Breasts and Eggs

by Mieko Kawakami, translated by David Boyd and Sam Bett

At some point while reading Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (translated by David Boyd and Sam Bett, Europa Editions, 2020) I came across the information that it was originally a novella, published in 2008, and then recently Kawakami expanded it to its current 400+ page form. The book in its current form divides into two sections, the first being 147 pages, so I presume, although I don’t know for sure, that this was the original novella. [Edit: it turns out I was wrong! Kawakami explains here that the original novella was a different book entirely, just with the same characters.]

This would explain the odd way the two parts fit together. The first part tells the story of three women: Natsuko, who lives in Tokyo and is our first-person narrator; her sister Makiko, who travels to Tokyo to visit Natsuko and research breast enhancement surgery, and Midoriko, Makiko’s 12 year-old daughter, who accompanies her mother to Tokyo and refuses to speak to her. During this visit, Natsuko reflects on her life and her childhood, how she and Makiko’s father left them when they were young and how their mother tried to raise them on her own but eventually took them in the middle of the night to live with her mother and their grandmother, Komi. When the sisters were still very young, both their mother and grandmother died, leaving them to raise themselves.

We learn that Natsuko is struggling to make it as a writer and dealing with the loneliness of life in the city away from family. She is afraid of failing at her writing dreams, the main reason she’s by herself in Tokyo, but is also unwilling to give up. She is haunted by her childhood poverty and her sister’s precarious financial situation. Also during this Tokyo visit, we get excerpts from Midoriko’s journal describing her conflicted feelings about her mother and her changing, almost-teenaged body.

I loved this first part; I was in the middle of reading it when I wrote about Big Girl, Small Town, and I mentioned how great the frank depictions of bodies in both books are. Midoriko is thinking about how periods work as she contemplates the beginning of her own, while her mother Makiko obsesses about how to afford breast enhancement surgery and how important her looks are for her job working as a hostess at a bar. The three of them visit a public bath during this visit, giving them the chance to talk about bodies even more.

The second part is much longer and more cerebral, somewhat less intense and with a slower pace. It picks up 10 years later when we discover that Natsuko has published a novel and is working on her second while keeping a steady income with freelance writing. We learn what has happened to Makiko and Midoriko, but the focus here is on Natsuko and her struggle with loneliness. She is terrified of living the rest of her life alone and becomes obsessed with the idea of getting pregnant through a sperm donor.

We learn here that she is asexual, so even if she were to find love and companionship, getting pregnant through sex is not an option. We also learn that Japan is not an easy place to be when trying to get pregnant through unconventional means. Fertility treatments are for married couples only, so her only option is to find a donor in another country or outside of the medical establishment.

This part of the novel is devoted to Natsuko’s constantly changing ideas about a possible pregnancy (along with a lot of agonizing about being creatively stuck and the weirdness of the publishing world), and it’s structured around her various conversations with women friends whose different opinions on the issue she struggles with. One friend thinks the idea of using a sperm donor is absurd, another worries that she won’t be able to handle being a single mother, another thinks that being a mother is the best thing that ever happened to her and Natsuko should not only experience it but write about it. Another asks, “Is it ethical to have children at all when terrible things can happen to them and they never asked to be born in the first place?” The conversation around this question hit me hard — I winced the entire way through it. The woman was speaking from immense personal pain, but … she also has a point.

The novel’s second part is weaker than the first; it’s looser, less focused, more meandering and repetitive. It doesn’t have the same sharp observations that I loved in the first part. The second parts feels tacked on, like an entirely different book that just happens to have some of the same characters.

But, honestly, I don’t care that the second part is weaker and I love the whole book anyway. Does it matter that it isn’t structurally perfect? That it splits apart in a weird way, with a different tone and focus in each section? I don’t care enough about plot structure to think that it does. I mean, if you’re looking for a tightly-plotted novel, then skip this one for now, but otherwise it has so many pleasures to offer, the chief one being a nuanced exploration of the complications of contemporary womanhood, more specifically, contemporary womanhood in Japan, and even more specifically, contemporary womanhood in Japan for the poor and for those living outside the nuclear family and conventional heterosexuality. It’s unabashedly a novel of ideas, written with characters I’m going to remember, which makes it my favorite kind of novel.

Very Brief Thoughts on Two Books I Don’t Have Time To Write At Length About

Publishing This Week

  • Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse by Anahid Nersessian (University of Chicago Press): personal essays on and analyses of Keats’s odes. I love it when academics (who are good writers) write in personal, intellectual, and analytical modes all at once about their subjects.

  • Rabbit Island by Elvira Navarro, translated by Christina MacSweeney (Two Lines Press): a collection of surreal short stories. I wrote a short review of this book here.

  • In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale (New Directions): a sort of novel, sort of nonfiction book about loss and memory. After the death of the narrator’s aunt, she sifts through the aunt’s apartment, telling stories about the objects in it.

Newly Acquired

Currently Reading

  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (One World, 2021): my current audiobook. At over 12 hours long, it’s going to take me awhile.

  • A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith (Open Letter, 2016, originally published in 2003): Set in Berlin, this is a novel about a Korean writer housesitting for her boyfriend, thinking through their past and her relationship with a woman simply called “M.”

  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Random House, 2021): This book includes seven stories from Russian writers followed by Saunders’s analysis/critique and thoughts on fiction, writing, and life. I’ve read two chapters so far and love his insights into how fiction works.

The Cormac Report

Cormac is mainly a reader of nonfiction, at least as far as what he reads for himself. We read fiction to him (the Lord of the Rings books at the moment, plus some Gary Paulsen), but on his own, he turns to encyclopedias, biographies, and any kind of book full of facts. He wants FACTS and takes great pleasure in sharing what he learns. I’m a reader of nonfiction too, but not so much in order to learn FACTS, so it’s a little bewildering to me. I’m wondering if he will reach a point where he becomes absorbed in stories and do the kind of reading where loses touch with the world around him and MUST keep reading to find out what happens. I don’t know — it’s fine if he does, fine if he doesn’t — but this kind of reading I understand a little better.

On the recommendation of Twitter friend Kim, I discovered the Zoey and Sassafras books, a series about a girl who loves science and uses it to help magical creatures. These books are great — science plus magic! We got a set of the first six, and Cormac has read two so far. But because they are fiction, he didn’t pick them up right away. He started reading them because I suggested we read them together: he would read one chapter and I would read it right after. This got his interest: he prefers reading as a communal activity, after all. One morning he brought Book 2 to me and said he’d finished it the night before — he’d actually read the last 3/4 of it, so it was a lot — and now it was my turn. I sat down to read it over my morning coffee, and he was pleased. I suppose this is my stealth effort to turn him into a fiction reader. Although I try to let him be what he is and not turn him into what I think he should be, I’m actually very bad at this. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Have a good week everyone!