Ideal vehicle for an eerie blend of ambiguity and intensity
THE novella is to literature what middledistance running is to track and field. Somewhere between long and short, its intensity is demanding on reader and writer.
Richard Ford prefers the term long story. In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story , he calls the species ‘‘ a virtuous form, even fiction’s most natural one’’. This, Ford believes, is because the novella is free from the severities of the short story or the novel. Its primary restriction is length.
While a novella may not include the range and sweep of a novel, we expect its writer to reveal deeper implications than those that come to us through short stories. But wherever the debate about form takes us, we expect all good literature — whether it is poetry, essay or epic novel — to burn a hard flame. There’s no reason that readers shouldn’t impose the same demands on the sprinter ( lyric poet) as those we impose on the runner of marathons ( epic novelist).
Yoko Ogawa, winner of the Akutagawa Award and now available in English, places stringent demands on herself in the three novellas in The Diving Pool . Each piece differs from the next in shape and tone. Read together, they reveal a consummate writer who has placed formal restrictions on herself that allow her to display the intensity of these dark, mysterious subjects.
The first, eponymous novella concerns a group of orphans, foster siblings, who live in the Light House. The narrator, however, is not an orphan but the only child of the Light House parents, who are also church leaders.
This genetic fact, Aya says, ‘‘ has disfigured my family. If I could have one of the tragic histories so common at the Light House — an alcoholic mother, a homicidal father, parents lost to death or abandonment, anything at all — then I could have been a proper orphan.’’
Aya’s sense of disfigurement, or abandonment, leads to a voyeuristic fascination with her foster brother Jun. Each day after school, she watches Jun practise at the diving pool. ‘‘ The line of muscle from his ankle to his thigh has the cold elegance of a bronze statue,’’ Ogawa writes of Aya’s clandestine observation. Aya and Jun’s relationship at home grows increasingly charged as she seeks affirmation of her longing.
Pregnancy Diary comes in the form of a girl’s entries about the progress of her older sister’s pregnancy. The girls’ parents have died, and Ogawa deftly reveals the emotional complexities and skewed reality that lie in the wake of that wreckage. The tone here, eerie as in the two other novellas, highlights the ambiguities of the sisters’ relationship. These entries have a shadow- like effect that forces the reader to work to uncover the sisters’ multiple levels of reality.
The final novella, Dormitory , is a cross between the work of Haruki Murakami and Stephen King. It begins when the narrator, a young wife, begins to hear something that draws her into the past. ‘‘ To be honest,’’ she says, ‘‘ I’m not even sure you could even call it a sound. It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb. But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound — its source, its tone, its timbre — remained vague.’’
The sound’s source becomes clear after the woman’s cousin calls with a favour. He’s moving to Tokyo and needs a place to live. The woman refers him to a dormitory run by a triple amputee, where she once lived. Writing of the bizarre dormitory and the mysterious disappearance of a previous boarder, Dormitory deserves to be placed alongside the best of Murakami.
While Ogawa employs a first- person, female narrator for each novella, these voices rise to levels of individualism that remain surprising even for the reader who segues between random paragraphs. But while her narrators are from various ages and backgrounds, Ogawa doesn’t rely on their voices to drive these stories. One of the great virtues of her work, rather, is its combination of the continued mysteries and intensity that the form of the novella imposes. There’s nothing gimmicky or flashy about Ogawa’s prose, only a voice of cool authority. Kevin Rabalais is the author of the novel The Landscape of Desire ( Scribe).