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Shallowness or a Legitimate Representation

(Short Stories for Students)

I think that a lot of the critics who dismiss Kitchen as “lightweight” do so because its characters are just too happy, just as a lot of the novella’s devoted fans dismiss the critics as grouches who disliked the story because they have a thing against happiness. The truth, as it always does, must lie somewhere in between.

There is no denying that there is a tendency throughout the story to break up moments of sober reflection with a cheerful shake of the head, an uncaused burst of enthusiasm for whatever life has to offer next. It is also pretty well established that, for reasons I will get into later, writers cannot have their characters just turn on a pin, go from one mood to another with the start of a new sentence— they can do it, that is, just as they can toss in singing toasters and invisible spaceships and anything else they can imagine that does not exist in the common world, but just because they can think it up does not mean it is good artistry. The suspicious thing about a book that always turns happy like this is that happiness is such a crowd-pleaser. If Yoshimoto had turned to misery at the end of every upbeat scene, we might worry about her mental hygiene, but we would be less likely to think she does it for popularity’s sake than we are when she gives the public what it wants time and again.

On the other hand, this is not a book that takes place in the reality that anybody lives in, even after we adjust for the cultural differences. This is a fantasy land, where people dream concurrently and the dying go down heroically swinging barbells and cab drivers say “Okay, then, let’s get going” when they find out that the hundred-mile trip in the middle of the night is for love. Why should this novella be responsible for maintaining its characters’ emotional consistency when it breaks almost all other rules of behavior without blushing? Isn’t it allowed to set its own rules, as long as it sticks to them?

“Yuichi went to the refrigerator and got out a couple of grapefruits, then happily took the juicer from its box.” That “happily,” among all the other happy actions in the book, gets me most. First, because it seems so superfluous there, thrown into the middle of an action that isn’t, itself, the sort of thing that makes one happy unless one really likes juice and has a really powerful thirst. A lot of what goes on in the story is like this, spiked with a little burst of enthusiasm. I imagine being able to watch from my window as Yuichi or Mikage comes up the street, and I’m certain that neither one of them could walk for half a block without sneaking in a little skip or a shuffle, forgetting for one step that they are not dancing through life. These people are full of joy. But look at the context in which Yuichi happily takes the juicer from its box, and you have to wonder if there’s nothing that can quiet his joy for a few minutes. It is the middle of the night; he has just woken up from a weird dream; he is...

(The entire section is 3,955 words.)