David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Banana Yoshimoto’s “Lizard”

Banana Yoshimoto's 'Lizard'This book review was originally published in the Baltimore City Paper on June 28, 1994.

“Bananamania” seems to be winding down as a cultural phenomenon, and judging by the vapid contents of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest short story collection, Lizard, that’s a good thing.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read either of the first two books that launched Banana’s career as supernovelist, Kitchen and N.P. Maybe picking Lizard as the first book in her oeuvre to read is like starting Kurt Vonnegut with Slapstick, or learning about Kenneth Branagh by watching Peter’s Friends. Or maybe something’s been lost in the translation from the author’s native Japanese.

But no amount of cozy familiarity with the author’s previous work or language can excuse the fact that Lizard is a bad book. Woefully bad. Egregiously bad. Not to mention silly, childish, boring, unimaginative, poorly written… editor, please stop me when the column inches run out.

Banana’s main problem is that she doesn’t know whether she wants to be Gabriel Garcia Marquez or one of those Cosmo writers that prattles on about how to find one’s ideal mate. In the title story, she manages to achieve both goals at the same time as she describes the relationship of a therapist and a psychic healer named Lizard. Both have terrible secrets in their past (Lizard’s involves a witch’s curse) and take solace in revealing their innermost selves to one another. If you read closely, you’ll discover that this is roughly the same territory covered back in the ’70s by Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece.

Most of these stories share that same theme, namely the inexplicable spiritual bonds that tie lovers together, or the intangible differences that drive them apart. In “Dreaming of Kimchee,” two lovers share a dream about spicy Korean pickles because the smell of them permeated their apartment before they went to sleep. “Newlywed” has the distinction of being (to my knowledge) the first story ever to have been serialized on posters in the subway, but it’s a fairly pedestrian offering as well.

Probably the best tale of the lot is the penultimate one, “A Strange Tale from Down by the River,” wherein the narrator’s past in an orgiastic commune comes back to haunt a new relationship. When Yoshimoto drops her piss-poor attempts at mysticism and concentrates on the changing societal roles of women in Japan, as in this story, you can almost understand the hoopla that’s transformed her into an international publishing icon.

Almost, but not quite. Especially when you have to trudge through sentences such as this one, from “Blood and Water”: “He and I fit together so well, like the swirl on the yin/yang symbol — his tough resilience and my resilient toughness.”

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