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The Love We Share Without Knowing
Christopher Barzak
Bantam, 304 pages

The Love We Share Without Knowing
Christopher Barzak
Christopher Barzak's stories have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies such as Nerve, Trampoline, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Pindeldyboz and Strange Horizons among many others. He is currently living in a suburb of Tokyo, teaching English.

Christopher Barzak's Blog
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: One For Sorrow
SF Site Review: Rabid Transit: Menagerie

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

I am coming to the conclusion that Christopher Barzak could be one of the best new writers that America has produced in recent years. Not one of the best science fiction writers or fantasists; one of the best writers, period.

His debut, One for Sorrow, was a pitch-perfect reproduction of the voice of contemporary disaffected youth. It was a novel as vivid, as humane and as vital as the work upon which it was so clearly modelled, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

To be honest, as you open the new novel, your hopes for Barzak take a slight stumble. The first voice you meet is exactly the same as the narrator of One for Sorrow. It is not the same character, but the vocal mannerisms are identical; still vivacious and engaging, but you do wonder if Barzak is, perhaps, limited in his range, a promising writer condemned to replicate that initial success.

Then Elijah Fulton, the unhappy teenager who is our focus in the first story, disappears from the novel and is replaced by a host of other viewpoint characters, Japanese and American, all older though equally unhappy, and the voices change, become richer, subtler. The language is extraordinarily evocative, at times it is quite beautiful, and your faith in Barzak as a writer of genuine and exciting ability is affirmed.

When I talk about the first 'story' in this novel, I use the term advisedly. The Love We Share Without Knowing has a curious structure, most closely resembling what the Science Fiction Encyclopedia inelegantly terms a "fix-up," though I prefer a term sometimes applied to Keith Roberts's similarly structured works, a "mosaic novel." We are presented with what, at first, seems like a collection of short stories all revolving around the experiences of young Americans in contemporary Japan. Gradually we begin to recognise that someone mentioned in passing in one story might play a major part in another, while the central characters in two separate stories might come together in a third.

Indeed there is only one character that appears consistently throughout the novel, and that is Japan itself. It comes across as both haunting and haunted, caught between an abiding sense of tradition and its own hyper-modernity, until you get the feeling that the country itself is disoriented, dislocated, perhaps even schizophrenic. For the Americans in these stories, mostly young men and women come straight from college to teach English as a foreign language, you get exhilarating strangeness quickly being overtaken by isolation, loneliness, menace. If that was all, it would be nothing more than Americans congenitally unable to leave their country and their expectations behind however far they travel. But the Japanese seem to be similarly alienated by their own country, forming suicide clubs or retreating into silence.

Fascinating as the character of Japan is in this novel, there is no attempt to explain why it should have such a devastating effect on all who come into contact with it. There is, indeed, no over-arching plot in the novel (as such an exploration might have provided), and though there is incident aplenty, little of it reaches a resolution. Repeatedly, we get the impression that the young Americans we meet are marking time during their stay in Japan, that however much they resent America or are trying to run away from its influence, real life for them will only resume its onward march when they return home again, as inevitably they must. And the stories themselves are similarly marking time, exercises in stillness that are never going to take us anywhere beyond the exquisitely rendered moment.

Yet within this stillness there are extraordinarily vivid incidents as awkward and often failed attempts at love resonate with other people. A young Japanese man, a member of a punk band, runs away from a liaison in a love hotel because he is afraid the girl may get too close to him. On a quiet subway train, he realises that a blind man can see him. In that instant the blind man, whose blindness we discover was an hysterical response to his own fear of relationships, is cured and the curse of blindness is passed to the young punk rocker. Later, in another story, an American girl we have met before is hired to speak English to a blind man who seems to be leaving faux American ways behind and readopting a more traditional Japanese manner.

Meanwhile a young American, in a tense homosexual relationship with a beautiful Japanese youth, a relationship filled with hesitations and suspicions, inadvertently renders his soul to his lover and lapses into a coma. Later the girl from the love hotel will rescue him, and then his mother flies over from America confronting her own fears of the foreign and forcing the young man to face up to what he was fleeing in America.

And so it continues, the stories interlacing, driven by an often unstated desire for love that is rarely satisfied. Many, though by no means all, of the stories turn upon a suggestion of the fantastic, though it is never made explicit whether anything supernatural occurs at all. The young man lapses into a coma because he talks in his sleep and this, according to Japanese folklore, gives his lover the means to trap his soul. Yet when we encounter him in later stories, the coma seems to be a straightforward medical condition susceptible to rational treatment. The fox-girl (another resonant figure from Japanese folklore) who rescues young Elijah when he is lost in Tokyo in the first story reappears as a ghost in the penultimate story, helping the only member of a suicide club who didn't die to resume her life. Yet, in neither case, can we be entirely sure that the supernatural isn't just the way two confused people interpret things they don't fully understand.

Moreover the appearance of the ghost comes at the traditional ceremony where the Japanese honour their family dead, where graves are cleaned, food and flowers laid out, and ghosts are traditionally said to return. Kazuko formed the suicide club because her marriage was failing and because she felt out of place in the modern world that was inescapable all around her. When she is the only one of the four members of the suicide club to be successfully revived, she remains out of place in the world she occupies, given to fugue states in which she seems not to exist at all. Her real return to life, therefore, comes only at this point with her abandonment of the modern and her embrace of the traditional, an embrace symbolised when she puts on her mother's kimono.

For the Japanese in these stories, therefore, life is resumed only by a return to old ways. For the Americans, on the other hand, life is resumed only by a return to America. It is a curiously old-fashioned conclusion, but it is perhaps the only one possible given all that we have seen in these beautifully realised stories. Time and again, we have seen a hesitant reaching out from Japan to America, from America to Japan, but always the outreach is frustrated by some failure to understand, by something in the other person that never quite makes sense. The American teachers are unnerved by the unfailing politeness of their pupils, the pupils are shocked and amused by the brashness of the teachers. Both groups are locked into a set of ways they never quite perceive, and so they never quite perceive the way out.

This is a novel about love, but it is a novel in which the overwhelming mood is one of sadness, in which the likeliest outcome is failure. It is beautifully judged, haunting in its effect, and if it doesn't quite have the impact of One for Sorrow, it certainly confirms Christopher Barzak as a writer to watch.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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