Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto – review

For whatever reasons, I have long been reluctant to pick up and read anything by Banana Yoshimoto. This didn’t stop me from buying one of her books, of course. I continually buy books of authors I know I should be reading when I see them at a price I feel comfortable paying for an author I know I won’t be reading any time soon.  I think I have four of Bret Easton Ellis’s books on my shelf, despite reading just American Psycho and getting a quarter of the way through Glamorama before deciding he wasn’t my cup of tea. I’ll likely never get to the other two at all. the same with John Updike and Don Delillo. I know they are authors I should read, and I have came across their books in various bargain bins and clearances, so I’ve been sure to pick them up on occasion, but I also know that I don’t really give a damn about either of them right now – though I did thoroughly enjoy Delillo’s Underworld, which only set me up for disappointment when I followed it up with White Noise, The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, and Falling Man. Knowing how my general trepidation usually leads to, at best, antipathy for these writers clogging my shelves, I was hesitant to begin on Yoshimoto.

But I got pleasantly surprised. She embraces a general oddity in of the world that I also find (and enjoy) in Murakami.  H er two stories in Kitchen are populated with believably bizarre people that doesn’t turn you off to read about. Eriko doesn’t turn out to be a smoking hot transsexual just for shock purpose, to throw a wrench into the story to grab you, that’s just who that person happens to be. And Yoshimoto allows that person to play a pivotal role in the story, without becoming the story.  She’s a side act without being a sideshow.

Which is a delicate balance Yoshimoto maintains through Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow (the second story in this book). The side characters are always more than just “there,” but they never become dominant forces, giving rise to a power struggle between them and the characters we are meant to focus on.  What makes this balance all the more impressive is how complete Yoshimoto makes their story arcs. She does it simply and easily, giving a sense of closure and purpose to the side narratives while leaving a bit of an opening in the main story. It seems it is a way that Yoshimoto hints at future growth for the main characters of each of these stories. While we know what becomes or Eriko, we are given a glimpse of the effect the entire experience has on Mikage but not where this character eventually ends up. These are clearly moments  that are part of the larger string of moments that make up the lives of the main characters, and this knowledge imparts a strange sort of importance in hindsight to everything that happens.

So, is Kitchen worth checking out? Most definitely.  For being published in the 1980s, it still has a very contemporary feel to it, and it doesn’t have any urge to be Americanized. In a way, Yoshimoto reminds me much of Murakami in this respect, also. The stories are distinctly foreign for an American audience, they are not shy about this at all. However, Yoshimoto also finds areas of interest that are universal.  I think this goes hand in hand with her ability to have a transgendered bar owner be a solid side character without allowing that side character to steal the entire story. Instead, Yoshimoto creates a credible human instead of a credible character.
There is something more to be said about food in both stories. InKitchen,” it’s just blatant.  Food is, literally, at the center of the majority of interactions and even acts as a central plot device in giving Mikage an obstacle to overcome to bring a decent meal to her friend who is still mourning the death of his father/mother. the idea of nourishment, physically, psychologically and spiritually is just there. You couldn’t throw a dead cat without it smacking into a bowl of noodles or a sizzling hot pan of stir fry.  With “Moonlight Shadow” is it a bit more subdued. Again, though, nourishment (or the lack of it) plays a central part of the story. The central character keeps getting thinner and thinner as she wastes away, longing for the person she loved who has died.

Okay, kid calls so I’ve got to cut this short. He’s eating pretzels and I simply MUST be told about every twist and turn in his pretzel consumption journey.  As always, here’s the B&N link to Yoshimoto’s Kitchen.  I think it’s worth the buy, an enjoyable read that can hold up to being plucked off the shelf now and then to re-read. And when you do, keep an eye on food and nourishment, and how all of the characters revolve around this idea. I think there’s even something to be said about Eriko having to become a woman and having breasts that could be bent to this theme.

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