Tsushima, Yuko (1983 ), Child of Fortune, Kodansha
[Translated from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt]
Sometimes accidents have interesting results: the only reason I heard from Yuko Tsushima in the first place is Jake Waalk’s essay on this blog. You can (and should) read it here. And so, almost by accident, I picked up her novel Child of Fortune, but really, if you’ll permit me the terrible joke, it was my ‘fortune’ that I did so. This novel is not like any other novel you’ve read. I know I say that a lot and maybe I’m just very discerning about the books I pick, but it is true in this case. Not, however, very obviously so, I have to add. Yuko Tsushima’s novel about a middle aged woman’s coming to terms with her daughter, her pregnancy and the men in her life contains many beats we expect of novels of this kind, particularly those published in the late 1970s, as Tsushima’s was. I don’t know the cultural context well, but Geraldine Harcourt’s introduction clarifies some points about it. Yet even so, the book’s effect and strengths are not dependent on being weighed against tradition and context. The book holds up fairly well on its own. It’s a truly terrific novel about physicality and the needs of a woman who is trying to navigate closeness, about motherhood and adulthood at the same time. More importantly, Tsushima writes extremely well, both in the way the novel is structured and narrated, as well as on a line by line basis. The latter effect may not be remarkable if you pick any line from a random page, but as you continue to read on, pretty much every time, you’ll notice small shifts in emphasis. Three, four sentences on, there’s invariable something that will set you back on your heels lightly. I could truly quote progression after progression from the book. This is of course not solely or entirely something that can be chalked up to Tsushima. Clearly, Geraldine Harcourt’s translation (without being credited anywhere on the cover, of course) is extraordinarily successful here. I cannot possibly judge how close she came to being faithful about the Japanese original text, but Tsushima’s novel is a celebrated, prize-winning novel in Japan, and it is truly excellent in English, so at least that has been preserved. What’s more, the text may sound a bit odd here and there, but it always feels like something belonging to the text itself. The novel never reads translated, it is a rich and full text as it is, without needing the sometimes condescending praise afforded to translations. It does not appear to be in print, which is a damn shame. You should read it and it should definitely be in print. Damn it, this should be taught in writing classes. I am not exaggerating. I’ve just finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s celebrated debut novel and I’ll be damned if she couldn’t stand to read some Tsushima with attention and a notepad. As should we all. Child of Fortune isn’t flashy. Nobody dies, nobody is tied up in the attic, no great discoveries are made. It is a small narrative of a woman’s life for a few weeks and months. Yet the execution, and conception, of this unremarkable-seeming story are stellar.
Child of Fortune is, on the surface, fairly simple. It starts with Koko, a single mother, who teaches the piano and is not happy with who she is, and not on the best of terms with her daughter, who primarily stays with her aunt. The pressures of loneliness, of economic problems as well as the vicissitudes of keeping a daughter in middle school happy and in (fashionable) clothes are all taking a toll on Koko. Things come up in her life, and then go away again and at the end, she is, apparently, in the same situation: single, on difficult terms with her daughter, and in financial trouble. Through it all, Koko mostly maintains a placid emotional state, with a few exceptions here and there and so one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens in this book. Instead, what we find is a quiet revolution, a woman standing up for herself, even if she does it only internally, a woman stepping away from social pressures for a quick, ludic moment. Tsushima did not inscribe a future for Koko into the text, but the final moment, involving an invocation of play and childhood serves to inject a moment of deviance, of deviation into the text and the structures it struggles with. Koko rejects the “featureless but comfortable place known as ‘common sense’,” but the novel is not a triumphant resolution (or indeed a dark one). It feels more as if Tsushima has constructed a discourse on an ethics of self care in the novel and how the physical autonomy of women (or of that specific woman) plays into that. I could say it’s a discourse about self care in general, and certainly, parts of it read true to me, as a profoundly failed man in his 30s, but Tsushima’s novel is centered around pregnancy. The pregnancy is the disruptive event, the thing that triggers the ending, that threatens to change all her relationships: with family, her ex-husband and with her current lover. Remarkably, it doesn’t appear as if Tsushima works from any obvious literary patterns, this is not a play on a tradition, or anything. The novel reads like a genuine literary encounter with the phenomenon of pregnancy in a woman in her mid-to-late 30s, working through it. I do not mean to suggest meandering. Tsushima isn’t making up her mind as she develops her character. No, the thinking underlies the whole structure of the book. Every part of the narrative is tightly strapped onto the engine of the author’s thinking about pregnancy, common sense and physicality. Her protagonist, Koko, apparently, at first, a cog in the engine of common sense society, turns out to be more of a moving part, shifting slowly against a stiff background. The interior voice, both worried and aloof, both confused and surprised, plays a major role in this, as does the frequently surprising language. Tsushima manages to bridge the divide between a cerebral, intellectual novel – and a moving, immersive one, with admirable ease.
