Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interest is Drowned in "The Lake"

The coupling of the protagonists in Banana Yoshimoto's novel The Lake is begun in a cinematic fashion. Chihiro starts observing Nakajima from the sill of her window. They begin exchanging cross-alley waves and she grows comfortable in the familiarity of his presence. Waves lead to coffee and all at once he is spending most nights in her apartment, carefully reimbursing her for the extra heat and groceries he uses. They sleep together a single time. And it is a lonely and sexually pleasureless union. The two seem to have bumbled into each other’s company. Their accidental merger is a reflection of quiet desperation more than an enjoyment of companionship.

Chihiro has moved to Tokyo from the village where she spent her childhood. Her mother is dying of cancer when she leaves, and after her death Chihiro finds very little to tie her to her home. Not even the presence of her father affects her affiliation to the place. She has her art degree and is a muralist of a vague amount of minor fame. When she begins her time with Nakajima she has been enlisted to paint a mural on a wall of the local school. The piece grows to represent much more than a project as her relationship with Nakajima takes shape.

Nakajima is a mysterious figure and we are meant to wonder what lies behind his oddities, including his inability to want and enjoy sex. He is a brilliant Ph.D. student, who has lost himself to his studies in the past and opens himself up very little. Chihiro begins to suspect that there is a shady reason for all his strangeness, suspicions that are confirmed when he brings her to the lake.
At the lake we meet an even stranger pair than Chihiro and Nakajima. They are a shrunken brother and sister pair, Mino and Chii. He entertains the guests, serving them the best tea Chihiro has ever had, while his sister sleeps in a room nearby. Chii’s almost always asleep, and when she does rouse herself, she communicates through Mino, who seems to channel her words telepathically. Chihiro is not sure what this duo explains about Nakajima’s past, but she knows it is the key to his difficulties and his uncomfortable manner.

Aside from the improbable nature of their meeting, there is no real romance between Chihiro and Nakajima and I had a hard time feeling a resonance in their connection. Both have lost their mothers and are marooned in the seclusion of their own worlds. It’s fathomable that this on its own can bring people together but that magnetism remains absent. Chihiro’s language frequently vacillates between security in her affection for her companion and allusions to a shadowy naiveté of sentiment. Her inability to truly fixate on Nakajima, often felt like the fault of mistranslation. Whatever the cause, the result was frustration with unknowable characters, their emotions and actions too perforated to complete a whole.

Yoshimoto's prose is incredibly sparse. Her subjects in The Lake are very often odd and perhaps the basic nature of her language is meant to temper the peculiarities that inhabit her worlds. I kept slowing down and looking for something that might send me to the dictionary or at least pique my interest. Instead I was shuttled from the apartment, to the schoolyard, to dreams of Paris, to the lake. I couldn’t care very much. How much is at stake when the complicated pasts of protagonists aren’t synthesized into an engaging future? The loneliness of Chihiro and Nakajima didn’t play on my sympathies. And what did it matter if they found each other if there was no one to care?

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