Mieko Kawakami's 'Breasts and Eggs' Is a Feminist Masterpiece
Fearless in its demand for accountability, transcendent in its honesty, Mieko Kawakami's Breasts and Eggs breathes life into feminist literature and throws down a gauntlet for other writers to aspire toward.
Breasts and Eggs
Its unobtrusive plot masks a work of remarkable complexity that launches a radical challenge to both the political and literary status quo. Originally published in 2008 in Japan, its English translation (superbly undertaken by Sam Bett and David Boyd) is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Plot-wise, nothing remarkable actually happens in the story. It's divided into two self-contained but related parts featuring the same cast of characters. Book One takes place over a period of less than 48 hours, while Book Two stretches over the better part of a year. It's the sort of story where characters go about their day, wrestling with personal demons and navigating interpersonal relationships, but nothing out of the ordinary transpires.
What renders this work magnificent is its detailed attention to the inner voice, a focus Kawakami shares with other well-known contemporary writers from Japan. A host of bestselling authors -- Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, Kazuki Kaneshiro, Yu Miri, Sayaka Murata, Hiromi Kawakami, and others, all of whom have work translated into English -- have grappled in different and rewarding ways with this perspective. While Murakami's work probes more fantastical terrain, it often takes as its point of departure the banality of the everyday, elevating protagonists' experience of the everyday into otherworldly fantasias.
Kawakami, like Yoshimoto, is more firmly rooted in reality, yet both engage in occasional, brief and controlled descents into fantasy as a technique to further character development. To truly develop a character it is necessary to understand them both in the real world and in the dreamy fantasies into which we all drift.
What all these authors share is a mastery over the interior voice. Time is languorous in their work; secondary characters come and go. Narratives are rarely straightforward, either in terms of plot or chronology. Everything is rendered secondary to development of the main character, and the process(es) they are dealing with -- healing, growth, change, reconciliation.
Prolific use of magical realism – tapped into by many of these writers, but none use it more profusely than Murakami, who has made it his particular modus operandi – also underscores the interiority and psychological development of the novel. When the exterior world – laws of physics, chronologies of time – cease to follow logical rules; and when magic and fantasy intersect randomly with the familiar world, everything is rendered uncertain. The only anchor in such a setting is the narrator themselves.
Their interior sense of self, with which they must make sense of the fantastical and often sense-less setting around them, is the only constant. Fantasy and magic realism are used to further refine that sense of self, as it processes and assimilates the most fantastical of external stimuli. It helps the reader – as well as the protagonist – to winnow an identity down to its essence. This sense of self-understanding, and whatever personal growth it entails, is the goal consistently sought in these stories; its achievement the denouement and reward for both reader and protagonist alike.
But Mieko Kawakami has honed her technique in ways that distinguish her work from these other authors. There is an element of restraint in Banana Yoshimoto's work, which brings her to the edge of sexual and psychological candour, yet ultimately relies on leaving a great deal implied and unsaid. Kawakami pushes boundaries further – she doesn't fear exploring the messiness of bodies and sexuality, and she's unapologetic in her very direct criticism of misogyny, reproductive and body politics, and other social norms. Yet she couches this in the familiar interior voice, which allows readers to maintain a sense of intimacy with her protagonists. We like the protagonists. We get them. We realize that in many ways, we are them.
Writing Women's Lives
To his credit, Haruki Murakami has been generously stumping for Kawakami in the literary scene, which is appropriate as her work complements his in important ways. While he has tried valiantly to engage with gender politics on occasion, there is a gender bias to Murakami's oeuvre characterized by an inability to develop authentic female characters, particularly in lead roles. Kawakami triumphantly occupies this gap with a book centred on female experience (and advertises it, with her straightforward and unabashed title).
Ironically, Kawakami herself has defended Murakami's fictional females. In the superb essay "Acts of Recognition: On the Women Characters of Haruki Murakami", Kawakami offers a fierce defense of Murakami's characters, arguing that Murakami was among the first Japanese male writers whose "women are people." (She also engages this theme in a fascinating one-on-one interview between her and Murakami – "A Feminist Critique of Murakami Novels, With Murakami Himself".
If I understand her argument, she's saying that Murakami didn't try to write feminine characters, and in so doing produced women characters who were actual people, rather than caricatures. Writing about Murakami's short story "Sleep", which features a female central character, Kawakami argues that "What it depicts is not a stock female loneliness or hopelessness, the kind women are used to identifying with, through sympathy and familiarity, because they can see themselves. This human loneliness, relayed to us through a strange tension that won't let up for a second, moots the fact that the narrator is a woman. Yes, because women are people. The narrator of this story was the first woman in fiction I could truly recognize as a person."
