I was happy. I loved the night, I loved it so much it almost hurt. In the night everything seemed possible. I wasn't sleepy at all.
Banana Yoshimoto's "Asleep" is a short novel made up of 3 stories. They are "Night and Night's Travelers," "Love Songs," and "Asleep."
The book is a quick read, but those few pages transport the reader to another world. Yoshimoto's meditations on the night and her descriptions of sleep as a force resonated strongly with me. While I haven't had the experiences here characters have, the world they live in both frighteningly and reassuringly real.
The common thread in these stories is that people are stuck in a transition phase in their life. They are waiting for a morning that never seems to come, until they do what it takes to make the sun rise themselves.
In the first story, Yoshimoto tells the story of one woman's night wanderings after the death of lover. The woman's cousin is the one telling the story.
The narrator describes her cousin the way:
Looking at her, you had the feeling that she existed in some way more real than any of the other people in the crowds waiting for the plane -- that she more thoroughly filled the space she occupied.
This is an interesting choice. By choosing to tell the story through the cousin's eyes, we get a bit of distance from the actual heart break and we can look on the heart broken woman with a melancholy that might not have been possible had she told the story herself. There would have been too much self-pity.
It's also easier to see how the world continues to spin, despite the tragedy that comes in to people lives.
Yoshimoto's describes another character this way:
But Sarah was still enough of a child that she could have such dreams, and she had enough leeway to do so. The courage of a person who has no fear of the future.
In Yoshimoto's stories, the night itself is a character. She describes the night as a force that engulfs the day. And what many people see as fearful, Yoshimoto describes as comforting.
It was that time of the evening, when off in the distance the other bank of the river is just beginning to drop away into the darkness of night. Soon the halo of light that always hung over the town at night would be reflected in the river, and even now the clear air was gradually filling with indigo, the indigo air drifted up, so that you almost felt as if you were seeing the air itself. The sky gleamed ever so faintly with the last traces of daylight, and everything was blurred, difficult to distinguish. Everything was beautiful.
Like in the passage I opened this article with, Yoshimoto sees the night as something truly special. Even though it happens as often as day, there is something precious about it. That appreciation for the night makes these stories possible.
Another passage I liked in this story is her description here:
The lobbies of these giant hotels always feel deserted. It doesn't matter how crowded they really are; the feeling is a fundamental part of these places, it drifts through every corner.
The contrast with the night is striking. Whereas the night is a place of possibility, the bustling hotel lobby, with people running everywhere, may as well be a dead space.
In the second story, Yoshimoto's character has trouble sleeping and begins to think back to a woman she knew before -- a woman with whom she competed for the attention of a man.
She once stormed out after a fight with this woman and described her this way:
Her small, tackily made-up face was half hidden by her long hair. I noticed how lovely and insubstantial she looked when you saw her from a distance. Without saying a word, I closed the door.
In comparison to the first story, we see a character drifting slightly out of our reality, as opposed to being more firmly real than most other people.
As the story goes on, we learn this woman has died, and the main character has to come to terms with that relationship.
While the first two stories in the book are great, the third story is in another league. In this one, Yoshimoto's main character has trouble staying awake. She is dating a married man whose wife is in a coma. Her life is stuck in neutral because the man won't leave his wife, and still has deal with her relatives. As time goes on, the main character finds her self sleeping more and more, as there is little else for her to do.
Sleep would rush over me like an incoming tide. There was nothing I could do to resist it. And this sleep was infinitely deep, so deep that neither the ringing of the phone nor the rumble of the cars driving by outside found their way to my ears. I didn't feel any sort of pain; I wasn't even particularly lonely. Nothing existed but the free-falling world of sleep.
This story is a fascinating exploration of her consciousness, her lover's relationship with his wife, and what happens when there is nothing to do.
Yoshimoto fills the story with descriptions of this woman's decent into the bowels of sleep, the stories of her friend's negotiations with sleep, and the relationship with a guilt-ridden husband.
One of the narrators friends also has a peculiar job. It's sort of a sleep prostitute. It's not a sexual gig; her job is to stay awake while the client sleeps, and attend to their needs should they wake up. It's to provide comfort and take on the person's burdens. I seem to recall a character having this same sort of job in a Haruki Murakami novel, but it's not something I've heard about in American literature.
The story also spawned this line which stuck me as oddly philosophical:
Photocopying requires almost no time at all when you take it seriously.
I'm going to have to give that some more thought one of these days.
Yoshimoto has a beautiful way of telling odd stories about people. The plot in these stories doesn’t go far, but it does go deep into the characters. Her characters are different -- they are not like everyone else in the world. But that's what makes them interesting. And while she does leave most things unresolved, it's okay, because they're supposed to be that way -- people need to work their way through these intense issues in their lives.
Yoshimoto's descriptions of the night, the non-physical world, and places throughout the book are magical and compelling. And the book is over far too quickly.
I heartily recommend Asleep. It's a quick read with some lovely characters and vivid descriptions. It deals with issues of sleep, death, and, most importantly, going on to live life in the morning.
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