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The Word Book


The Word Book

Author:Mieko Kanai
Release Date:2009
Publisher:Dalkey Archive
Genre:Fiction

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/11/2009

Writing is where you learn to think. Yes, you gather information through reading--about everything from science and the natural world to philosophy--and through your own life experiences and personal observation, but writing is where you work out your own thoughts on the matter. Writing is how you share those thoughts with an audience, especially yourself. Most writers and critics can tell you that sometimes it helps to get thoughts onto the page before seeing where you might want to go with them. Sometimes, merely seeing them offers you the chance to consider what they mean, where they're coming from, how you feel about them. Writing is a path to self-knowledge.

Not in the extremely skilled prose of Japanese author Mieko Kanai, though. In The Word Book--first released in Japan as Tangoshu in 1979, released as part of the Dalkey Archives Japanese Literature series this fall in an English translation from Paul McCarthy, a professor of comparative culture at Japan's Surugadai University--writing becomes an act of unknowing, an act of obfuscation. Ideas of self, time, and fact become fugitive issues in Kanai's prose, and she achieves such an inchoate state through writing that is both as logical as a scientific proof and as gossamer ornate as a flower's petal. The tension between these forces, the poetic and the argumentative, gives her work a curious dreaminess, a fleeting mental space that she even describes in her "Fiction," included here:

The young narrator in the story waits for this apocryphal woman of his memories or imagination at a train station, but through a series of subtle changes in voice and point of view, Kanai slowly alters this story from being about a young man waiting for a woman in a train station to a young author passing his time at an old folks home to an old man at this home who may be a writer trying to make sense of a story of a woman at a train station, a story he feels like he's read before--or maybe even written.

Kanai's narrators aren't so much unreliable as they are mutating forces of uncertainty. And her prose--in stories whose titles (such as "Vague Departure," "The Time of One's Life," "The Boundary Line") often suggest a built-in prosaic pliability--so elegantly moves from narrative drive to reflective musing and back again, in precise control of tone and mood that makes The Word Book's stories not merely stories, but writings that plumb quotidian consciousness. Such a skillful wooziness recalls the architectural paragraphs of Borges or Robbe-Grillet, only Kanai has an ephemeral sensuality that offsets and compliments her modulated voices, who guide you through mini epics in this crisp, cool collection.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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