I do not even know where to begin. It’s been a while since I last finished reading Malena Watrous’ debut novel, If You Follow Me. I’ve spent the days since then thinking about how to properly articulate the calm love I have for this book. On my notebook, following the note-taking and the quotes I gathered, I tried to outline a coherent post: To summarize; Marina; Japan; WTF Gomi Police; Marina and Caroline; Marina and her father; Hiro. I tried to come up with phrases like calm love. [I have found myself glaring at my copy of the book, I need a little help here, dammit.]
This struggle, it’s not how much I’m having trouble with the words with which to share how stunned I was with this book. It’s me having realized that the novel is best experienced first-hand: I want you to read this book, it’s a book that must be read. It’s not that it defies summary, see: Marina is a fresh graduate who’s gone to a small nuclear-plant-touting town in Japan to teach English; Her motivations are suspect–Has she followed her girlfriend Carolyn, or is she simply running away from her father’s suicide? How are the two things inextricable?; In Japan, she tries to adapt to the culture that demands so many things that’s odd to her American upbringing–from the incredibly frustrating gomi [garbage] law to “parallel universe” parties [you read that right], from the prevalent near-glorifying of noble suicide to the volatile reservedness of the Japanese.
“Gomen nasai,” I say: forgive me. “Shitsureishimashita.” This translates literally: I have committed a rude. After four months in Japan, I’m fluent only in apologies.
I have been apologetic lately–good books and dratted feelings of inadequacy in relation to said good books do a lot to coax that feeling out. I’m apologizing again: I love If You Follow Me, but I do not know how to say it. I want to say how finely crafted this book is. It’s, well, it’s chill. I could feel so much authorial awareness in how Watrous paced the narrative, how things were revealed, even little details easy to overlook–in one letter to Marina: Mari-chan, I really do not want to breathe on your neck, details that you can pass of as a mistake of the character, but, bigger picture here, is just so telling in so many ways. I want to tell you–and tell you right, dammit–how Marina’s story swept me away that, before I knew it, I was closing the book, sighing contentedly, even patting that gorgeous cover.
Fanatic much? Well. Because I am surprised. There, I admit I am surprised. I mean, I expected I’d like this book–I wouldn’t actually have it if I didn’t, right? But I had not foreseen how quiet it was. How funny, how touching, how moving. How sneaky in its goodness.
* * *
What I can tell you: There’s this quiet earnestness with awkward and bumbling Marina. She’s not trying to be cute. As a character, she wasn’t written to fish for sympathy. As a person living in her world, she is what she is–seemingly distant, truly lost, funny and offbeat, just a little neurotic, just a little vulnerable.
I keep thinking about my father. I think about the note he left in the glove compartment of his car, a note so short that I memorized it without trying, without wanting to. I am sorry for the pain that this will cause you, but I am in a black hole of despair and I can’t find my way out. I forfeit the right to give you any advice. Please try not to be too sad and move on with your lives. Try not to be too sad? Move on with your lives? I’ve been following this advice like a dare.
Back in America, in some grief-counseling, Marina meets Carolyn. Carolyn, too, is grieving, and has been grieving for years. I felt that the relationship between these two was some kind of unspoken–or perhaps they’re not always aware of it–superiority contest. Who’s better at the job? Who belongs to Japan more? Who hurts more? Who loves the other more, and, in a way, loses this game?
Carolyn was right when she said that moving together to Japan, living together for the first time here, would put too much pressure on our relationship. I thought that by crossing the Pacific together, our lives would broaden, but instead, they shrank. Here we have only each other for comfort, for consolation, for conversation, for sex, for everything. And sometimes being lonely together is worse than being lonely alone. Still, I can’t imagine being here without her, and I worry that when we go our separate ways, I will feel halved.
In a few scenes near the beginning of the novel, I was struck by how passive Marina seems to be. Passive–those times it felt like things were simply happening to her, and she simply allowed it–and was sly with the passivity [that’s being passive-aggressive, right?] But eventually it became clear that this wasn’t the fault of the character. This was the flaw of the person. It made her real. And it’s in the novel that we witness Marina trying to break out of that–not as consciously as one would think. People change. Things align. Shit breaks down. Gomi rules get broken.
* * *
The gomi laws that Marina seems to keep breaking, it’s definitive of the strangeness of this new culture, of how ill at ease Marina is in her new environment. As would anyone, I suppose, but put an awkward but well-meaning girl in an awkward but well-meaning [culturally] environment, and what would you get? The intricate and complicated–and, yes, fussy–laws governing the disposal of trash frustrated me to no end–and it’s credit due Watrous that she delivers a lot of gomi-related news within the doubly-embarrassing letters from Marina’s supervisor, Miyoshi-sensei. Those are delicious little letters. Strange, a little annoying, hair-pulling at times, adorable after a while.
Yum. Aherm. The best thing about breaking gomi laws is Hiroshi Miyoshi. Hiro: “Like superhero, you know? But alas I have no superpower. I am only your supervisor.” You gotta love Hiro.
“I am confused,” Miyoshi-sensei says. “I think the correct answer is, ‘I want to come with you.’ But you wrote that correct answer is, ‘I want come inside you.'”
“Both sentences work grammatically,” I say.
“But meaning is different?”
“Sort of.” I hope he won’t press for clarification.
“Prepositions are so difficult,” he says. “I want to come near you. I want to come next to you. I want to come beside you. I want to come close to you. . . . To me it’s so many ways to say the same thing. Can you hear something I don’t?”
What I can hear, for the first time, is the way these little words–words distinguishing the relationship between one thing and another, one person and another–also keep them apart. No matter how close you get, you are still separate, still stuck in your own skin.
What I like most about the interaction between him and Marina is how their different cultures can be problematic to their friendship. Signals get crossed, many things get lost in translation. Hiro’s reservedness–and his pompadour, haha–that Japanese stoicism. Man. He’s just so very earnest, and, and, and, I really have no other words for that thing that makes him appeal to me so much–earnest, that’s the word, earnest. [Something incredibly wonky: I kept seeing Miguel Syjuco in my head as Hiroshi Miyoshi, whose novel Ilustrado I’d read a few days before Watrous’. Is this disturbing?]
* * *
I tried to say what I could, I did. I could go on and on–so many things in this novel that I haven’t touched on, so many nuances I can’t possibly relay. This only means that you have to read If You Follow Me. You really do.