It's an insightful angle, although as she also observes, we all form our own personal relationships with these authors and their characters, and some experience Murakami with a sense of discomfort. As a reader, what I enjoy is Murakami's often successful efforts to avoid both social norms and literary tropes; but what brings me discomfort is a lingering feeling that the world he depicts remains one that preponderantly reflects a male gaze.
Speaking From the Self
Discussion of Japanese writers inevitably swings around to the 'I-novel', the ubiquitous literary genre centred in first-person 'confessional' narratives and honed to an exceptional degree in 20th and 21st century Japanese literature. While Kawakami's work falls into that genre, what renders it exceptional is the fierceness of its social critique. Breasts and Eggs has a ferocity that is neither didactic nor exceedingly obvious; it is, rather, conveyed through an extreme honesty and candor that erodes norms by questioning and revealing the contradictions they disguise.
One of Kawakami's great strengths is her versatility. Despite awards and successes, she doesn't rely on templates, and instead constantly tackles new perspectives, approaches and themes. (You can find some samples of third-person flash fiction by Kawakami published by Granta Magazine.) It's hopeful that more of these will be revealed to English readers as more of her work enters into translation.
In 2017 her novel Ms. Ice Sandwich (published in 2013 in Japan) was released in English, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. At first glance it appears a more whimsical tale, told from the perspective of a young boy in fourth grade who develops a crush on a convenience store clerk (whom he dubs Ms. Ice Sandwich). It's a short and ultimately heart-warming tale, but it also ranges across a surprising variety of themes – love, death, plastic surgery and bodies, bullying, friendship. Most significantly, it reveals the versatility of Kawakami's approach to writing, her ability to inhabit a variety of narrative spaces, including that of a young boy grappling with emotional and psychological challenges. It builds toward a more conventional climax, but what the reader cares about is not so much the resolution (although it produced a surprising degree of catharsis for a story rooted in the trials and tribulations of a ten-year old) as the development of the protagonist on their journey.
Similarly, Breasts and Eggs is the sort of work that is more about the journey than the destination. The tension stems from characters' inner struggles. With a successful writer, this form of tension can be every bit as riveting and page-turning as action and adventure, and Kawakami deftly masters the technique. One keeps reading not to find out what happens, but to see how the character develops, and how the 'action' (such as it is) reflects the character's development. We need to understand them – and realize that in doing so, we may come to better understand ourselves.
The two parts of the book are distinct, and separated by ten years. They follow the same characters, and while they could be read as self-contained narratives, what they share is a very feminist vantage on the different stages of their characters' lives. The narrator, Natsuko, is a young aspiring writer when the story opens, eager to throw herself into the heady challenge of building a literary life in Tokyo. By Book Two, she's approaching middle age. Although she has some minor accomplishments under her belt she's wracked by all the angst and uncertainty – professional, biological, emotional – of her advancing age.
The story is a delightful breath of fresh air that scoffs at faux feminist literature – that ubiquitous genre which gently criticizes misogyny while taking care not to venture, in the end, too far from heterocentric and androcentric tropes. In these norm-plagued novels, the protagonists always include some iteration of a heteronormative couple that winds up together. Couples wed, or at least reconcile. Babies are born. Men redeem themselves. People live happily ever after. Above all, these authors are careful to gently chide, not actually offend or drive away, their male readers. Kawakami has no such qualms, and it makes for such a more rewarding and complex read.
Kawakami systematically up-ends all of these tropes, and the reader barely sees it coming. Her main character is asexual. Although she enjoys emotional and intellectual intimacy with men, she finds sex and sexual intimacy unpleasant. However much asexuality may be trending in the academic sphere, we have yet to see many mainstream novels with asexual main characters, and Natsuko is a beautifully complex, compelling and sympathetic character.
And then there's the men. Virtually every male character in the novel is an unpleasant one. This is neither didactic nor misplaced; Kawakami goes to tremendous lengths to construct secondary characters that reveal with a simple and straightforward honesty the misogyny most men carry around and enact, often without realizing it. These range from adult men and fathers who abuse young girls, to sexually aggressive and manipulative strangers, to seemingly good men who cannot, in the end, put their mansplaining tendencies aside.
