MILD VERTIGO, by Mieko Kanai. Translated by Polly Barton.
By the end of the first, four-page-long sentence of “Mild Vertigo,” I found myself strongly identifying with Natsumi, the Tokyo housewife at the center of the Japanese author Mieko Kanai’s latest novel to be translated into English. Never mind that my life and Natsumi’s are nothing alike. Like her, I too began to fret about the cleanliness of my kitchen walls. My thoughts began to mimic the buzzy, galumphing rhythms of Natsumi’s interior world. I began to wonder whether I had always thought this way, whether this book was making me aware of the true nature of my mind for the first time. Such is the mesmerizing wonder of Kanai’s prose, as translated by Polly Barton.
Natsumi’s life is comfortably middle-class, and so crammed with never-changing routine that, when she finds an old shopping list in the pocket of a jacket that she hasn’t worn in months, she discovers that it’s identical to the long list she has just written. Her husband is odiously self-absorbed. Her young sons aren’t particularly loving. She is “no stranger to the impression that her life was boring, mediocre and eventless,” but tells herself that it is a “feeling that existed separately from any feeling of dissatisfaction.” She is no rebel. She conforms. She is the same at the end of the novel as she was in the beginning.
But every now and then, when she is washing dishes, maybe, or watching a lace curtain billow in the breeze, Natsumi comes to a place of quiet revelation so beautiful that it wakes her from this stupor. When her father shows her a photograph of herself in kindergarten, she is overcome with a rush of vivid memory: the polka-dot dress that was too small for her, a cat with different-colored eyes, a toy bear, the mysterious uncle in the wicker chair nearby. On another day she is making her children one of so many meals when she suddenly realizes how easily she can make them happy, and how precious and fleeting a skill that is, for any mother. She asks herself whether, “in a year’s time, putting ketchup-flavored butter rice in star-shaped molds would still make the children’s eyes light up, still make them cry out with pleasure.”
Like “Mrs. Dalloway,” “Mild Vertigo” plunges the reader into the mind of a woman of comfortable means who is trying to make sense of her world even as she is bombarded by a tumult of impressions, memories, worries, constraints. But as Clarissa Dalloway makes her way through interwar England, she can count on the predictability of Big Ben to guide her hours — “There! Out it booms” — whereas Natsumi’s 1990s Tokyo (this book was originally published in 1997 in Japan) is crammed with a chaotic confusion of sound: “a growling noise that sounded like a blend of a car engine and the little roar the gas boiler made when it was lit and the sound of the motor of the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner.”
It’s a world so cacophonous that Natsumi rarely gets to the end of a thought before she is interrupted by some outside sense impression — an accurate reflection of today’s urban existence. It’s a wonder Natsumi can function at all in such a world. Kanai leaves it up to the reader to decide whether to judge Natsumi for not trying harder to break free of the thudding dullness of her days, or celebrate her as a quiet success: content to lead the life she’s been dealt, however mildly vertiginous it might be.
Claire Oshetsky is the author of “Chouette.” Her next novel, “Poor Deer,” will be published in January.
MILD VERTIGO | By Mieko Kanai | Translated by Polly Barton | 179 pp. | New Directions | Paperback, $16.95