“Lots of people died today. In a city to the north, a tour bus tumbled off a cliff, killing twenty-seven and badly injuring six more. A family of three, weighed down with debt, committed suicide by turning on the gas – and when the house exploded, six more died next door. An eighty-six-year-old man was killed by a hit-and-run driver; a child drowned in an irrigation ditch; a fishing boat capsized; some mountain climbers were swept away by an avalanche. There was a flood in China, a plane crash in Nepal, and in Niger a religious cult committed mass suicide.”
So begins a story titled “Welcome to the Museum of Torture” in Yoko Ogawa’s “Revenge,” a brisk, grim, wholly unsettling short story collection whose veins are pumping with fear, mystery and sadness.
Fun? Not really. But moving, and scary, and occasionally devastating. Bear in mind that you may need to hide under an afghan blanket and watch an Audrey Hepburn movie afterward, perhaps while nursing a chamomile tea and staring tearfully at a puppy calendar.
The above laundry list of the macabre, coupled with the name of the story it begins, is an apt indicator of what the reader will find in “Revenge.” I was unfamiliar with the work of Ogawa, an author whose sweetly smile-y dust-jacket photo seems wonderfully incongruous with the sinister forces lurking in these 162 pages.
It’s a collection of 11 short stories linked in ways obvious and not, with some recurring characters and locations, occasional surprising crossovers, and an unlimited sense of surprise.
But calling these “horror stories” is severely limiting. The book’s subtitle, “Eleven Dark Tales,” is a much more apt way of describing creations like “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger.”
The female protagonist of “Tiger” knows her doctor husband is having an affair with a secretary at the hospital where he works, and her response is one of resigned acceptance:
“What was I going to do when I saw her? It was a question I had asked myself a thousand times. Slap her? Scream insults? Demand she give my husband back? How ridiculous. It would be better to lose him than look so utterly foolish.”
This reaction is typical of Ogawa’s characters, who tend to be locked in deep, almost suicidal depression. Consider one of the wife’s memories of adolescence:
“At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.”
Yes, Virginia Woolf herself would call this a tad dreary, and this is without even knowing what ends up happening between wife, husband and secretary … Let’s just say it includes the line, “I shake it and out falls a tongue.”
That is one of many eerily filmlike scenes, and in fact, “Revenge” has the kind of escalating sense of dread one often finds in the cinema; think early-to-mid-period Polanski, or even the first hour of Steven Soderbergh’s gloriously mind-screwing “Side Effects.”
Elsewhere, there is a nightclub singer with her heart literally located outside of her chest, a corpse with missing hands, and an odd, immobilizing neck brace meant to help children grow. This is Ogawa’s Japan, and it is quite unforgettable.
“Revenge” certainly piques one’s interest in the author’s back catalog, which includes Man Asian Literary Prize-shortlisted “Hotel Iris” and “The Housekeeper and the Professor.” She is a writer capable of simple, surprising devastation, one who attacks with drone-like efficiency, then retreats inward.
“Revenge” begins and ends with the same sad discovery, of a 6-year-old “suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator left in a vacant lot.” It’s rather unexplained, this horrible, horrible death, and that makes the opening and closing tales even more powerful. We’re left, like the old woman who finds the child’s body, “dazed” and “trembling.”
“She looked more dead than my son,” says the boy’s mother, demonstrating with brutal clarity the MO of Ogawa’s “Revenge”: The worst part of seeing others die is being left behind to decipher why.
By Yoko Ogawa
176 pages, $14 paperback
Christopher Schobert is a frequent News contributing writer and critic.