A line from Banana Yoshimoto's newest book, Asleep, struck me: "When exactly did I give myself over to sleep?" Just replace the word sleep with any number of habits, vices, idols or obsessions and this line applies to each one of us. Several times while I was reading this book, five or 10 pages slipped by harmlessly and I thought, "What does this have to do with me?" Then a line would jar me, one that was deceptively simple and undeniably true.
As the title suggests, Asleep's characters are all consumed, in one way or another, with sleep. One woman walks in her sleep, another is haunted in her sleep, and another can't do anything but sleep. It doesn't take a degree in literature to make the connection between literal sleep and the kind of "sleep" that slowly, insidiously transforms vital people into the kind of people that others pray they'll never be like--unmotivated, predictable, lifeless.
Yoshimoto's stories reveal, in one painful layer at a time, the inevitable and inexorable devastation that fills the void left by someone loved and lost. Three novellas comprise Asleep, and each reeks of sorrow and bewilderment, denial, compromise, ambivalence, and all the other emotional undesirables that necessarily accompany a great loss. Why anyone would want to read a book this depressing is a valid question. Yoshimoto, however, is a legitimate storyteller, and avoids the overwrought sentiment that forces a reader to cry unwilling tears. These stories are tragic, but not bitter, and their resolutions are not always happy, but they never ring false. I didn't cry when I read them; instead I felt burdened. We all stand to lose something dear to us, and the waiting for the "when," not the "if," is a part of the terror of deprivation.
The flap copy of Asleep lauds Yoshimoto's writing as having a "touch of Kafkaesque surrealism." I thought, "Great. I thought I was through having to read profoundly obscure writing when I finished school." Not to worry, though. Yoshimoto incorporates the magic realism that Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende are known for. Unlikely, surreal events do happen, like ghosts paying visits in the night, but her stories deal with the harsh reality of plain living.
Weather plays a supporting role, with rain, wind and snow making the mood gloomy; apparently the topic of death isn't awful enough on its own. Nighttime is forgiving and soothing, and sunlight is harsh and penetrating, the enemy that exposes our ugliness. In "Night and Night's Travelers," a young woman rides a train on her way to her friend's home, whom she fears is dead: "If I'm too late, if I just find her body, will I feel sorry? Pale light shot through the swaying interior of the train. No, as a matter of fact I probably won't, not particularly. This is what I thought at the time. And I honestly believed it." In "Love Songs," an unhappy young woman anticipates the beautiful voice that visits her in her alcohol-induced sleep: "For some reason my nights tended to stretch out to surprising lengths, like rubber, and they were endlessly sweet. And my mornings were unforgivingly sharp. The light seemed to stab at me with some sort of pointy object. It was hard and translucent and stubborn. It was wretched." This is Yoshimoto at her visceral best.
"Asleep" is the best of the three novellas. A woman is in love with a married man, whose wife is in a permanent coma. He deals with this loss in his own efficient and detached way, while his lover reels from her own loss: Her close girlfriend has recently committed suicide. The woman quits her job and her lover supports her financially. She quickly overcomes any initial desire to refuse his money. "At first I was hesitant to accept this, thinking that it would seem too much like being his mistress, but then it's always been my policy to take what people offer me. In the end I decided to take the money and be glad. All of which is to say, maybe I slept so much simply because I had so much free time. I've no idea how many young women like this there are in the world, but I kind of wonder if those oddly vague people you see in department stores during the day, women who don't quite seem to be students or people who work on their own, might not be the same." Despite the inherent sadness of the situation, I found the simplicity of her creed amusing, and recognized the truth in her observation about people who shop at midday.
All of the characters in Asleep find healing, one way or another, but Yoshimoto destroys any small thread of hope we may cling to that we can avoid tragedy. You can read this book as a cautionary tale: Not one of us can avoid death, but we can live fully the life we have left.