Banana Yoshimoto’s Hardboiled & Hard Luck, available in an English translation by Michael Emmerich, consists of two long stories. Although unrelated, the stories are joined by the shared yearning of the female narrators and the fact that both take place after a major tragedy has occurred. “Hardboiled” has the more complex plot, following the narrator as she walks into a strange town on the anniversary of her ex-lover Chizuro’s death. That night, a series of eerie events, including conversations with a ghost and a dream meeting with Chizuro, help the narrator attain peace. In “Hard Luck,” the narrator’s sister Kuni lies in a coma. Kuni’s fiancee has run away rather than face her illness, but his brother Sakai continues to visit Kuni in the hospital. Autumn passes, and in the “strange period” before Kuni’s death the narrator is more and more drawn to Sakai, yet still does not know how to construct a new life without Kuni.
The narrators are in a fragile, undetermined state of trying to figure out how to pay tribute to their tragedies while still finding some way past them. At times, they express nostalgia for the real, clear pain of the tragedy, and all moments when feeling was genuine and clear. Describing the aftermath of her sister’s cerebral hemorrhage, the narrator of “Hard Luck” explains, “Kuni hadn’t only given us pain, she also created moments for us that were so much more concentrated then usual. In the world we lived in, the good times were a hundred times better. If we couldn’t catch that sparkle only the agony would remain.”
Like much of Yoshimoto’s writing, the stories feel adolescent–in the best sense of the word. Love and despair live near the surface, and everything seems significant. This purity of longing combines with nostalgia most effectively in “Hard Luck,” where the narrator recalls her youth by sharing with Sakai the songs on the last minidisk her sister burned. The two of them walk down the road, each with one earphone, feet beating time to the music, and “as the music reverberated in our ears the road zoomed closer and the sky seemed to widen.” And the narrator realizes, “this feeling I have right now . . . this is what first pushed me into the world.”
At its best, the writing in Hardboiled & Hard Luck is luminous and achingly simple. Before breaking up with Chizuro, the narrator of “Hardboiled” goes with her to the mountains. She says they could see “foliage brilliant enough to drive you crazy. . . We sat for ages in that open-air bath, but the loneliness never went away.” Or in “Hard Luck,” the narrator is awkwardly scrunched in the corner of a car overflowing with her sister’s possessions, watching the world through her window, and says, “I felt sick to my stomach, but I thought I could put up with the discomfort if it was just for a short time, because it made the world seem kind of new.” These unexpected juxtapositions of beauty and pain illuminate otherwise understated passages, hinting at the emotions beneath the stories.
Yet, as a whole, the book feels too unsubstantial–it is more a tempting beginning than a complete collection. All of Yoshimoto’s works are fast reads, yet with only two stories and 149 small pages, Hardboiled & Hard Luck does not completely justify it’s $21 cover price.
Of the two stories, “Hardboiled” feels slightly over-plotted with its ghost, ex-lover who sees ghosts, places of evil, and conversations with the dead. Mysteries are too clear and redemption too step-by-step. “Hard Luck” has so little plot that the movement is all in the language; the subtly startling last line echoes long after the supernatural twists of “Hardboiled” fade away.
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