We have read the characters leading lives close to a disaster — an emotional wreck boating their way between tides of intolerable family, lovers and friends, and sunken self-esteem — Moshfegh’s Eileen Dunlop, Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant, Leilani’s Edie, Cusk’s M, Enriquez’s girls and women in her short story collection. These are stories of women written by women inching closer and closer to an apocalypse, or that’s what they think. Spoiler alert, but by the end, we find them emerge as survivors of their socio-psychological crises. Through rich entanglements and nail-biting plots, they come to terms with their defeated selves and claim the story for themselves.
To this lot, we have a new entry: Mieko Kawakami’s Fuyuko Irie in the novel All the Lovers in the Night. But she is not one and the same as the others. She is lost, certainly. However, unlike them, she doesn’t really seem to have a self, or any sense of it to search in Neo-liberal Japan where her days and nights as a freelance proofreader collapse on each other meaninglessly.
Her gendered age is telling; a 30-something- year old woman, who, by now, should have been married (as she is reminded often by the other characters), or had a vibrant 20s to talk about (which she is asked frequently in her interactions with others), Kawakami’s Fuyuko is so ruthlessly dull and alone that her loneliness isn’t as sparkling as Moshfegh’s sleeping beauty to help the reader fit her into a schema of sad, deprived women as we are used to by now. She is not sinking, she has sunken already. She is not losing herself, she never found herself, in the first place. This is a character we listen to, and hear, ironically, in the first person as ‘I’ for 219 pages.
‘Once I get to Tokyo, I’m going to change everything about myself, maybe even my name.’
A character can’t be lost unless her very surroundings compel her to, at least that’s the case with Fuyuko. Before taking to freelance, she worked in a place where ‘the only thing that they had going for them was their name.’ She flitted through work at the office and then at home while freelancing with a ‘big company’ in a routine that led to one of the most striking conversations in the book on work, trust and the self.
It was her new boss Hijiri, an outspoken feminist, a complete contrast to Fuyuko who steadily unveiled the capitalist setting of the story through her take on the work culture and the subtle making of a docile body. Fuyuko is exactly that but all she keeps saying in reply is her repeated, ‘Really?’ Throughout the story, Fuyuko hangs on to the unbelievable surprises of ‘really?’ the characters throw at her. Perhaps, what’s real hasn’t struck her, or she’s so distanced from the reality of other people’s lives, lives different from hers, that offering an opinion never strikes her. The book is packed with such conversations; long ones we are used to having when there’s too much to express, too few words to articulate it with and a lot of unexpected silences unless another topic comes to the table.
As I passed below the haloes of the green and red traffic signals, I was taken by this strange view of the evening, the city streets full of people- people waiting, the people they were waiting for, people out to eat together, people going somewhere together, people heading home together. I allowed my thoughts to settle on the brightness filling their hearts and lungs, squinting as I walked along and counted all the players of this game that I would never play.
Nonetheless, Fuyuko had something awaiting her other than her recent return to bingeing on alcohol after seeing how happily Hijri guzzled hers. In the form of a man, we find Fuyuko suddenly looking forward to something in her life. It’s Mitsutsuka who walks into the light of her alcohol-soaked life. Quietly, over several conversations, Fuyuko seems possessed but she realises it’s the alcohol pulsing through her body that’s taking her to the man who talks about the physics of light. Like the light that keeps travelling aimlessly, she is unable to accept that she can ever be loved. Where is the self to accept that? Where is the sense of even a debilitated self to know what loving, being loved and feeling deprived of it meant?
Mitsutsuka entertains her with CDs, music that had once haunted her when she was a child. Fuyuko leads us into the past in the middle of the book and then throws us back to the present, as though begging the readers to understand why she is the way she has been in the first 100 pages. But the past only opens the door to a larger room of her present biography. Her misery precedes what happened to her as a child. While talking about his boredom with Glenn Gould’s music, Mitsutsuka says how tired he is of ‘humanity’, the human condition in his performances. Fuyuko’s human condition is what is at the heart of the book. A careful dissection through and through that parallels to grief, almost like torture, to keep getting inside the head of a character who is uncomfortable, confused, and lost like lonely lovers in the night.
The sheer discomfort courses through the reader- why is the author pushing the narrator to reveal so much? The woman, who is clearly ‘not one of the main characters’ in anyone’s life, nor herself’s, why is the author not leaving her alone? After one hundred and sixty or so pages, one almost feels compelled to beg Kawakami to stop the torture, but the strings holding Fuyuko’s life begin tearing apart. Enough damage was done. Enough forcing such a person to keep being the protagonist. And the ripping sound is heard and felt, leaving all of us involved, in a life one should ideally keep off-limits, changed and with a lesson learnt.
Kawakami lures her reader with a touching title, and a prologue resonating with it. She prepares us for a story that we may have read, heard or watched before. The true horror begins when the reader is gradually taken in through the setting of Neo-liberal Japan, its gentle consumption built on lies of trust, self-worth, ideals of a perfect book, perfect feminism, leisures of music and alcohol. At the crossroads at which we confront these and Fuyuko, we realise there’s little to resist the temptation and we carry on.
It’s the force, the steady pace and the gentle descent of Kawakami’s writing in Sam Bett and David Boyd’s translation that grips the reader, pushes the pages to turn, and feel Fuyuko’s baneful existence reflect in the light shining from the similar structures we find ourselves in. Not just Fuyuko, but the reader wonders, ‘Really?’ Perhaps, it’s a mark of surprise at the book, or at the reality, one thought one escapes while reading.
Meiko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Light was originally published in 2011. Its English translation from the Japanese language by Sam Bett and David Boyd was published in 2022 by Picador Books. The reviewer would like to thank Pan Macmillan India for the review copy.
Rahul Singh has an MA in Sociology from Presidency University, Kolkata. His book reviews and short stories have been published at Outlook India, Live Wire, Muse India, EPW among several others. He can be reached on Instagram (@fook_bood) and Twitter (@rahulzsing).
Image credit (editing): Ujjaini Dutta