Since I am just home from Japan, let’s talk about some Japanese literature. Before I left on holiday, I read a book just out from Alma Books called The Maid by Tsutsui Yasutaka and translated by Adam Kabat.
The Maid is about a young woman with the power to read minds who jumps from family home to family home. She is a purportedly intelligent young woman who has decided to hide out in this ridiculous job because she doesn’t want the world to know her secret.
Before I talk about my reaction, you need to know that Tsutsui is one of Japan’s most prolific and famous science fiction writers. He has something like 30 novels and 50 short story collections. You also need to know that The Maid (家族八景, or Kazoku Hakkei) was originally written in 1972.
I mention these two things because it helped me put the book into its proper context. I think that because Tsutsui is primarily a science fiction writer, he leaves out some of the more literary elements I might have enjoyed (Nanase’s development as a character, for example, is quite shallow), to focus on the stranger, more fantastic parts of his story (an artist who thinks completely in the abstract – shapes, colors and all). And the book is just a teensy bit dated, so it helps to know it was written in the 70s.
The Maid reads like a collage, with each chapter essentially following the same format only with different characters and slightly different events. Tsutsui has a lot to say about selfish, even dangerous sexual urges and egotism in general. The families Nanase spends time with are all basically an assortment of human monsters and Nanase moves through them with an interesting mix of cynicism and innocence.
The book does a lot for exploding myths about Japanese culture – its tidiness, the inviolable tradition of respect for one’s elders, the beauty of an intricate and strict hierarchy. With the creation of his mind-reading character, Tsutsui literally peels away the veneer of perfection and exposes a dark portrait of human nature – laziness and fear, infidelities, social climbing, incest, violence. You name it, Tsutsui writes about it.
So in terms of story, there is some interesting stuff going on in The Maid. On a prose level, I didn’t find it a satisfying read. Tsutsui’s style is sparse, yes, and the writing is clear, but Nanase’s mind-reading as a vehicle for emotional and narrative escalation begins to fall flat after a few chapters. It boils down to a strange kind of dialogue, with Nanase and the other characters “conversing” on one polite level while Nanase and the reader “listen in” to each person’s actual, horrible thoughts. The story tension gets lost in such direct access. It made me wish Tsutsui had gone a step further, found a way to push Nanase (or the reader) somehow. He comes close in the very last chapter but still doesn’t step out of his template.