratively, she sometimes feels a sense of psychological vibration. Either way, it's not a major theme, at least in translation.