At first, Yoko Ogawa's new story collection Revenge just seems like a slightly weird, slightly sad collection of literary stories. The first few stories feel like your standard funny little tales of strange, lonely people who are with other strange, lonely people.
But then, the deeper you go into this book, the more the oddness ramps up, and the more you start to notice unsettling connections between all the stories. And the weirdness and loneliness come to seem intertwined, as you start to see a composite portrait of isolated people who have been alone or bereaved so long that they've gotten swallowed up by a kind of cosmic weirdness.
I've seen Ogawa's work compared to Haruki Murakami a lot, since they're both Japanese and they both feature a lot of dreamlike weirdness. But these stories are less extravagantly weird than Murakami — it's more like there are strange, fantastical little details that pop out of the stories.
Like, a woman kills a man and cuts off his hands, and then afterwards her garden is full of tasty hand-shaped carrots. Or a nightclub singer has a rare condition that causes her heart to beat outside of her chest, just sitting there beating away in front of her breast. And a few other freaky little surprises, here and there. It's sort of on the edge of magical realism.
What emerges from these stories is not just the connection between weirdness and loneliness — which anybody who's spent too much time on their own will be familiar with — but the third axis of that trifecta, cruelty. Some of the most memorable moments in these stories revolve around people either doing unbelievably sadistic things to their emotionally distant loved ones, or at least fantasizing about it.
Perhaps the most memorable story in the book is "The Museum of Torture," in which a young beautician is upset by her self-absorbed boyfriend and winds up stumbling on an old house that's been turned into, yes, a museum of torture instruments. Every item in the museum was actually used to torture someone at some point — which the elderly curator verifies by testing for traces of blood or organic matter — and most of them are terribly old. The fascination with weird and unbearable methods of causing someone to lose his or her mind blends together with the fact that neither the curator nor the beautician can really live with themselves. A lot of the other stories wind up connecting to the "Museum of Torture" story in one way or another, as we encounter more examples of strange sadism.
And there is a lot of murder in these interlocking stories, to the point where people notice that there are multiple murder victims in the vicinity of the same apartment building. There's murder and mutilation at the hospital, in the garden, and various other places. And alongside it, there's a lot of longing and quiet misery as sad, shy people stare at the beautiful strangers they can never really know.
Revenge seems, at first, like a collection of interesting, somewhat macabre trifles — but by the time you get to the torture museum, it comes to feel quite powerful and strange. The tangle of sadism and lonely anguish will sneak up on you and leave you with a weird lump on the back of your head when you're done reading.