Now, all this said, I can hear the objections. After all, the 20th century has seen a vast array of novels about womanhood in a modern age come forth, many of them among the best books published in the past century. Jelinek, Elsner, Drabble, Jong, Lessing, I mean it’s an endless list of excellence. So what’s different here? The difference is that with Tsushima one has the feeling that a writer is finding new expressions for a situation, without relying on darkness, the grotesque or working within the contradictions of language. It is a subtle work that we are presented here, with contradictions, gently worked. One is Koko’s interest in sex. She “dwelled so fixedly on the existence of men,” and that “greedy desire of hers had indeed been there since childhood, differing little from an adult’s.” She loves her daughter and yet she “could never guarantee that she wouldn’t abandon her in some remote place if that were the only way she could have Doi.” Koko labels it selfishness, but selfishness, in the same chapter, also leads her to resolve to clear up a relationship. Koko’s appetite appears clear, “the molten lava of her sexuality,” but Tsushima shows us the complexities of that. She may have an affair with a weak, “plump,” boyish man, reminiscent of, for example, the husband in Gisela Elsner’s fiery feminist novel Die Zähmung, but eschews the simple rhetorical angles of this. Instead, she insists on her physicality being “misunderstood.” Men too often draw her into sex, and Koko wants to escape the limits of those relationships. Indeed, when she, somewhat by accident, seduces the eventual cause of her pregnancy, she finds it “hard to suppress a deep disappointment with [his] arousal – as deep as her joy at coming into contact with a human body.” Koko is both interested and disinterested in sex. The main problem with it, for her, is the way sex implies a certain sequence of events. She likes closeness, intimacy – mere fucking is not what she is looking for. She wants to break with the way things go, usually. It’s interesting – almost as if the novel itself interrogated this sequentiality of human relationships, without overtly breaking with it to the point of modernist collages or postmodernist fragments. The fragments are still there, but they are embedded in the expectations of how to write these characters. I found a brief 1984 review of the novel in WLT, where the reviewer expresses some irritation at the inconsistent characterization and the author’s insistence on not embedding the characterization in a normal narrative. This irritation is clearly something created by the author – much as Koko turns out to be a bit of an irritation to the people around her, the novel provides its own -subtle- thorn in the unprepared reader’s side. The untroubled, unhurried tone of the novel, which avoids (sometimes narrowly) cascades of obsession or anger contributes to this, even as it describes the protagonist being “shaken” by one revelation about herself or another.
Georges Bataille’s theory of religion starts on an interesting premise. It’s a comparison of humans with animals – or animality. Animals, Bataille writes, are in the world like water in water. Completely contingent, and nothing to shake them from it. Humans have tools. The profane, simple tool introduces exteriority into a world of contingency. In some ways, it strikes me as if Tsushima has examined the ties that bind female experience to the workings of the world and suggested a way, a tool of introducing exteriority, of prying someone loose. Why, she asks, do some people go on living despite an utter lack of a “compelling reason” to do so. Koko, looking at herself, cannot find “a single redeeming feature” and yet she’s shaken to discover “that the will to live is still there.” Maybe that is the theme of the book: finding, if not a compelling, then an acceptable reason to continue to live. The point is not political – it’s personal. Yet it is also about female experience in a world with sometimes cruel expectations of women, so it’s also political. Child of Fortune isn’t a long book, but it is very good. It contains its own contradictions, it is well narrated and paced. It contains, finally, some hope that there is a way to go forward.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to mytwitter.)