World of Words: ‘Lizard’ unveils the extraordinary in the mundane

March 6, 2024, 11:47 p.m.

In “World of Words,” Breanna Burke reviews international books as a way to explore different cultures and perspectives on life.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

As I stepped onto the plane that would take me back to Stanford this winter break, the smell of recycled cabin air exacerbated the dread I felt towards the six hour ride ahead. “You think they’d give us a bit more leg space, huh,” whispered the woman beside me. Before I knew it, we were sharing our life stories, and walked off the plane a little different — and a lot more hopeful — than we had entered.

Mundane yet extraordinary snippets of life like this are exactly the kinds of stories Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto tells in her short story collection “Lizard,” written in 1993 and translated into English by Ann Sheriff in 1995.

Set against the beaming cityscape of Tokyo, Yoshimoto’s stories capture short-spanned moments of her characters’ imperfect lives that “explor[e] time, healing, karma and fate,” as she writes in the collection’s afterword. A newlywed unhappy in his marriage, a woman who marries the man she had an affair with, a recovering sex addict afraid that her past will impede her new love — in each story, Yoshimoto reimagines love as a healing force, capturing the poignancy and bliss of, arguably, the essence of our lives. 

The most striking thing about Yoshimoto’s style of writing is how her simplistic diction complexifies the ordinary. Nothing is as it seems on the surface. In the eponymous second story of the collection (and my personal favorite), the male narrator, a therapist for emotionally disturbed young children, wants to marry his girlfriend, a physical therapist, referred to as “Lizard.” Lizard is hesitant, revealing she has a secret she has been hiding from her lover.

It is amid this tension Yoshimoto creates between her characters that the narrator is “reminded of [his lover’s] separateness, a being with different organs, bundled in a different sheath of skin, who has dreams at night that are nothing like [his] own.”

When Yoshimoto writes the journey of her characters’ lives, their imperfections aren’t a sign of weakness. Rather, they are a necessity for her protagonists to experience growth and move from one stage of life to another. 

While some may find Yoshimoto’s simplistic style of writing disconcerting or even boring, I was captivated by her stories. Admittedly, it was sometimes challenging to disregard the question of whether the English translation of the novel authentically conveyed Yoshimoto’s words, a question that I am still grappling with as I continue to venture into the world of translated literature. 

Nevertheless, I found myself in every character she brought alive on the page. In “Newlywed,” I couldn’t help but relate to the narrator’s fear of “encountering something much larger than myself and feeling immeasurably small and insignificant by comparison.”

Likewise, in “Helix”, the narrator worries about being forgotten by his lover, who is considering undergoing a spiritual seminar in which her mind is completely cleared. Their dialogues engrossed me as the characters debated the significance of memory as a potent force in our lives. 

Amid the whimsical sprinklings of magical realism in both “Helix” and “Newlywed,” including characters capable of apparition, mind-reading or shape-shifting, I was grounded by the humanity of Yoshimoto’s words.​​ The power she places in the sanctified phrase “And then…” and the awakenings in her plots that inspire some sort of change in her characters, forced me to reflect on the potency of the unremarkable in my own life.

The heart of “Lizard” is the warmth of heartbreak, love and healing that Yoshimoto brings to life on the page. “No one can survive childhood without being wounded,” she writes in “A Strange Tale from Down by the River.” This collection is Yoshimoto’s invitation for us to heal by appreciating the glistening moments in our lives, whether it’s our favorite song, the tranquil beauty of Lake Lag at sunset, the way our favorite person’s whole face lights up when they smile or akin to the narrator in the collection’s final tale, the recognition that “[the] light within [us] was something gorgeous like that.”

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