By Hiroko Oyamada
In Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel “The Woman in the Dunes,” an entomologist finds himself stuck at the bottom of a hole, imprisoned by sand. The grains keep coming in, testing his will and strength. It becomes difficult to tell where the landscape begins and ends. “When he closed his eyes, a number of long lines, flowing like sighs, came floating toward him,” Abe writes. “They were ripples of sand moving over the dunes. The dunes were probably burned onto his retina because he had been gazing steadily at them for some 12 hours.”
Asa, the narrator of Hiroko Oyamada’s sparse and frightening novel “The Hole,” is similarly enmeshed in her surroundings. It’s an oppressively hot summer. The cicadas are so loud that she wonders if one is actually caught inside her body. She is part of a literary lineage, soon to find herself trapped with Abe’s character in the dunes, with Kenzaburo Oe’s in a pit, or with Haruki Murakami’s at the bottom of a well. There is also a dried-up well in Oyamada’s brief tale, a follow-up to her similarly enigmatic debut, “The Factory,” but it’s only one of the many holes in this surreal and mesmerizing book.
Asa has moved to the country with her husband for his new job, abandoning her position as a temporary worker. Her in-laws conveniently own a recently vacated house next door that they can provide for the young couple, rent free. No matter that Asa can’t seem to remember this second house ever existing, despite having visited her husband’s parents before. She also can’t quite remember what her husband does for a living, or what her mother-in-law’s job is. It’s safe to assume that Asa wouldn’t even be sure how to describe her own former job, beyond the clichés of an energetic work schedule. Holes in memory, narrative fermatas. “It seems like most folks don’t see what they don’t want to see,” one character observes. “The same goes for you,” he says to Asa.
Her life as a housewife shifts between gradients of exhaustion and ennui until Tomiko, her mother-in-law, asks her to run an errand. On her route, Asa crosses paths with a large unidentifiable animal. She follows it through the fecund terrain; the land surrounding the river is so richly described in David Boyd’s translation that it feels closer to rot than ripeness. It’s populated with unknown flora and fauna, and seldom is there a root or beetle that Asa can easily name. (Abe’s entomologist would be in heaven.) On the animal’s trail, Asa tumbles into a hole in the ground, and lands on her feet: It “felt as though it was exactly my size — a trap made just for me.”
This first hole is a chasm that breaks the book open. No one is where she is supposed to be; characters are introduced and then seldom appear again. Other characters are never properly introduced at all, and ingratiate themselves into the plot. Still others might not even exist, reality collapsing and dimpling like the landscape. Asa’s husband disappears for most of the book, often into the internet rabbit hole of his phone. And his father is so absent that one has to wonder, until he finally appears, if he is in fact alive.
A grandfather falling into a hole is the preface to a death, like a grave predicting a body. Mothers resemble their daughters-in-law instead of their own children, and lineage becomes confused, obscure. “It’s just, families are strange things, aren’t they?” Oyamada writes. In one of the most satisfying shifts in the book, Asa’s husband’s family reveals its recessed and hidden branches, the lacunas of the natural world mirroring the gaps in stories we tell about ourselves.
Oyamada has great fun playing with the idea of elision, building a propulsive narrative of omission and isolation. And yet, here, the hole is not quite an absence but a palpable nonpresence. Like an echo, or a ghost, an indication of what has gone before and what’s to come. The cicadas that populate Asa’s new home have perhaps been buried alive for up to 17 years, waiting to emerge. Oyamada mines the horror in the predictability of metamorphosis — the inevitability of who we are, and who we are bound to become.