There is a quality of placelessness to Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, and the sparseness of the neighborhoods she imagines is made even more eerie by the simplicity of her prose. As with the earliest episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, these stories put one in an immediate state of ineffable unease and frequently creep to their ends without providing their audience the closure of a cathartic shock or scream. And like The Twilight Zone, each of Ogawa’s stories transmits from another dimension — not quite that of late night black and white television, but one with an echoing memory undergirding something parallel to our own experiences. Revenge is a mirror with an especially uncanny crack.
The book’s cover does it a disservice; that slasher typography and dirty canvas-colored background cast an impression of a much more contemporary genre of horror. In truth, one of the gifts of Revenge is its subtle psychology. While there are multiple bloody amputations — including a gruesome beheading — a couple of phantoms, a whole museum full of tools designed specifically for torture, Ogawa’s “dark tales” unfold, surprisingly, without overindulging on gore. Such restraint initially scans as a tidy elegance of form, but by the middle of the book becomes a skillful and sinister instrument of disquiet in its own right.
Ogawa is not fucking around. Though critics are right to call her work cinematic, Stephen Snyder’s translation of these stories is not precisely visual — the effect is more like a dream than a film. In “The Little Dustman” a novelist takes her step-son to the zoo, but because it’s winter most of the animals are taking indoor sojourns. Once grown, the step-son recalls the snow-filled day: “we found we could imagine the animals even without seeing them.”
Minding the unseen might be a useful strategy for reading Ogawa; her stories circle around the buried and the bagged, full pockets and the border between what’s hidden and what’s in view. “Sewing for the Heart” describes a bag maker charged with the task of crafting a leather case for a woman’s heart. But it’s her actual heart, the blood-beating organ, and it’s on the outside of her body, a life giving polyp annexed crudely to her chest. The boundaries between inside and outside blur, and the woman charges the man with crafting an artificial interior, a place to put her heart.
While it would be loathsome of me to ruin the delight of discovering for yourself the connective tissue between each story, I can’t help but touch down on at least one of those threads. The book opens with “Afternoon at the Bakery,” a story about a woman and her ritual of ordering the same cake to mark her dead son’s birthday year after year, and closes with “Poison Plants,” which ends with a woman discovering the body of the first woman’s son. Somewhere in between these bookends, the work morphs into a metafictional ghost story, a work haunted by the dark impulses of its myriad interlocked characters, or those of some authorial hand.
That the stories link up is one thing, but Ogawa moves this world forward and backward and through itself with such economy and grace that you lose track of how much it’s been shaken. Certain characters are willfully alienated from larger systems, hermetically sealing themselves into apartments or professions, but nonetheless the presence of other people ripples on the self-stilled pools of their lives. These characters exist in separate stories but are in tight proximity; they make the world they inhabit and yet the world is still a thing that happens to them.
While the turn to metafiction is not by any means a sharp one, it’s the slow cognitive dawn of the work as something not quite what it initially seemed that hints at the ancient horror of gradual change; the beginning of the book overlaps with its end, but you’ve become a different reader of some other unknown text in the meantime. You end up more or less where you started, but it’s impossible to trace your steps. So at last, Ogawa gets her revenge, and you’ve come through her forest only to find yourself still lost.