Mieko Kawakami

Patrice Normand/Leextra/Bridgeman Images

Mieko Kawakami, Paris, 2014

“What do you want?” is a painful question. To answer it honestly forces you to bring your own desire into confrontation with the flinching fear of its denial. Reading Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs, one experiences the pain of women coming to terms with what they do and don’t want, almost too acutely. The book’s narrator rejects the conventional desires a woman is supposed to have, yet she cannot or will not say what she might want in their stead—a refusal that suggests not just ennui but something more provocative. This protagonist, Natsuko Natsume, belongs to a new cohort of ambivalent heroines, or perhaps antiheroines, that has emerged in recent novels, including Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Olivia Laing’s Crudo, and Ling Ma’s Severance (all from 2018). These novels are narrated by women who are, to put it simply, over desire. They are finished both with trying to be desired and with the struggle of articulating their own desires in a society that will never fully acknowledge or fulfill them.

Their position is at once earnest and ironic, philosophically challenging and quite funny. It’s also particularly intriguing in a literary context: what and how women want has been a central fixation of the novel for centuries. The occasional controversies over novels that dramatize female desire, from Roxana to Madame Bovary to The Color Purple to Leila Slimani’s Adèle, continue to demonstrate this point. The books that traditionally circulate in the canon of “women’s fiction” often illuminate the fact that women have desires, and those desires demand expression, whether through art, epiphany, orgasm, or some other means. But in our catastrophic moment, the act of seizing one’s desire can seem touchingly futile. (It’s no coincidence that Moshfegh’s, Laing’s, and Ma’s books are all apocalyptic narratives.) The idea that a woman, or anyone for that matter, might be able to articulate and lay claim to exactly what they want is laughably unsuited to these uncertain times. So what kinds of novels can be written about women who may not want anything from a world that may not have anything to offer them?

Breasts and Eggs is populated by women who are post-desire in many different ways: they do not yearn for passionate fulfillment, and are largely unconcerned with desirability, romance, or sexual pleasure. Yet the novel initially seems to be laser-focused on two of the most blandly traditional wants that women are still expected to foster: first, the desire to be sexually attractive, and second, the desire to have a baby. A reductive account might sum up the book as two consecutive narratives: book 1 deals with breasts and book 2 with eggs.

Its critical engagement with those desires enters via the sharp-eyed detachment of the narrator, Natsuko, a would-be novelist from a working-class background who lives in a very drab, very real version of Tokyo, far from the glossy epicenter of trendiness that non-Japanese readers might associate with the city. In book 1 we meet her at the age of thirty, on that teetering edge between wild optimism and gradual deflation. The year is 2008. She is what a different novel might call an “aspiring writer”; in Kawakami’s book, though, she’s just a low-energy narrator who seems not to aspire to much of anything.

Natsu’s older sister, Makiko, and preteen niece, Midoriko, come to Tokyo for a weekend visit. Makiko has worked for years at a run-down hostess bar in Osaka, earning her keep by flirting with male customers. Surrounded by new, younger girls who command higher hourly rates, Makiko fixates on her body, and the bodies of other women, in close, unforgiving detail. She’s visiting Tokyo not just to see her sister but also to get breast implants, driven by the belief that reconfiguring her aging body—specifically, making her breasts “beautiful”—will revive her earning potential.

Natsu is as repelled by this morbid fixation as she is by Makiko herself. As they walk home from the train station, she can’t keep from staring at her sister, dressed like a teenager, her face aged into a grim facsimile of their dead mother:

I guess she was one of those people you see a lot these days who looked young from behind, but the second that she turned around…. Her fake teeth were noticeably yellow, and the metal made her gums look black. Her faded perm had thinned so much that you could see the perspiration on her scalp. She was wearing way too much foundation. It made her face look washed out and more wrinkly than it was. When she laughed, the sinews of her neck popped out. Her sunken eyes called attention to their sockets.

She reminded me of Mom.

The harsh precision of this description is typical of how Natsu sees everything and everyone she encounters, including herself; its dryness saps the poignancy from statements like “She reminded me of Mom.” It’s not that Natsu is devoid of emotion—her sadness at the earlier loss of her beloved grandmother is apparent throughout the novel. Yet that sadness, and her loneliness and estrangement, do not lead to yearning or desire. Mothers and grandmothers haunt all of the women in this novel, not just Natsu and Maki, but their ghosts don’t emit the glow of family romance. Rather, the spectral presences are reminders of the accumulating malaise of the female body as it participates, willingly or unwillingly, in the mingled economies of labor and sexual desire—as one of Natsu’s not-quite-friends unforgettably declares, their mothers and their mothers before them were just “free labor with a pussy.” While a powerful bond of love joins these successive generations, it is a luxury that contemporary women’s schedules cannot often afford.

