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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sordid scenes from a dark, cracked city


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
AUTO FICTION by Hitomi Kanehara. Vintage Books, 2008, 216 pp., £6.99 (paper)

The writer of the notes to "Auto Fiction" is at pains to tell us how Hitomi Kanehara stopped attending school at age 11, then, as a teenager, left home. As with other young women writers who have made waves for novels set in the low-life purlieus of the capital, these works give the impression that their authors are gifted, world-weary delinquents hailing from the tough public housing estates of east Tokyo.

So it's a mild disappointment to discover that writers like Kanehara, and Banana Yoshimoto before her, are the privileged offspring of literary and academic parents, the type likely to have provided an 11-year-old dropout with an ample supply of private tutors. Literature, of course, should not be divided along class lines, nor characters confused with their creators.

"Auto Fiction" begins with the thoughts of an adoring bride as she and her husband fly back to Japan from their honeymoon in Tahiti. In the time-honored fashion of novelists, the work follows a construct-deconstruct pattern: a well-grounded edifice is built, only to be systematically, brutally demolished.

The narrator, Rin, is soon revealed as a fantasist with the capacity to love, but the inability to trust. When her husband takes a routine trip by air, a sequence of jealousy-rousing possibilities involving an obliging flight attendant is triggered. Tormented by suspicion, Rin wills the plane to crash and obliterate her pain: "Why isn't the world programmed," she asks herself, "so that it will self-destruct the instant he cheats on me?"

Fits of jealousy alternate with forgiveness for unfounded infidelities. You know that, in this state of mind, something unspeakable is about to happen. The plane may not self-destruct, but the book is packed with enough nitroglycerin to keep the reader in a cold sweat.

Kanehara cleverly reverses the narrative timeline, taking us on a backward spiral, from the first cracks in the honeymoon to a medicated 15-year-old Rin. As she negotiates the tacky world of karaoke boxes, matchmaking clubs, trance dance clubs and casual rape parties, her sanguine view of the flesh and entertainment world prevents her from being devoured by it, but the reader begins to get a disquieting sense of just how dangerous Tokyo is for the unaccompanied woman.

The frankness of Kanehara's writing is refreshing. It explains, perhaps, why literature of this sort often captures the media's attention, especially when the bursts of obscenity and veracity come from a Japanese woman. Rin, an emotional extrovert aggrieved at life, is the antithesis of the deferential woman.

Rin's is a soured realism, one that can find the sidewalks "teeming with annoying pedestrians — no better than dogs that sh*t in public — all walking on tarmac peppered with black gum stains."

Shinjuku provides the core setting for Kanehara's story of misogyny, as it does for so many novels of this type — from Ryu Murukami's seminal "Coin Locker Babies" to Amy Yamada's short story "Kneel Down and Lick My Feet."

For the delusional, a surfeit of imagination can go a little too far. "I'd look at a dog and imagine it biting me to death," ruminates the adolescent, soon to be pregnant Rin, "or light a cigarette and imagine myself as a ball of fire or look up at the sky and imagine an airplane colliding into my skull."

By the end of Kanehara's inconclusive journey through the poisoned honeycombs of Tokyo, we realize that hopelessness itself is the most degenerate of all syndromes.



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