Book Reviews · 05/13/2013

Building Waves by Taeko Tomioka

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai


Dalkey Archive, 2012

Perhaps it was the sea that had come pouring over this land, creating its waves, or maybe the land itself had come pouring out from deep in the earth’s core, but in much more recent years, this land of hills and valleys had supported another great influx, a surge of human beings from the big cities. These days, its waves were heaving with this new deluge of humanity.

This is narrator Kyoko as she looks out across a vista in an Archeological Park not far from her own home. The park contains a notice board, indicating the location of the remains of Jomon-era habitation sites and related artifacts. But the area is now covered in large apartment complexes, and there are more to be built. A continual construction project on land that once housed the earliest known inhabitants of Japan.

Kyoko is obsessed with this digging and building, and with the layering of “humanity” it involves. She cannot help putting herself, both the rituals of her daily life and the larger idea of her overall existence, into this context—the resulting perception of her own ephemerality becomes both seductive and depressing. That tension is what works below the surface of Taeko Tomioko’s Building Waves.

Superficially, the book is about Kyoko and her relationship with a man named Katsumi, a man she meets in a restaurant, with whom she has sex because there is nothing else to do with him, and whom she introduces to a friend when she is tired of him. Their entire relationship (and this is a strong word for the hour or so they spend in his car, the hour or so they spend in a love hotel) is filtered through Kyoko’s aggression toward him.

This aggression is a curious thing and it even manages to surprise Kyoko. The man isn’t particularly offensive, he is, in fact, completely and utterly ordinary. He expects her to be an ordinary woman and their extra-marital dabbling to follow a series of ordinary clichés, and that expectation makes her despise him at times, pity him at others. As the book moves past this first relationship, as we are introduced to other characters (now only women), it becomes clear that Tomioka is much less interested in exploring a single unique relationship but is making a comment on women in general and this expectation of “ordinary” they are set up to negotiate.

The original publication date of 1983 for the Japanese version of Building Waves helps to put this book into context. The 1980s in Japan were a moment of real transformation. The most important element of this transformation was the housing bubble, characterized by rapid construction and increased prices (that most Japanese were still able to pay, because the economy was growing and would continue to grow until the early 1990s when it entered a recession), but secondary to this was the rising demographic crisis, with birth rates plummeting and a flat-lining death rate.

Tomioka wanders through this socio-economic context using a feminist lens. Kyoko and the other women in the book—Kumiko (who becomes Katsumi’s lover after Kyoko), Ayako (Katsumi’s wife), Yoko (one of Kyoko’s friends whose husband leaves her), Amiko (a young mother), and Misawa (an older woman and artist)—are all bumping up against these expectations of what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife. Kyoko sits at the farthest end of the spectrum, the woman who has mostly decided to reject traditional roles, and the other women fall in an untidy line somewhere along the range. What binds them all, to Tomioka’s credit, is that each is more searching than resolute, more hesitant than decided. And the book’s ultimate tragedy—although represented through a single and sad event—is a kind of despair at the paradox of refusing the superficiality of an unexamined life but knowing, at the same, that there are no easy answers, if there are answers at all, to any of your questions.

Despite its serious focus, much of the book is funny and Kyoko is both an opinionated and often poetic narrator. There are moments when some of what she says comes across as somewhat mouthpiece-y but usually her social commentary is well-embedded and her thoughts not obviously a construction of the author’s desire to “discuss a subject.”

Tomioka does make one very fascinating choice with respect to Kyoko’s narrative scope, and this is the complete and willful avoidance of a single character—Kyoko’s husband. Throughout the novel, Kyoko is assumed to be married and her husband mentioned on several occasions. But each time, Kyoko “erases” him, either by refusing to talk about him or by talking about him in such a way that we know she is making everything up. Eventually, the reader begins to wonder if she is even married at all—a question shared by one of Kyoko’s friends. But when his existence is ultimately confirmed, she denies him any physicality, denies him any speech, any presence in her narrative. This choice is both unsettling and very compelling.

By keeping her husband away from the story, Kyoko refuses our desire to understand her behavior by first judging her marriage. We are not allowed to form any conclusions regarding her feelings for him nor about the “state” of their relationship. This struck me as the most deeply feminist argument throughout the book. We are forced to judge Kyoko as an individual and absolutely nothing else.

Building Waves is the kind of book that comes out of a fault line, an unstable geography of changing mores and shifting cultural practices. It is a feminist book—in the way that Tomioka so baldly addresses issues of female sexuality, marriage and child-rearing—but it’s also deeply interested in what it means to be alive, what does living mean to an individual, to an entire population, and to each careful and interested reader.

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Taeko Tomioka (1935–) gained recognition as a poet before turning to screenwriting, fiction, and essays. A prominent feminist writer, her work often questions the traditional roles of women and men in Japanese society. She was one of the screenwriters for the acclaimed film Double Suicide, and several of her short stories have appeared in English translation in The Funeral of a Giraffe.

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Louise Heal Kawai holds an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from the University of Sheffield. Originally from Manchester, U.K., she has lived in Nagoya, Japan for about 20 years, teaching English language and literature. Her literary translations include short stories by Tamaki Daido and Taeko Kono as well as Shoko Tendo’s best-selling autobiography, Yakuza Moon.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator living in Switzerland. Her fiction, translations and reviews have appeared in various journals, including The Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Cerise Press and Fogged Clarity. She is the Reviews Editor here at Necessary Fiction.