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Sunday, Dec. 12, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

CITY OF RELATIONSHIPS

Brewing emotions and desires


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
GREEN TEA TO GO: Stories from Tokyo, by Leza Lowitz. Printed Matter Press/SARU Press international, 177 pp., 2004, 1,500 yen (paper).

Is there such a thing as women's literature -- books that authorize a unique take on life, as opposed simply to literature penned by women, work tinged with female sensibilities?

The relationships in Leza Lowitz's new collection of stories are concerned less, perhaps, with questions of gender than between differing states of existence. Lowitz writes a private type of fiction in which the shadowed thoughts of her characters are articulated in whispers and hushed subtleties; quiet disclosures easily missed by the inattentive.

Lowitz's stories circle around the great themes of language, ritual, death and dissolution, unfolding with the candor and intimacy of an unexpurgated journal or pillow book. The outside world may hum and thrum in the background, but it is the private riddles and rituals, the carefully concealed lives of her characters that we attend to.

Though this is a compilation of works that have appeared over a number of years, there is still something fresh and green about these stories. The most unnerving narrative is the first, "Notes on Love," where the author takes us on a journey along the fault lines of yearning, jealousy and suspicion. Rather than submit to torment by the serpents of love, the main character takes the initiative by flying to Tokyo -- city of the self-exile where she, a conspicuous foreigner can, paradoxically, be invisible, temporarily released from the oppression of private history. For Lowitz, like her characters, Tokyo is the "Secret Capital of the World."

Many of the stories take place within "the circle of the Yamanote, the green train that ran around the city like a hyped-up snake." Even during the peak of the bubble economy years, one character, teaching "bored housewives over ten-dollar cups of coffee that tasted like Truckstop Joe," senses that the city is already eroding, its fleeting glamour scoured off. The love hotels in Shinjuku 3-chome are places of instant but rarely lasting gratification, salarymen bars are sinkholes where, after midnight "crusty old men lined the chairs like day-old riceballs," and the waterfront is a place one character associates with going "down to the tough dance clubs near the fish market" where she might find "men to dance with there."

In "The School of Things," an attempt is made by the character to transmit and preserve memories and sensations before they wither.

"Ghost Stories," like many of these pieces, is dark and complex. A tale more heartbreaking than cautionary, it sends a chill down the spine of the book, haunting us for pages to come.

Ultimately the stories remind us how hopeless it is to try to extinguish memory. Instead, a coping mechanism is required. Lowitz's characters have the strength to alter their physical circumstances, but are yet to be healed. They remain, or so it would first seem, resolutely blocked, in a state of delayed shock. The question of how to steady oneself, to retrieve equipoise, underpins these narratives. Within the firm right angles and precision joinery of the structures of these finely crafted stories, the characters are able to take the first step in realigning their lives.

Although a degree of authorial detachment is maintained, the writer herself is firmly implanted in the material, sometimes at skin level, elsewhere in the deeper ligaments of the work. As with a Jane Bowl's novel or short story, the presence of the author is powerfully sensed in the psychology of the characters. You feel that the writer, a flaw here, a phobia there, a saving grace slyly withheld, is keenly aware of this junctioning.

In one of her early diaries, Anais Nin wrote that "I live on two levels, the human and the poetic. I see the parables, the allegories." And so, to her credit and life as a writer, does Lowitz.



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