[27 October 2010]
Gush by Yo Hemmi is a collection of three novellas: “Gush”, “Night Caravan”, and “Piano Wire”. They are a strange group of stories; the publisher uses the phrase “deeply bizarre” to describe the works. So often publishers exaggerate to promote their books; in this case, they got it exactly right.
“Gush” tells the story of a woman named Saeko whose body fills with water; this water only drains when she is “performing shameful acts” such as stealing imported cheeses or having sex.The narrator sees Saeko shoplifting and then notices a small puddle of water on the floor. Intrigued, he follows her—hoping to sell her an insurance policy.
Instead, they become lovers. They eat cheese, adopt two bats, and have lots of sex. After the first sexual encounter, the narrator relates “my loins felt warm and languorous. All sensation in my middle had just melted away as though I were soaking in a hip-bath… For me, it felt as though I‘d done something unforgivably self-indulgent, like taking a bath on silk futon. And all this in the middle of the Multi-Month Campaign too, while my boss and the saleswomen were working their socks off knocking on doors, trying to make a sale.”
Even with the water issue, it’s an amazingly realistic relationship—full of secrets, spats, and jealousy. The narrator is quirky—breaking into the story to go off on various multi-page tangents, where he assures the audience that this story is “damn well true” or tells us about “a friend who likes to hunt down cut-price air tickets” before ending “I appreciate you listening to me. Let me press on with my tale.”
“Night Caravan” is the story of sex, lice, prostitution, and beauty. A group of people travels through the night in cyclos—pedal-powered rickshaws—in search of a good hotel. The narrator, as the audience is reminded perhaps too frequently, has lice. As an examination of one of the opening passages indicates, the lice are clearly meant to serve a symbolic purpose: “I remembered the old saying: A louse has no home of its own. They’re always migrating from one clump of hair to another. Is it something to do with them not having eyes? Doomed to live in perpetual darkness? My crotch started itching and I scratched it through my trouser pocket. The crab lice had been down there for a month now.” Still, at times the metaphor might be a touch overdone. One can only read about someone’s itching crotch so many times before it becomes a little much—although perhaps that is part of the point.
This story is filled with ugly images—violence, lice, pubic hair, pimps—but there is a beauty as well, often seen in passages involving light: “The three flowers were slowly blinking on and off, not in sync, but one after the other. The mauve-blue petals looked moist and shiny, and every time they glowed feebly they turned the area around them pale blue.” And as the back of the book promises, there is even a little humor—a Carpenters song is playing as they ride through the night.
The last novella, “Piano Wire” is the story of a messy family and the man who cleans them up…at least temporarily. While “Night Caravan” combines the disgusting with the beautiful, “Piano Wire” tries to make the disgusting disgustingly funny. Consider the family’s “spectacles”: “Jeans, men’s dress trousers, women’s slacks—peel them straight down from the waist and step out of them, and you’re left with two circles on the floor.” Of course, “bifocals” must be “when your underpants made a second set of circles inside the original pair”. To complete the image: “it was perfectly okay to let a few days pass before you stuck your legs back into these ‘spectacles’ and pulled them back on”.
These images and this crudeness are juxtaposed with classicality—such as when the contents of the refrigerator are likened to “that Gericault painting, The Raft of the Medusa. Naked bodies sprawling on top of one another on a raft; some sick and on the verge of death; others waving feebly across the swelling sea; the clouds like blotches of black mold, the sail about to split…From inside the refrigerator I could just catch the sound of groaning. I slammed the door shut.” No one can accuse Hemmi of creating uninteresting analogies.
This story has its serious side, though, and there are some disturbing sections. While a decapitation could perhaps be darkly humorous, the description keeps the humor at bay. The narrator notes “I examined the picture of the dead youth. He looked strange without a helmet. It wasn’t a fly’s face. I don’t know if the photo was out of focus or just badly printed, but it was blurred and hard to make out”. Even the death of insects is graphic: “Each time a cicada was squashed, it let out that shrill, staccato scream”. At times it is hard to reconcile the humor with the violence.
Each story is completely contained, but similar elements—strangers, animals, and mysteries—unite and connect all the stories as does the often beautiful phrasing. It’s a book that contains the comedic, the mysterious, the disturbing, and the strange; at times, it might contain a little too much, but there is also an originality and, again at times, a beauty that is hard to ignore.