Asleep, by Banana Yoshimoto

tumblr_lc1arny2nu1qaouh8o1_400Included in Asleep are three longer short stories by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich. Each in some way deal with sleep (whether physical or metaphorical). This is my first read by Yoshimoto, and I’m delighted to be reviewing the book with Kelly of The Written World.

Amanda: Hi Kelly! Well I suppose I’ll just start this thing by asking what your overall thoughts are on the whole book before we split into talking about individual stories.

Kelly: Hi! I have to say that I wanted to love this book. There was just something about it that made me think I would, but then I finished it earlier today (Tuesday) and promptly the stories have left my head. I honestly will have to have the book close by to remember what happened, which is really bad! The third story probably stuck with me the best. There were aspects of the stories that I really enjoyed, but otherwise I probably will forget I have even read this book in the future. There was just nothing about it that was so amazing that it will stick with me forever. How about you?

Amanda: Well…let me just say, first, that I rescued this book from the throwaway pile at Half Price Books not long ago. I’d heard other people talking about Banana Yoshimoto in the past, but had never been interested in trying her books. I’ve not read a lot of Japanese literature. After reading The Housekeeper and the Professor, though, which I loved to pieces, I was really looking forward to trying more Japanese authors. This seemed short and quick, easy to read, and I’d heard it was simple and good. I wanted to like it. I expected to like it. But then I started reading, and was just bored. Sometimes almost offended by some of the things in the stories. By the end, I admit, I was skimming. I doubt I’ll remember anything from these stories. I don’t even remember anyone’s names at this point, and I just read them.

I suppose we ought to break into sections for the individual stories? Or would you like to add anything else about the book in general?

Kelly: I have to be honest and admit that I saw you were going to be reading this book soon, so I added it to my library pile because I am in the Japanese reading challenge and am having a hard time finding books to read for it!

The first story is called ‘Night and Night’s Travelers’. I found this story a bit random. I think she was trying for some suspense by not telling everything right away, but I was just uninterested by it all. What did you think about it?

Amanda: Okay. Night and Night’s Travelers. First let me say – since I’m not sure we have the same edition – that the back of my book was very misleading. What it said was that all three stories were about women who were bewitched into spiritual sleep. What it said about this story in particular was that a woman mourning for a lost lover starts sleepwalking. Maybe I just completely misunderstood the story, but I don’t remember any sleepwalking at all! I mean, the narrator’s cousin stays awake a lot at night, but she’s not sleepwalking!

Because that was the first story in the book, it was the one I paid the most attention to. At this point, I still was assuming it was automatic that I’d like the book. I’m not sure why I just assumed that, but I did. It was a quick read, but in the end, I didn’t feel like anything happened. The story didn’t go anywhere, and I had no emotional response to it at all. And again, there was no bewitching, no “spiritual sleep,” no “Kafkaesque surrealism” (which the back of the book also misleadingly said). I was disappointed. I wanted those things, especially the surrealism. I wonder if my disappointment was greater because of the misleading blurb? How about you? Did you have conflict with the back of your version?

Kelly: First I should say that I am weird and never read the back of the book. I was totally not sure what this book was about at all. I had heard of the author, so that was really all my criteria was for reading this book. I watched the first part of your response show up on my screen, though, so while you were typing I read my own back of the book. It says the exact same thing! So, yes, that is very misleading because if there was sleepwalking going on I entirely missed it. Unless it was a metaphor. Otherwise, that description makes no sense. So, I went into this book not really knowing what to expect and I was still disappointed.

Like you, since this was the first story in the book, I paid a lot of attention to what was going on. I knew we were going to be reviewing it, so I wanted it to be clear in my mind. Also, like you, I was less than enthused. I didn’t feel like there was really anything going on and I couldn’t sympathize with the characters at all. I just didn’t care… It was just there and I read it and that is really all there is for me to say about it. It isn’t even as if I can say I hated the story. I just didn’t care enough to like it or hate it.

Amanda: I know what you mean. I didn’t hate it either. I just didn’t care. Which is strange, because many of the characters in it ought to have been interesting. I skimmed back through for their names – I’m bad with Japanese names, plus the characters just didn’t stand out for me – and really, Mari, Yoshihiro, and Sarah were all interesting characters. Or they could have been. The problem, I think, was Shibami – the narrator. She was completely uninteresting, and since this was all told from her point of view, the other characters just kind of died out. For me, at least. I wonder if maybe this had been told from Mari or Sarah’s point of view, would it have been more interesting? Maybe. I don’t know. But as it was, it’s already fading from my mind.

