‘A molasses of spent ideas and old-fashioned storytelling’ – The Maid by Yasutaka Tsutsui

It is 6am, a freshly made cup of tea steams on my bedside table. My wife sleeps quietly beside me. My cat nests in my left popliteal fossa, snoring gently. I am slowly getting annoyed. From the living room, I can hear my friend – who is paying a visit to Tokyo from London – chanting. The chant sounds something like, “I’m yarding egos! I’m yarding egos! I’m yarding egos! I’m yarding egos!” And there is the attendant coughing, ululating, and expectorating, followed by a bell ringing and then something that sounds like a herniated yodel. But it is not these sounds that are distressing me at this early hour – it’s because I have tried for three days to finish Yasutaka Tsutsui’s The Maid. Oh, have I tried.

Let’s start with a little background. Tsutsui’s oeuvre, spanning four decades, comprises over thirty novels and more than forty short-story collections. Alma Books – his English publisher – has so far published the anthology Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (2005 Japan / 2008 UK), and the novels Hell (2003 Japan / 2007 UK), Paprika (1993 Japan / 2009 UK), and The Maid (1972 Japan / 2010 UK). Before I start this review proper, I would like to assert that Alma Books is a brave and innovative publishing house and should be championed for its booklist.

I came to Tsutsui’s work through Salmonella Men on Planet Porno and, intrigued by these surreal and genre-bending fictions, moved on to Hell, which I gave a very positive review, likening Tsutsui’s work to Rabelais, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut among others. Having found an author I enjoyed and whose work resembled that of heroes of mine – JG Ballard, Ray Bradbury, and Bret Easton Ellis – I looked forward to the next publication. This happened to be Paprika, a psychological horror that should have remained a short story. The novel is sometimes bloated and inconsequential, while the prose suffers from a dire translation that had me flinging the poor book across the room and watching it land with broken wings and a severed spine. However, I gave it a positive review, Tsutsui’s ideas still fresh and different enough from the usual published tosh, and I felt it deserved better than a literary kicking.

I am not a snark. I don’t often do snarkish. Snarking is easy. But there are some novels that raise the nascent snark within me – On Chesil Beach springs to mind. Plus I do enjoy literary putdowns. This is a favourite of mine – Martin Amis on Michael Crichton: “Animals – especially, if not quite exclusively, velociraptors – are what he is good at. People are what he is bad at. People, and prose.”

Here goes.

The narrative premise of The Maid is that eighteen-year-old Nanase can read people’s minds. She works for a succession of Japanese families none of whom has any redeeming qualities. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, in-laws are all greedy, rapacious, slothful, bullying, lying, cheating, tiresome. Nanase is an innocent observing the decaying world of Japanese family life, culture, and society. Her special ability allows her to listen in to the secret thoughts of individuals and discover their tastes, passions, fetishes, hates, and fantasies. At one point, she uses her power to turn a would-be rapist insane by manipulating his thoughts. The eight stories that make up this novel are morality plays, revenge tragedies, and sexual farces. However, one has to ask why did Tsutsui use the mind-reading hook upon which to hang his narrative? I am not sure about you but if I had mind-reading skills, I would not spend my time picking up semen-covered socks from beneath a teenage boy’s bed; I would be a champion poker player, a speculator on the stock market, or a chess grandmaster.

The narrative/narrator problem may have something to do with Japanese language and culture. The Western use of the omniscient-third-person narrator does not have a parallel in Japanese literature; Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” is a classic case of multi-viewpoints and multi-narrators without an overriding omniscient vision. Haruki Murakami has only just started to experiment and move away from the Shishōsetsu (or I-Novel) to third-person narration in Kafka on the Shore and to even use a second-person narrator in After Dark. I think a novel fails when the reader finds the main character obtrusive and unnecessary, when that character’s thoughts are bland regurgitations of the author’s ideas on a subject – be they moral or political – the main character merely a mouthpiece and a conduit with no life of their own. Surely, the author of the text acts as the mind reader, the one to read his/her characters’ thoughts and pass that skill on to the reader.

The Maid, first published in Japan in 1972 under the title Kazoku Hakkei or Eight Family Scenes/What The Maid Saw, has not aged well; the outdated social satire, the cliched characterization, the unnecessary narrative trickery make this a stale reading experience. The translation by Adam Kabat is a huge improvement on that of Paprika but my willing suspension of disbelief foundered and, with hackles raised, I struggled through the last chapters as though through a molasses of spent ideas and old-fashioned storytelling. Although the Yasutaka Tsutsui fictions so far published by Alma Books have sequentially reduced in quality, I await the next publication in the hope it restores my interest.

Any Cop?: A poor novel from a usually interesting writer.

Steve Finbow

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