Apparently the only books I feel like reviewing on here are Todd Shimoda's novels. What I really want to say would involve spoilers and I don't want to spoil it, even for people who think they'll never read it -- I even wish I hadn't read the comments on the back cover of the book because they gave me too much of an inkling about where the story might go and I spent too much of the time comparing the plot to my suspicions, rather than letting it unfold on its own terms. So I won't say everything I want to say.
The central concept of the book (entitled "Oh!"), is 物の哀れ, mono no aware.
One possible criticism of the book is that it spends a bit too much time trying to tell you exactly what mono no aware
is, through both discussions between the characters and interspersed "exhibits" -- short paragraphs explaining the history and different interpretations of the concept (there's a list of references for the exhibits in the back). In the balance between showing and telling, I would have liked the book to lean a bit farther away from the telling side. JDIC, my first go-to source for Japanese words, defines it as "strong aesthetic sense; appreciation of the fleeting nature of beauty; pathos of things." As simple and inadequate as that definition is, it may have been all the book really needed to tell us explicitly; it should be the job of the story to deepen our understanding indirectly.
When I last talked
about Todd Shimoda's books, I complained that 365 Views of Mt. Fuji
left me feeling too desolate, like the only options are to live an empty life or to go mad, while the message of The Fourth Treasure
is more positive: meaning is built up through all the little things in our lives. Distilled in the same way, Oh!
is about the different ways that each person experiences the world and the overwhelming emotions it can invoke -- some successfully, some less successfully, but everyone struggling and everyone unique. In this way, the strength of the book is in its less developed characters -- the random people that the narrator meets on his quest to feel something deep. My favorites are an innkeeper who writes (mediocre) poetry and a convenience store clerk who studies accents, but there are others -- bartenders and museum curators and an aspiring translator and a go player and a performance artist who reenacts group suicides...along with the four members of the "suicide club" that initially fascinates the narrator. What separates those who find a way to live from those who decide to die? The book, to its credit, doesn't really try to offer an answer, but we are invited to muse upon whether the answer has something to do with mono no aware
. It is suggested more than once that suicide for some people may be the ultimate act in a quest to feel
something, to understand the most intense emotions, those which come from a sudden perception of the fleeting nature of life and the sadness inherent in the aesthetic world (whatever exactly that means). This is an interesting idea but hard for me to relate to, since I've never been able to picture wanting to commit suicide.
I'm more interested in the characters who were able to live, who managed to find a balance, a way to exist in the world with all its sadness and fleetingness, in whatever way they could -- to appreciate it, find meaning, find an outlet, find a place. And I'm more interested in the over-explained concept of mono no aware
itself, because it comes closer than any other philosophy that I've encountered to saying something about the way I experience the world. I feel ridiculous writing on this blog with any sort of confidence that I understand this subtle, delicate old Japanese philosophy instinctively -- how can I know? Maybe what I think I understand isn't it. Maybe I'm just overly emotional and immature and want to latch onto something that sounds like a fancy poetic concept to make myself feel special rather than pathetic. But everything I read about the idea, everything I felt like the book was trying to say, felt so natural
. Like finally, a word for those moments when I feel a surge in my chest that I can't describe, that isn't about happiness or sadness but just about suddenly feeling like I brushed against something true
about the universe. Finally a word for the satisfying yet crushing sadness that anything beautiful provokes. For how overwhelming tiny moments can be for no reason I can explain.
Maybe part of my frustration is almost the opposite of the frustration of the narrator of this book: I feel so much, and yet am helpless to express any of it because...well, I just haven't figured out how. And I am not trying to claim that my emotions are somehow deeper or more intense or more nuanced than anyone else's. Not at all. I can't say anything about anyone else's emotions, just that mono no aware
feels important to me. And I want to express it. And I can't.
I idiotically left the book at home when I came back to New York, so I can't quote the section I want to quote, but I will quote myself, in a blog post from last spring, and you'll just have to take my word that this almost exactly parallels a passage in the book:And already, green is beginning to take over, more and more of the petals are on the ground becoming muddy and wilted. They'll probably be gone within a week, and I don't think I'm going to take any more pictures of them. I know I am not the first person to realize this, but somehow it hadn't occurred to me before: the cherry blossoms aren't beautiful in a way that can be captured in photographs. They're temporal art, ephemeral; their power involves the flow of time and how they come and go. Yes, they're gorgeous -- but taking pictures, in some way, just misses the point. And I think that's why I know, even as I feel those pangs of loss, that the loss is part of the beauty, and I want to experience the blossoms within the movement of time, without trying to freeze them.
So you won't see any big album of cherry blossom photos on my facebook page. But if you ever want to begin to understand them, then come to Japan -- not in the spring, but say, in January or so. Spend a couple of months shivering under a kotatsu wondering how long you can wait before plunging into the cold to get yourself a glass of water. Drive along the narrow gray roads under low clouds drizzling rain and sleet for what feels like weeks in a row. Wait until you feel like winter will never end. And then...then you'll know how beautiful cherry blossoms really are.