Advertisement

Mothers and mothering are even more central to book 2, which begins eight years later, in 2016. Natsu is thirty-eight, now a published author: her first book has come out to somewhat muted but discerning critical acclaim, and a second is supposedly on the way. Yet the problem of literary production is secondary to her crisis of reproduction, as she contemplates having a child on her own with donated sperm, a choice still marginalized in contemporary Japan. Natsu does not want to have sex with men, or perhaps with anyone. By her own reckoning, she is physically and emotionally incapable of it. Flashbacks to her only sexual relationship, with her high school sweetheart, illustrate the agonizing intensity of Natsu’s aversion to physical intimacy: as she recounts, “Whenever we got naked and I let him start, the world went dark. It felt so wrong that I wanted to cry.”

Twenty years later, Natsu remains uninterested in romantic intimacy; when an apparent love interest arrives on the scene, she panics and retreats to her apartment. She is fundamentally detached from the biological and social structures that traditionally lead to pregnancy and child-rearing (“Who has the right to have a child? Does not having a partner or not wanting to have sex nullify this right?”), and detached as well from the desires—sexual, economic, romantic—that they imply.

Instead, Natsu wants, as she says again and again in the novel, simply to “meet” her child and come to know that person, an idea that she struggles to articulate to both herself and others. As she drunkenly confesses, “It’s not that I want a child. I don’t want them, I don’t want to have them. I want to meet them. My child. I want to meet my child and live with them.” To “meet and live with” but not “have” a child is an intriguing distinction. Natsu’s wording suggests a kind of lightness of relation far removed from the intensity of language and feeling usually associated with childbearing and rearing. One wonders what it would be like to bring a strange new person into the world and live with them, but remain untouched by the demands of possession.

There is, in fact, already a child in Natsu’s life. Drifting just below the surface of the obvious problems of Makiko’s breasts and Natsuko’s eggs is perhaps the most familiar—and thus least eventful—drama of the book, involving Midoriko’s adolescence. When we first meet her in book 1, Midoriko is twelve, disgusted by what she learns each week in health class about the female reproductive system. Surrounded by her mother’s and aunt’s involuted concerns, Midoriko seems to address her basic anxieties directly to the reader, conveyed through excerpts from her diary. Reading her accounts, I remembered all too clearly that freaky period of preadolescence when girls are first alerted to the ticking time bomb that is reproductive maturation.

The novel works to make all of its readers feel the fundamental strangeness of inhabiting the cis-female body during the interval of its supposed biological utility, between adolescence and menopause. The clinical detail with which Kawakami’s characters discuss breast augmentation surgery or the proper usage of sanitary pads makes the female body a disconcertingly alien entity, estranged even from those of us who live in one.

Intriguingly, despite the direct and probing questions Midoriko’s character introduces in book 1, she largely disappears from book 2. The occasional text messages and telephone calls to Natsu reveal that she is a twenty-one-year-old university student, in what appears to be a positive, committed relationship with a man. This move to heteronormativity seems to put Midoriko into another plot entirely—with details out of a wacky rom-com—and we are left with the possibility that Midoriko might have attained a rarity in Breasts and Eggs: a healthy heterosexual partnership. But that unconfirmed possibility is outweighed by the other characters’ alarmed, exasperated, and exhausted perspectives on sexuality.

Advertisement

The book’s distanced, occasionally disgusted view of the female form dances between body horror and bawdy humor. At one point we find the sisters at a bathhouse, examining each other and the women around them. Upon noting the rosy color of an older woman’s nipples, Makiko enviously describes all she has done to attain the same pinkness with chemical peels and bleach. Moments later, she confronts Natsu menacingly, “in a low voice that made her sound like some kind of martial artist,” demanding an honest evaluation of the current state of her nipples. Natsu is confounded by the violence of this demand, and can only express her astonishment through absurdist comedy: “The image of Makiko’s breasts had burned into my mind’s eye. I kept imagining her breasts and her nipples rising up—in slow motion—from the surface of water, like Nessie, or a submarine.” This hilarious, incongruous reference to the Loch Ness Monster slips by before the reader even has a chance to laugh, one instance of Kawakami’s knack of shifting registers with lightning speed.

The most surprising of her many narrative modes is phantasmagoria. Immediately after escaping the confrontation with her sister’s nipples, Natsu becomes preoccupied with a bather whose gender she cannot determine through her surreptitious glances, and who may or may not be a long-lost childhood friend. Her speculations about this bather and their girlfriend quickly slide into a kind of hallucinatory fugue state; before her eyes, tiny homunculi appear, chanting, “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS WOMEN,” a trippy vision that passes without further remark when the episode comes to an end. Enigmatic scenes like this are scattered throughout the novel, giving a bizarre and fantastical edge to its otherwise dryly realistic account.

