In a recent thread on the Impostume, Carl said that he liked Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool. On this recommendation I picked the book up from the library, and now I like it too. It consists of three novellas, each told by a different young woman narrator, each possessed of a creepy passivity and a delicate lascivious cruelty. These days I read fiction not just for its own sake but also for its potential exemplary value in crafting my own writing. A couple of things here with Ogawa’s book. First, the length of these stories: they’re about 13K words each, maybe 40 pages in typical book print. That’s long enough to explore some territory and dig under the surface a little without obligating oneself to the sweep and intricacy of a full-length novel. I recently read the excellent Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, which is a set of interrelated short stories narrated by and centered around the same main character. Now, after reading Ogawa, I’m thinking about maybe stretching this structure into a set of interrelated novellas.
The other exemplary thing for me about Ogawa’s book is signaled in the first sentence of the first novella:
It’s warm here: I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.
The places in which theses stories unfold — an enclosed swimming pool, a maternity hospital, a university dormitory — assume a subjective presence, as if these places were themselves characters. In our discussion of Kubrick’s The Shining we observed that the Overlook Hotel is a presence affecting the guests and caretakers who stay there, almost as if the humans and the events that befall them are repressed memories of the hotel itself, locked up in the rooms waiting for someone to unlock them. Is the hotel’s madness a projective expression of the occupants’ disturbed psyches, or vice versa? This sort of expressionistic personification of place surely predates cinematic exemplars like The Shining — Poe’s stories come most readily to mind. Ogawa does it too. Here’s another example, this one from the third novella. The manager of the dormitory is dying: he’s lost both arms and a leg, and now his ribs are curving inward toward his heart. The narrator has begun tending to the manager…
“Could you get my medicine?”
“Of course,” I said. I took a packet of powder from the drawer of his nightstand and filled a glass from the pitcher of water that had been left by his bed. Everything he might need — the telephone, a box of tissues, the teapot and cups — had been brought from elsewhere in the apartment and arranged close to the bed. The change was minor, but to the Manager it must have seemed as though his world was shrinking along with the space in his chest. I watched a drop of water fall from the lip of the pitcher, and a chill went down my spine.
“I hope this helps,” I said, trying to appear calm as I tore open the packet of powder.
“It’s just to make me more comfortable,” he said, his face expressionless. “To relax the muscles and soothe the nerves.”
“But isn’t there anything they can do?” I asked again.
The Manager thought for a moment. “As I’ve told you, the dormitory is in a period of irreversible degeneration. The process has already begun. It will take some time yet to reach the end — it’s not a matter of simply throwing a switch and turning out the lights. But the whole place is collapsing…”
Ogawa’s Dormitory, like The Overlook Hotel, is a variant on the traditional haunted house. I’m not trying to write horror stories or weird fiction. I’ve written a book about a set of characters whose various motivations eventually converge; now I want those merged subjective trajectories to take shape as a set of interrelated places in the world. I don’t think Ogawa’s sensibility is right for my project; still, her expressionism gives me something to work with, to immerse myself in, to be possessed by…