Review of “The Changeling” by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm

I’m going to follow the advice of the author, as conveyed through the protagonist who is himself a novelist and literary critic, and review the novel I read rather than second-guess the author. Thus, I will not comment on the well-known tendency of Ōe to disguise memoirs about his own life as novels, including the tragic death of a director-friend with an uncanny resemblance to the antagonist in this novel. Instead, I will focus on the novel as translated into English from Japanese.

The prose is overly wordy, to the point of being difficult to read at times. Punctuation and grammatical errors are exceedingly rare, however, so I was able to slog through it to the end. It starts with the antagonist’s death and his reaching out to Kogito (the protagonist) through a series of tape recordings. This was very cleverly done and promised to be a very interesting discussion of aging and death. (Both Kogito and his lifelong friend, Goro, were approaching 65.)

But then the entire thread was dropped like a hot potato, and the story shifted to random musings about an event in the past, when Kogito and Goro were teenagers, an event that had already been briefly described and so was no longer a source of anticipation for the reader. Nevertheless, this event was repeated in painful detail as flashbacks while Kogito was reflecting on his life without the benefit of Goro speaking to him from beyond the grave. I really missed Goro.

The event (referred to as THAT by the characters) was nothing more than the kind of misunderstanding that occurs between young men looking for excitement and having a brush with criminal types. Yet, the author got hung up on it and wouldn’t let it go. There was also a drawn-out description of a previous futile and pathetic display of violence by Kogito’s father, again with no dramatic consequences. Just plain boring.

Then Kogito and Goro are both dropped from the story with no closure of any of their reflections or even personal relationship, leaving far more issues unresolved than were examined (much less addressed). The third-person perspective shifts to Chikashi, Kogito’s wife and Goro’s sister (although the author seems to be confused about whether she is younger or older than her brother). This last chapter, which is called the epilogue (I guess because of the shift in POV), reads as if each section was written without reviewing previous sections, after several weeks had passed. I had the distinct impression that the author just wanted to finish the book at all costs. (Maybe he had a book contract deadline.)

For example, in his haste to address (but not resolve) all of the issues that were brought up in the story, Ōe has Chikashi make a list of how points in her life compared to the main character in a children’s story (Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak). He even switches to first-person narration by Chikashi, interwoven with flashbacks of undisclosed chronological age or duration. It was a bit confusing. The entire book ends with her reflecting on this list, which I suppose allows a third-person (i.e. not Kogito or Goro) to throw in their two-cents worth. However, her discussion didn’t contribute to the discourse on death and growing old, suicide, friendship, and many other cans of worms that were opened but left lying about. It just repeated the same fragmentary data points.

The literary theory attributed to Sendak, tossed into the mix in the epilogue, only confused matters more since it was presented by a non-literary person (by Chikashi’s own admission) and was fragmentary and allusive at best. I looked “Reiterative Divergence” up, along with the other literary references used in the book, including many to the author’s own works (attributed to Kogito). I liked that technique and I’ve done it myself.

Viewed from the perspective of a work of fiction, I cannot recommend this book. It’s just too long, repetitive, lacking a plot (required for a novel) or character development, and incomplete.

However, if I do what Ōe himself opposes through Kogito and treat this, not as what is purported to be, a novel, but instead as a memoir written during an emotionally difficult time (the possible suicide of his good friend), then I can compare it to The Obscene Bird of the Night, by José Donoso. This exercise makes it readable although it still falls far short of Donoso’s nightmarish tale of poverty, schizophrenia, and depression in Chile. Reading the author’s mind in this scenario (like Goro’s multiple versions of THAT) it still comes up short because the pain and loss felt by Kogito and Chikashi, not to mention the mental anguish suffered by Goro, is never presented fully; how can it be when the story jumps around like a cat on a hot tin roof.

The Changeling wasn’t sold as a memoir, a genre I generally don’t read because they aren’t FICTION. Authors and publishers shouldn’t get away with false advertising any more than doctors or lawyers.

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