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.