Sunday, March 07, 2021

I never became the woman I imagined

August. Two-thirty in the afternoon. Everything before our eyes burned white, and the sky was a perfect blue over the buildings, the total blue of a computer screen. Everything was shining in the heat. When you breathed, it came in through your nose and when you didn't it came in through your skin. 

Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami, is unsubtle. Haruki Murakami proclaims on the cover that "It took my breath away." The novel was lauded as one of Time's must-read books of 2020, and it won a slot in the 2021 Tournament of Books (as well as a local bookclub). I'm sorry to say that I found it disappointingly obvious.

In the first part, Natsuko is a struggling writer in Tokyo, visited by her older sister, Makiko, and her niece.

Makiko, a hostess, wants breast implants. (She has already undergone nipple bleaching.) Natsuko tries to be understanding, but is fairly judgmental.

My monolithic expectation of what a woman's body was supposed to look like had no bearing on what actually happened to my body. The two things were wholly unrelated. I never became the woman I imagined. And what was I expecting? The kind of body that you see in girly magazines. A body that you see in girly magazines. A body that fit the mold of what people describe as "sexy." A body that provokes sexual fantasy. A source of desire. I guess I could say that I expected my body would have some sort of value. I thought all women grew up to have that kind of body, but that's not how things played out.

People like pretty things. When you're pretty, everybody want to look at you, they want to touch you. I wanted that for myself. Prettiness means value. But some people never experience that personally.

I was young once, but I was never pretty. When something isn't there, inside or out, how are you supposed to seek it out? Pretty faces, gorgeous skin. The sort of shapely breasts that anyone would kill for. I had nothing of the sort. I gave up wishing I could look like that a million years ago.

Makiko's daughter, Midoriko, meanwhile, resists puberty and refuses to speak to her mother. Natsuko bonds with her over books, but they don't manage to communicate openly about puberty or body image or womanhood.

The second section of the novel is set a decade later. Natsuko now makes a semi-successful living as a writer. She begins researching artificial insemination for a project but becomes caught up in the question of whether she wants children of her own. She does.

The reason why she doesn't want to conceive a child the old-fashioned way, however, quite apart from being single, is that Natsuko has an aversion to sex. 

I wanted him to feel good, but I didn't understand myself. I thought it was on me to make it better, that I had to make some effort. I tried, too, but somehow it never felt right. It wasn't physically painful It just made me so uneasy, and I couldn't make the feeling go away. Lying naked on the mattress, I felt like I could see black spirals coming from the ceiling and the corners of the room. When Naruse moved his body, the spirals grew larger and edged closer, until they swallowed me, like somebody had slipped a black bag over my head. The sex was never enjoyable or comforting or fulfilling. Once Naruse was naked on top of me, I was alone.

This feels like a convenient plot device, to give Natsuko a motivation other than tragic infertility. I would have been happy to read more about Natsuko's sexuality, but as it is, the novel feels like contrived social commentary. 

"That's what it was like when we were younger. Sex wasn't a thing, it had no real role in our lives, you know? It didn't matter if you were a woman or not. It's just, for me, things stayed that way. It's like that part of me never grew up. I don't think there's anything strange or unusual about it, though. That's why sometimes I have to ask myself: Am I really woman? Like I said, I have the body of a woman, I know that. But do I have the mind of a woman? Do I feel like a woman? I mean, what does feeling like a woman actually entail? [...]

Maybe some women are still doing it at seventy or eighty, but not most, right? I dunno. At a certain point it must become impossible. In the future, as medicine advances and our lives get longer, we'll be old for an even greater portion of our lives. Which translates into more time on earth without sex. Less time spent fucking — all the panting and the gasping, in and out, sweating your miserable fucking face off, fucking your brains out, the temporary insanity of our lives."

[Tragic! That women aren't still doing it! That it must become impossible! That women believe this to be true!]

From the accounts of Natsuko's friends, and the evidence of the generation before them, marriage doesn't amount to much more than slave labour. She implies that woman accommodate men in exchange for love and sex, but Natsuko doesn't get any pleasure in this bargain.

While the book on several occasions notes that Western society is much more enlightened on issues between the genders, the man-bashing made me feel uncomfortable. I'd like to think that we're past that here in the West, we don't speak with the same generalizations. But I can appreciate how the conversation is just barely getting started in other parts of the world, and things need to be said.

Although many pages are devoted to it, Natsuko manages to sidestep gender politics in her personal decisions.

"When people say they want kids, what is it they actually want?" It is not the birth or the pregnancy, it is not the culmination of love between two people. Natsuko's desire is pure — she wants to know the person that is born out the situation. (I'm at a loss to understand how this is different from adoption, or from meeting a stranger in the street.)

I struggle when I read Asian books, with some exceptions (Tawada and Kang, for example, are brilliant). I don't know if my failure to connect is founded in the translation, culture, or style. But I know this novel is necessary and I hope it can act as an agent of change.

Here are a couple of reviews that may convince you that Breasts and Eggs is a masterpiece:
The White Review

1 comment:

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