These tonal shifts are representative of the broader environment of Kawakami’s characters, a social world that is made up almost entirely of women but is decidedly not made for them. Every action or interaction is fraught with the potential for absurdity or anxiety—a subtle spectrum of discomforts. The novel shows us the casual, near-constant valuation of the female body’s component parts and functions—from breasts to eggs to kidneys ungrudgingly pledged by dutiful wives to transplant-needing husbands—that shapes everyday life. Kawakami’s deadpan narration brings to the surface all the irrationality and horror of this ordinary female experience.

Natsu’s compulsion to meet her own child—a desire she simply asserts and never explains—doesn’t fit into this system of valuation, and is flatly incomprehensible to most of the people she encounters. Only her friend Rika, a single mother and a writer, comes close to understanding it, when she drunkenly tells Natsu, “If you want a kid, there’s no need to get wrapped up in a man’s desire…. There’s no need to involve women’s desire, either. There’s no need to get physical. All you need is the will, the will of a woman.” Here Rika suggests what a fully realized post-desire woman might look like: a woman who is uninterested in the complications of sexual or social entanglements and is instead driven to action by her own singular “will.” The contrast between will and desire is vague but suggestive; it seems that in moving from one to the other, the issue becomes not what women want, but what women do.

Accordingly, Natsu is an everywoman of sorts; even her name, Natsuko Natsume, marks her as simultaneously anonymous and particular. Its repetitive structure can be read in multiple ways. Her given name, Natsuko, refers to her mother’s maiden name, Natsume, which she adopts after her parents split up. But it is also a metafictional joke that alludes both to the authorial construct and to the beloved Japanese author Nastume Sōseki; characters often ask if it’s a nom de plume. “Natsuko Natsume” has a Humbert Humbertiness that suggests how this book, for all its realism and horror of actual bodies, is not so concerned with hiding its artifice. The root of her first and last names, natsu, means summer, and the book begins and ends in the hottest, most humid point of the season, when we feel our sweaty, chafing bodies most inescapably—creating the opportunity for evocative moments when the reader might feel a brief frisson of physical identification with Natsu.

By populating the book with women who could be seen as Natsu’s doubles—her sister and niece, her friends, her various foils—Kawakami emphasizes the blurring of boundaries between them as well. Sequences like the bathhouse scene that stage surreal, intimate interactions between Natsu and other women, and minor, seemingly throwaway details—like the turquoise tank top that appears on a succession of young girls, including Natsu herself as a child, throughout the book—ask readers to consider what constitutes a collective experience of femaleness. Yet the novel does not present a facile, unifying theory of womanhood. Class divisions between women are foregrounded, as the novel’s halves begin with confrontational questions: book 1’s first chapter is titled “Are You Poor?” and book 2’s is “Where’s Your Ambition?” This intensity of address forces readers to define themselves in direct relation to the lives of women depicted in the novel—an uncomfortable demand that left me feeling at once far too close, and far too far, from Natsu and her experience of the world.

Rereading Breasts and Eggs during quarantine, oscillating unpredictably between a surfeit of desires and a desireless limbo, I found it difficult not to take Kawakami’s inquiries personally. Like many, I have spent a lot of time reevaluating what my needs and wants are, usually landing on the flat conclusion that the less I can want, the better. Does this mean that I am a post-desire woman? I suspect that this confusion is also an effect of Kawakami’s prose, which can feel as shallow or as deep as you want it to be. My Japanese isn’t good enough to tell if the novel’s assiduously flat tone is the result of the translators’ treatment of Natsu’s style and frank Osaka-ben dialect, or if it’s all a calculated, precise dryness on Kawakami’s part. I found this tone hard to parse; I laughed out loud in moments when I wasn’t sure if I should laugh, and didn’t laugh at times that seemed the most conventionally humorous.

A baby is born at the end of Breasts and Eggs—a girl. The birth is described in detail both excruciatingly physical and cosmically ecstatic: “My head and body filled with blinding light, inside of which—I saw something expanding. Like a nebula, breathing without a sound, millions of years away.” The novel leaves us wondering: What kind of woman will this new baby girl become, and what kind of world will she grow up in? What version of femaleness might be available beyond gendered desire and utility? At the end, Kawakami’s novel becomes freighted with the presence of the not-yet, the maybe-possible: the books that Natsu has not yet written, the future of the baby who has just been born. One might see in this a kind of hopefulness. Or a kind of despair. Or maybe they are the same feeling.