However – if it’s okay to move on to the second story, “Love Songs,” – I didn’t find “Night and Night’s Travelers” offensive. It was just there. “Love Songs,” on the other hand, was plain awful to me. What did you think?

Kelly: I know what you mean about the narrator. Mari or Sarah might have made it more interesting, but otherwise it was nothing special.

Moving on to “Love Songs”. I am finding it hard to come up with what I want to say about this story. I don’t know what the author was even thinking with this one. It was just strange! I don’t know if I would call if awful because, like with the first story, I didn’t care enough to come up with a strong emotional response, but there was something wrong with this story. I consider myself pretty open-minded, but you have to be extremely easy-going to appreciate this story and I am not sure if I really am. I am having one of those moments where I know what I want to say, but don’t know how to say it. Maybe you should take over. You can probably say why you found it awful better than I am capable of at the moment.

Amanda: For me, it was really the lack of tact or any decent human being in the story that made it awful. The narrator is an atrocious drunk. Personally, I don’t like to read stories that are centered on the act of drinking. It’s just not my thing. I was terrified that any minute I would get to see some descriptive passages about her getting sick or something. Thankfully that didn’t happen (I’d have put the book down and said never mind if it had). But what comes of her drinking? She somehow decides that an ex-rival that she had some mild lesbian thoughts about – and only in hindsight – is haunting her, so she goes to a midget (blatantly calling him a midget over and over, which I found jarringly untactful), has a spiritual trance where the ex-rival basically tells her everything she wants to hear, and then it’s all happy again. WTF? Sorry, but I found everything about this story offensive, from the alcoholism to the untactful way of treating the midget character to the frivolous way that homosexuality was treated. I’m just glad that it was the shortest story by far in the book.

Did I touch on what you didn’t like at all? Or was there something more?

Kelly: No, you pretty much got everything. I didn’t think this story was handled well at all! I don’t think it had any redeeming features.

Shall we just move on to the third story, or is there something more you want to say about this one?

Amanda: Sounds good. I really don’t have anything more to say.

I have to make a confession about the third story (“Asleep”), though. After talking with you earlier on Twitter and seeing that you also found the whole book fairly forgettable, I mostly skimmed the last story. I started reading it, but after a few pages of that obnoxious-no-paragraph-flashback-thing, my mind completely settled into a fog. I read each page at a quick glance, stopped in a couple places that looked more interesting, but really didn’t retain anything at all about it. I caught that the girlfriend was sleeping a lot (according to the back of the book, that’s because her lover’s wife is in a coma), but that’s about all. Sorry! What did you think about it? You said above it was the most memorable story for you, right?

Kelly: I have to admit that I liked the ending of this story. It was nothing ground-breaking, but it was kind of a nice image. It is probably the only thing that will stick with me from the story. Not so much the exact scene, but the sense of the scene. It was something that I could relate to. We live in a crazy world and when things are going on you sort of feel like things are passing you by and you are standing still. For the couple at the end of the book, they really were letting the world pass them by and the narrator was at peace with it. I think in my own hectic world I sometimes don’t stop to enjoy the moments and tend to rush along with everyone else.

For the rest of the story, though, there was not a lot going on. The main character slept a lot and it was said to be the fault of the woman in the coma. She was sleeping through days and losing track of time. She had a few moments where she sporadically connected with friends and there was her boyfriend. Then, there was her connection with a dead friend and her reminiscences of what their friendship was like together. There was one spiritual moment that was rather strange, but all the stories were supposed to have a touch of the spiritual in them. Otherwise, there really isn’t anything to talk about.

I thought all three of the stories were strange, though. They are not what I normally read at all. I couldn’t relate with them or connect with them at all with the exception to the ending of the third story and that might have just been my mood at the time. Any final thoughts on them from you?

Amanda: Hmm. Maybe when I’m in a different mood I’ll go back and reread that one. I feel bad that I skimmed through it, but the second story upset me so much that I didn’t want to go through that sort of experience again. That, and it really just bugs me when back of the book blurbs are misleading, like I said above. Particularly when it compares one author to another, the way this was compared to Kafka. It wasn’t at all like Kafka! It’s like last year, when I read Oracle Night by Paul Auster, which was supposedly Nabokovian, and was offended on Nabokov’s behalf that the comparison was ever made!

Maybe I just went into this with too high of hopes. After The Housekeeper and the Professor, I expected something amazing, I guess. It’s sad that it didn’t work out. I guess that happens sometimes, though. Thanks for reviewing it with me anyway!

Kelly: I want to read The Housekeeper and the Professor, but my library doesn’t have it! I am glad we reviewed it together, though. I look forward to our next buddy review!

About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2009, Adult, Prose and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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