Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima is a novel about a boy questioning his sexuality and coming to terms with being different. Set in Japan before and during WWII, the novel exists within the anxiety of a mind before tragedy. The narrator highlights different moments of his life where he realizes he is different through his encounters with Omi, Sonoko, and a prostitute. Throughout, the narrator hints and describes his desires for men, the way he fantasizes them being tortured, but can’t come fully to terms with his sexuality.
I think what holds this narrative back is the way it resides too long with Sonoko. The actions and motivations of the narrator around Sonoko are sometimes murky. And while, I understand Mishima wrote the book at a time in Japan where being gay was taboo, it felt like the book skirted way too far away from the subject. It tiptoes around how the narrator feels for Omi and Sonoko, and because of that, there isn’t a decisiveness to what the novel wants to be. Is it about Sonoko and the built friendship, or is it about the narrator’s sexuality? Overall, however, it gave a snapshot of Japan’s sentiments on being gay. It had some well-crafted metaphor, and the moments with Omi always felt special.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel that focuses on the harrowing, painful, and bittersweet moments of four friends in New York. Though, of course, the novel is so much more than the relationships of the friends because it is about their experiences, their pasts that will not leave them, and their desires to build something after they have dealt with a tremendous amount of turmoil. And while, the novel’s other characters, Willem, JB, and Malcolm inhibit and direct the narrative, at its core, the novel is about Jude. Jude’s childhood is devastating, and he has been taken advantage of at every turn of his life by Brother Luke, Dr. Traylor, the counselors, and a countless amount of other men. So devastating, that Jude cuts himself, tries to kill himself, and shuts down around the people he loves.
It is truly a difficult (due to the subject matter) and terribly sad novel to read. Though, it felt that the approach that Yanagihara took with rape, suicide, and violence was well thought out and powerful. It describes the limitless nature of love, the horrors of the world, and what it means to be imperfect. And while it is a larger piece of fiction, the passages were written so smoothly that I found some days I read over a hundred pages, but only felt like I read twenty. Yanagihara expertly crafts language, moments, feelings, prose, and time to create something undeniably life changing. It made me cry, and heart-warmed when Jude finally tells his boyfriend, Willem, about his past in the closet. They sit there, they exist, and they know that there will only be love between them in that moment. This is one of the best novels I’ve read, and I don’t think I can recommend it enough.
Final Rating: 5/5
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu is a novel which spans lifetimes, weaving in elements of science fiction, history, and grief. It’s a collection of short stories which exist in the same timeline and have interconnected characters. It begins with the discovery of a child in ice whose body contained a virus that morphs organs into other types of tissue. From this basis, Nagamatsu zooms in on specific characters, shows their loss, displays their grief, and works to create a depth to his world.
I was particularly fond of the chapter City of Laughter, in which a young boy is dying from the disease and is taken to a roller coaster park, to first be a patient in a drug trial, and then be sent on the final roller coaster meant to kill. It’s a deeply powerful story of love and loss between a worker at the park, the boy, and his mother. And throughout reading the chapter, there are varying degrees of happiness and sadness. And the story balances its bittersweet end perfectly.
I also liked the way it was critical of how capitalism works to use death as ways of profit in Elegy Hotel, in which a hotel chain stages the bodies of the recently deceased in hotel rooms for their loved ones to say their final goodbyes. Some of the stories, such as Through the Garden of Memory and Pig Son have otherworldly concepts, but Nagamatsu works so elegantly in crafting them, that they don’t feel out of place. It is a beautifully apt novel for the current moment, but also heartbreakingly powerful in how it sits with death, grief, hope, and survival.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
The Kenyon Review May/June 2022 is a collection of prose and poetry that looks at life after the pandemic and in relation to nature. This issue had some intricate stories, namely, ‘The Arm of the Lord’, by David Crouse, and ‘Burning’, by Uche Okonkwo. Some of the poetry that captured me was, ‘Escape & Energy’, by Brenda Hillman, and ‘Mercy Me’, by Corrie Williamson.
