Once you've turned the last page of Yoko Ogawa's newly translated story collection, Revenge, you find the URL www.picadorusa.com/revenge on the back flap. But when you type it into your browser, you're led to a book of the same name by a different author: "When a young painter moves next door to a world class novelist with writer's block, the two women become entwined in a novel described by Michael Cunningham as 'compelling and darkly beautiful …'" Considering that Ogawa's book isn't miles away from this description, you start to wonder if it's some kind of stunt. After all, the Revenge you just finished contains a painter and a few writers (one of whom appears, depending on whom you believe, in at least three of the stories), and two of the early stories resurface later in the book as … stories, written by characters from other stories.
And it is "darkly beautiful," reminding you of early Carver and the slow, deep twists of Alice Munro. And it gets more beautiful each time you go back to it and spot another connection between stories, and whenever Ogawa quietly rebukes you (everything here, even a dismembered corpse dug up in a vegetable garden, is done quietly) for treating her book like a mystery.
When you flip to the book's front matter, you notice that the original title — Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai — is six times longer than the English, which makes you think of that one scene from Wayne's World (start at 1:32). Remembering that you were also confused about the English title, since acts of revenge are only mentioned in passing, you email a friend who speaks Japanese.
He offers a rough translation, "Reticent corpse, Dirty mourning," adding that midara can also mean "loose, bawdy, improper." Thank god you got that cleared up.
You decide to reread the book. At your desk, in one sitting. This time, you pencil out a grid, with a column for each of the eleven stories, and you start keeping track of the recurring characters, settings, and motifs. You also create a row labeled "Fruit?" because there's a warehouse full of kiwis in the second story and a garden full of hand-shaped carrots (among other, less palatable things) in the third.
Two hours later, you're blinking down at this:
You think about transerring it to a Google spreadsheet and offering it to anyone interested in the book, but you sense that you're starting to miss the point. Sure, it was fun realizing that the young girl in "Fruit Juice" is also the slightly older baker in "Afternoon at the Bakery," but the pleasure lies in discovering those connections yourself, a sort of cascading déjà vu that grows stronger as the book progresses and characters start to split and blend. Trying to iron it all out would be about as satisfying as googling "mulholland drive meaning."
The throughline of the book might be no more straight than your faltering attempts to understand it. You recall that the narrator of "Tomatoes and the Full Moon" reads a story called "Afternoon at the Bakery," which is also the name of the first story in Revenge. And even though you suspect that the author is telling you how to read the book, which is beneath her, the narrator's reaction and yours are the same.
The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot and characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge in again and again.
In the end, reading Revenge isn't really about tracing the mysterious woman and her dog back to the young writer in the third story, or deciding whether the young hairdresser in the Museum of Torture is also the grieving mother in "An Afternoon at the Bakery." If you're like me, it's more about the recognition of courses altered, intentions thwarted, revenge revised.