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Rec Room: Noelle Bodick: The Word Book

June 10, 2010

That it has taken 30 years for Japanese writer, Mieko Kanai, to be translated into English seems like a surreal, absurd expansion of time performed in one of her short stories. Kanai’s story collection, The Word Book, written in Japanese in 1979 and translated last year by Paul McCarthy, observes the filmy atmosphere of a dream with the objective precision of a scientist. A writer discovers his own words in a rival’s notebook. A photographer documents a decaying wall for 20 years. Lives fade “into that strange silence that lies between memory and oblivion.” The basic elements of fiction in The Word Book are elegantly fractured to expose new, delicate inner structures.

Perhaps the most interesting experiment Kanai performs is on the element of place. The nameless characters float through strangely familiar urban spaces: empty dining cars, amusement parks deserted in the afternoon, neon-bathed night streets. In abandoning the vernacular, the specificity of place, Kanai creates folktales of the modern, urban world. Her stories could take place in any lonely cityscape–Tokyo, Mexico City, New York. In this way, Kanai might be considered what Eliot Weinberger calls in an essay from Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, a “post-nationalist” writer. Her aesthetic is indifferent to the notion of nation, irreverent to rootedness of place. She is unfettered by the vernacular and so can create bold experiments-narrative voices shifting seamlessly, landscapes mutating, memory melting into the present. In our era of Weltliteratur, we might wonder how nation functions in fiction-do we stay grounded in the provincial, or hover above it? Kanai’s translation seems to represent the latter both in form and content.


Bio: Noelle Bodick is an intern at Guernica.

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