Though the story that I felt was the strongest was ‘Happy Is a Doing Word’, by Arinze Ifeakandu which follows two boys who are learning about themselves and their queerness in relation to the rest of their community. I loved the way the voice of the story bleeds through the pages, and how the anger, frustration, sadness, and joy play out as the boys are outed to their parents and friends. It is a captivating story that worked to give dimension to queer experience.
Final Rating: 4/5
Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim is a novel which analyzes Japan’s rule of Korea using interweaving characters and shows how the people there dealt with turmoil. The main character the novel focuses on is Jade, who is sold to a brothel to be raised as courtesan. Along the way, she meets her lifelong friend, becomes a famous actress, witnesses brutal acts by the Japanese soldiers, and falls in love. The rest of the characters seem to revolve around Jade, from JungHo and HanChol vying for her love, to her foster aunt Dani, to the Japanese officers, to her friend Lotus. The novel is a rich tapestry of political alliances, lovers, friends, and conflicts that arise in a country under the forceful rule of an intruder.
I was particularly drawn to the recurring themes and metaphors of the tiger, which was seen as both mystical and, to the Japanese, something to be conquered. I loved the way Kim paralleled the way the treatment of the tigers was reflected in the treatment of the Korean people. Additionally, its prologue which began with a hunt for an animal, was brought up in moments of intensity between Ito and JungHo, and Yamada’s death in the snow dappled forest. There was a tightness to the flow if the story, and I found myself quite intrigued with JungHo’s plotline. Though, I felt that the use of first person in the beginning of part two and the epilogue didn’t seem to capture the same magic the rest of the book did. I understand why (to show the intimacy of JungHo and Jade’s connection) but it didn’t feel as strong. Overall, I felt that this novel worked to convey the brutality of the Japanese, the beginnings of love, and what it meant to live in Korea during the occupation.
Final Rating: 4/5
Normal People by Sally Rooney is a novel about a budding relationship between Marianne and Connell which spans three years and multiple relationships. The novel doesn’t follow a strong plot, and so is guided mostly by conversations, parties, and dates. It is pushed forward by the constant feeling of will Marianne and Connell be together or won’t they.
I preface my discussion about Normal People by saying that I am not the book’s intended audience (i.e. white middle class women). I generally find stories that cannot emotionally or physically drive characters forward to be stale and uninteresting. While things surely do happen in the novel, things feel loosely linked.
In other reviews and discussions of the book, people have praised Rooney’s style and prose. Though, this never really made any sense to me because her phrases feel clunky with little information conveyed. For example, on page 31 she writes, “Instead everyone has to pretend not to notice that their social lives are arranged hierarchically, with certain people at the top, some jostling at mid-level, and others lower down.” This sentence could’ve ended at “hierarchically”, as it is implied that there are people at the top, middle, and bottom. Sentences like this are not outliers and are so common, it feels like most of what I read was fluff.
Another aspect I felt was lacking was the way Rooney approaches social class dynamics between Marianne and Connell. In this instance, Marianne is the rich one with the distant mother (a tired trope) while Connell is the poor one whose mother works for Marianne’s mother. Though, beyond this initial setup and the heavy-handed discussions of Communism, there is little consideration of money as a driving factor. Yes, it is shown that Connell has to work jobs and leave college once because he can’t afford it, but these moments are tossed aside and rarely considered after. For example, if Connell is meant to be the one without money, then why does he, as opposed to Marianne, drive a car? Why is, in the consideration of college, little attention paid towards the stresses of having to pay for tuition? If Rooney were to truly consider what it means to come from few means, this book would need to dig deeper into these types of institutional barriers.
And as an aside, from page 162 it describes Connell thinking about writing. “In his little gray journal he wrote recently: idea for a story told through email? Then he crossed it out, deciding it was gimmicky.” Though, this confuses me because in her following book Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney uses email as a way to push her story forward. I just can’t wrap my head around the inconsistency of this logic.