These men repeatedly and even unconsciously prioritize their sexual desires and their need to be visibly acknowledged as sexually desirable men over their emotional and intimate relationships with women in their lives. Fathers and husbands are useless deadbeats at best; violent abusers at worst. Kawakami leaves the door open to the possibility of the virtuous man: there are at least two characters in the novel that might fit this bill. Nevertheless, the lingering uncertainty underscores Kawakami's successful reminder that most men are deeply flawed at best, villainous and violent at worst.
Class plays an important role too. Her main characters grew up poor, and she deftly depicts how this shaped their future lives and the way they view people and situations around them. Some of the book's most vivid moments involve Natsuko's reminiscences about her poverty-stricken childhood, coupled with her adult self's later revisiting of the poor and run-down neighbourhoods which defined that childhood. The juxtaposition of past and present, the affectingly detailed descriptions of Osaka's poor urban corners, and the writer's ability to reveal subtle cause-and-effect relationships all render these moments tremendously full.
Writing About Bodies
Kawakami writes with a remarkable frankness grounded in bodily experience and emotional honesty. Women's bodies and experiences are centred in the narrative; she writes of menstruation, ovulation, pregnancy with a candor that renders them a natural part of the story. Nothing is forced or didactic; nor is anything whitewashed. A recurrent theme in Book One is Natsuko's sister Makiko's desire for breast implants, and the arguments and dilemmas this produces. The journal entries written by Natsuko's niece, Midoriko, in Book One chronicle a teenager's efforts to grapple with her changing body and the misogyny she encounters in school and life.
The book's scale and ambition is, quite simply, astonishing.
As her characters stumble toward middle age, they wrestle with the ubiquitous question of reproduction. Natsuko has no partner, nor does she even enjoy sex, but she thinks she might like to have a child, and so she gradually fixates on the idea of artificial insemination. Kawakami uses this as a device to explore and critique the misogynistic and heteronormative state of access to reproductive technologies in contemporary Japan, but her questioning goes further than how to have children. Why to have children is a key theme in Book Two, and neither the author nor her protagonists fall for any easy answers.
Natsuko meets activists for the rights of donor children who never knew their parents, and who argue about the damage it can cause a child to grow up without knowing who their biological parents are. To this, Natsuko and others counter that many children who grow up in the knowledge and care of their biological parents grow up in misery as well: abused, sexually assaulted, mired in poverty. At the same time, the opposite can also be true: single mothers can give their children beautiful childhoods which, even if materially deprived, can instill in them powerful virtues to carry them through life. It's no good to blame one's difficulties on a lack of heteronormative, breadwinning biological parents, because even that traditionally valorized form of family structure is no guarantee of happiness or a good life.
It's complicated, is the basic answer to the situations Kawakami throws at the reader; but what a superb job she does of portraying that complexity in full and thorough detail. Some characters make a compelling argument that having children at all is a vain and narcissistic act; an inherent act of violence against the child who never asked to be brought into a world of misery and pain. Does the possibility that a child might love their life justify the gamble, or the sorrow of all those who experience lives of pain, misery and deprivation?
It's complicated. I wrestled with Natsuko's eventual resolution of this dilemma, and still do. It's the sign of a thought-provoking book that it lingers long after you finish. At first I thought Natsuko's way of dealing with the dilemma was a hasty wrap-up to conclude the story, but now I'm not so sure. The story is fundamentally about Natsuko finding her own voice and sense of self; learning to put herself and her needs first. In the end, she stays true to that.
Indeed, Natsuko's various decisions throughout the book – never predictable – may be read as a growing assertiveness, not just against the men in her life but against all the norms of a society rooted in deeply patriarchal and illogical values.
An added delight is Kawakami's gentle exposé of the literary life. Anyone who has struggled as a writer themselves can't help but both laugh and nod at Natsuko's efforts to dodge editors, stay awake at book readings and launches, and balance the need to earn money with the desire to produce meaningful work. She portrays with bold honesty the misogyny of the field as well. But she finds positive meaning in other women writers and editors. Female friendships form an important theme in the book, as does the fundamental challenge of creating and maintaining friendships in our alienated, digital age.
Needless to say, there's a lot going on here. Breasts and Eggs isn't just a delightful read (though I loved every minute of it); it's a deeply important book. Fearless in its demand for accountability, transcendent in its honesty, it breathes life into feminist literature and throws down a gauntlet for other writers to aspire toward.
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