Not My Favorites: Junichiro Tanizaki’s Quicksand and Catherine Lacey’s The Answers

I do read a lot of good books.

But some are not that good.

I recently read two novels that are neither very good nor very bad.

I loved Junichiro Tanizaki’s brilliant novel,  Some Prefer Nettles, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, who is my favorite translator of The Tale of Genji.

And this week I read Tanizaki’s Quicksand, translated by Howard Hibbert.

It did not quite measure up.

I admired this macabre comedy, with its elements of noir. But Hibbert’s translation is labored, and I missed Seidensticker’s elegant exuberance.  A reviewer in The New York Times in 1994 said Quicksand is notoriously difficult to translate, and it wasn’t Hibbert’s fault.

Well, it can either be translated or it cannot.

But the plot is fascinating.

The narrator, Mrs. Sonoko Kakiuchi, is a bored housewife who does not love her husband. She takes classes at art school, where she falls in love with gorgeous, seductive Mitsuko. The two women have an affair, and enjoy deceiving Sonoko’s husband and Mitsuko’s parents. When Sonoko learns that Mitsuko is also having an affair with a ravishing, impotent young man named Watunuki, it doesn’t affect the women’s relationship. Yet Mitsuko is a mad femme fatale–rather like Zuleika Dobson in Max Beerbohm’s satirical novel.

Still, Sonoko is a schemer in her own right.  Her apology to the author for intruding on him and telling him her story is the frame for the novel.  She is a fan, but perhaps an aspiring writer, too, the unreliable narrator of unreliable narrators.

The novel opens:

Do forgive me for bothering you again, but I simply had to see you today–I want you to hear my side of the story, from beginning to end. Are you sure you don’t mind?  I know how busy you are with your own writing, , and if I go into every detail it will take me forever!  Really, I only wish I could put it all down on paper, like one of your novels, and ask you to read it… The truth is, the other day I tried to start writing, but what happened is so complicated I didn’t know where to begin.

A fascinating story, and her versions of the other character’s versions (we’re in a mirror) are equally riveting.

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is stunning. That is, for the first 89 pages.

Dwight Garner raved about it in The New York Times.  Why did I forget that I rarely agree with him?

I have read several novels in recent years about passive, tractable young women.  It is a disturbing trend:  I find myself longing for George Eliot, Elizabeth Taylor, and Doris Lessing.  Lacey’s prose is lyrical and detached, as if her heroines are dissociating.  This was also true in her first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing.

I do love her style, but she cannot plot.  The opening, however, is spellbinding. It is narrated by Mary Parsons, an emotionally numb young woman raised off the grid in Tennessee.  Rescued by her Aunt Clara, who adopts her in her teens, she learns to imitate normalcy.  She cannot understand social culture .  In New York, Mary works for a pittance for a travel agency, and descends into a chronic pain which doctors cannot understand.  Eventually, her friend Chondra recommenda a New Age healer. But the treatment costs a fortune, so Mary takes a second job.

As for the second job?  Here is where Lacey loses me.

Catherine Lacey

An insane actor, Kurt Sky, who claims he hates celebrity and has spent years ineptly editing a film, hires a team of researchers to formulate a “Girlfriend Experiment.”  They hire a crew of false girlfriends to help him work through different emotions.  Ironically, Mary, who cannot relate to people, is hired as the Emotional Girlfriend.  Others are the Maternal Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend, Intellectual Girlfriend, and Mundanity Girlfriend.  They do not have sex with Kurt, but memorize bizarre scripts.

In Part 2, Lacey begins to write about Mary in the third person, which I suppose is meant to show her dissociation.  But when she switches to Kurt’s point of view, and then to that of  Ashley, a boxer and a waitress, I am far less interested.

Well, there is some good writing, but I cannot pretend it is the best book about wispy, passive young women I have read in recent years. That would be Emma Cline’s lyrical novel, The Girls.

Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing

nobody-is-ever-missing-catherine-lacey-51-h5uhfejl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Sometimes even the most gorgeously-written of contemporary novels wear me down.  This year, in the course of trying to read more new books, I have discovered that talented millennial women  often hamper their narratives by affecting ennui.  I wonder, Why are their heroines so wispy? What does feminism mean to young women?  And what are the authors trying to say?

Catherine Lacey’s elegant, spiky novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, is the third debut novel I have read this year with an almost self-parodically self-destructive heroine.  Emma Cline’s The Girls is the best of the three, the narrative shifting  back and forth between the heroine Evie’s present existence as a caregiver/housesitter to her memories of a summer in the ’60s when she was  peripherally involved with a Manson-like cult.  Natasha Staggs’ Surveys is another brilliant novel, the story of an underemployed college graduate who goes from working in a mall survey office to internet fame after becoming involved with an almost-famous person online.

catherine-lacey-96c33e_5257b3bd3d2c1e43a297161162a0feaeLacey’s uneven Nobody Is Ever Missing is the least effective of the three.  She writes long, lyrical, winding sentences, a cross between Kerouac and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.  The narrator, Elyria, a brittle woman named after a town in Ohio,  leaves her life in Manhattan and gets on a plane for New Zealand without telling anyone.

Why does she leave?  Well, that’s not quite clear. It seems Elyria, a soap opera writer, has not been the same since her adopted Korean sister Ruby committed suicide six years ago. She married the math professor who was the last person to see her sister alive, though her alcoholic mother pointed out that this was not the best foundation for a relationship.   The couple are happy briefly, but the marriage deteriorates:  they fight all the time, their good memories are consumed by their differences, and in her husband’s sleep he is often bizarrely violent.

So what happens to Elyria in New Zealand?  Well, nothing much. In New York she was upper-middle-class (or upper?); now she is a bum.  She hitchhikes.  She stays with a poet on his farm, but he kicks her out, because she is too troubled even for him.  She befriends a transgender woman, but any relationship is too much pressure.  Elyria runs deeper into solitude, sleeping on the beach, in a shed, and then settling for months in a caravan outside the cabin of a generous vegetarian hippie couple, Luna and Amos.  By the end of the novel, Elyria has fallen to the bottom tier of society.   She wants to be missing to herself.

Here is one of Lacey’s beautiful sentences, describing Elyria’s depressed thoughts.

And after I had deleted my history on Amos’s computer I realized that even if no one ever found me, and even if I lived out the rest of my life here, always missing, forever a missing person to other people, I could never be missing to myself, I could never delete my own history, and I would always know exactly where I was and where I had been and I would never wake up not being who I was and it didn’t matter how much or how little I thought I understood the mess of myself, because I would never, no matter what I did, be missing to myself and that was what I had wanted all this time, to go fully missing, but I would never be able to go fully missing—nobody is missing like that, no one has ever had that luxury and no one ever will.

The reviewers were enthusiastic about this novel, and many of you may be, but I am not.  Lacey can write beautifully, and sometimes she does, but her sentences are often purple prose.  And I do not comprehend the narrator’s wish to go  missing, which must be very uncomfortable after living on the West Side.  This uneven book, published in 2014, has its points, but is far from the best new book I’ve read this year.