Overall, this novel was deeply lacking in its use of language and meaning. Small things that also felt odd was the absent use of quotations or dialogue syntax, always drinking tea/coffee/wine, odd use of past and present tenses, grating sex scenes, and dull descriptions. I felt like I was reading a book that had no zest/character/spice.
Final Rating: 1.5/5
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a speculative fiction novel that tackles a world in which memory is controlled by an outside force and is able to make things disappear. Ogawa intricately weaves moments of fragility with those of resistance as the island begins to unravel into a void of being forgotten. The narrator, a novelist, has lost her mother and begins to find meaning in keeping secret her editor who is able to remember events/things. As the Memory Police continue to crack down on what exists and what is forgotten, the narrator loses her best friend, her job, and eventually her own body. I was impressed with the way the story the narrator is writing parallels what she is experiencing up until the last moments. Both characters lose themselves, but one keeps her voice. Though, in the end, both characters disappear all the same.
Ogawa works to question authority, namely, who has the authority to determine what disappears and what doesn’t, who is affected by the disappearances (the Memory Police isn’t), and why those in position are able to create such a culture of loss. Ogawa seems to be challenging current forms of policing and seems to elicit scenes of those hiding Jews during World War II. I enjoyed the way she describes the disappearances, and that cliff of disconnection with the editor. And the overall effect is this eeriness that blankets every action and description.
Final Rating: 4/5
The Iowa Review Spring 2021 is a collection of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction published by the University of Iowa. This issue heavily focused on the voices of veterans within its fiction portion. There were some bright spots in the issue, namely ‘Coelacanth’ by Ellis Scott, ‘The Lantern’ by Greg Wrenn, and ‘Routes’ by David Lombardi. These stories, at least, felt authentic with unique voices and twinges of queerness that I felt like I could relate to.
However, I was deeply disappointed with the rest of the pieces featured. Many of the stories written by and about veterans carried with them a staleness like in ‘Where’s Charlie?’ by Erik Cederblom. The story relied too deeply on the narrative of the prideful and just America, that all nuance was lost. No new ground felt like it was trod since many of the stories featured white male protagonists and didn’t critically view America’s actions as it related to war. The enemy was generally vilified and the only story to critically think about the military, ‘He Said, She Said’ by Jerri Bell, eventually fell in line with that narrative at the end. I was also not impressed at the poem ‘Dire Offense’ by Mark Levine as it seemed to become incoherent with a nonsensical stanza listing random nouns. It dragged on far too long and also relied too heavily on an unconventional rhyming scheme. Overall, I expected a more critical issue.
Final Rating: 2.5/5
The Song of Achilles is a novel by Madeline Miller that focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his gay lover Patroclus before and during the siege of Troy. Miller takes from the source material of the Iliad and works in a deeply powerful mortal relationship not often written about in Greek mythology. The relationship been Achilles and Patroclus is written naturally and fluidly to offer a look into their budding understanding of each other. It’s a heartfelt, and at times, moving piece that works in Greek legend, the human condition, and a history that has been long overlooked. It was crafted in a way that let me ease into the work of Ancient Greece without being shocked. I also appreciated the relationship cultured between Patroclus and his father and Achilles and Thetis.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
American Short Fiction Issue 74 is a collection of short stories that deals in the strange and sometimes overlooked parts of the world. The characters in ‘After Hours at the Acacia Pool’ by Kirstin Valdez Quade, ‘Transit’ by Morgan Thomas, and ‘Sissies’ by hurmat kazmi are all seen as weird and different in the worlds around them. I am particularly fascinated with both ‘Transit’ and ‘Sissies’ whose language and moments feel right in the bizarre contexts they are within. I don’t often read a collection of short stories and find quality in each piece.
Final Rating: 4/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.