Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe is a master of semi-autobiographical novels, books in which his recurring protagonist and narrator, writer Kogito Choko, seems at times indistinguishable from the author himself. In Oe’s newest novel, “Death by Water,” Choko is planning his own final novel—also to be titled “Death by Water.” Though Oe’s novel touches on a number of staple Oe topics like trauma, marginality, and nationalistic politics, the central aspect of this book is his exploration, through Choko, of the challenges of concluding an artistic career in old age. Oe and Choko both use the title “Death by Water,” a reference to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” to represent the slow decay of an author’s mind. Oe expresses this in both the physical decline of the characters and the stylistic deterioration of Choko’s own writing across most of the novel in an adroit move that risks losing momentum but, due to its expert handling, still succeeds.
Oe writes so tantalizingly close to his own experience as a novelist, even citing his own titles as Choko’s, that he blurs fact and fiction. Despite such similarities between novelist Oe and character-novelist Choko, however, it is important to see past biographical fallacy to appreciate the work. Choko believes that, with this project started, his “life as a novelist might soon be approaching its end,” but “Death by Water” is not in fact Oe’s last work. Instead, the novel considers with a critical and retrospective eye the particular semi-autobiographical style to which Oe has become habituated and vaguely hints at a more energetic novel to come.
As Choko flounders and finally stalls while trying to write his final novel, Oe represents this by giving his narrator-hero a dense style that comes off as wooden—a difficult-to-read but necessary and well-chosen device for completely depicting a writer’s losing touch. Since the beginning of his career, Choko has hoped to turn his father’s drowning into a grand final novel, but finds, when going through his father’s papers, that everything of value has been thrown out. With nothing to work with, Choko stops narrating events with clear descriptions and Oe drags out his hero’s thoughts into lifeless block paragraphs, in long dialogues that feel more like an extended series of bad oral presentations. His sister gives multi-page speeches in which the only indications of emotion are implausible assertions that she “was never as moved as [she is] right now.” Dialogue is dominated by a mode of literary conversation that bulldozes through Choko’s novels—which are clearly Oe’s own—in a rush to get at some elusive “meaning.”
The terror of a literary career’s end is not just unproductive stasis, however, but also the brain’s decay and the loss of originality. One of the novel’s chief accomplishments is cleverly depicting the morbid fear of plagiarizing oneself. Choko imagines people pitying him for repeating his old tricks: “Oh look, the poor old thing is plagiarizing himself—again!” But Choko reuses the device anyway. The fear of such obsolescence haunts the novel. Choko interprets a T.S. Eliot line, “these fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as representing spiritual and mental ruin, adding that with “his own mental and physical faculties…perceptibly disintegrating with every passing day” he is “not sure how to go about shoring” anything up. Oe excels at implying the terror of such an experience.
Oe slyly shifts the focus of the novel from the story Choko hoped to novelize—his father’s drowning—to descriptions of Choko’s own mortality. Distressed by his novel’s failure, Choko suffers a massive attack of vertigo, remaining bedridden for much of the story. Several chapters consist of letters to Choko from his sister; the invalid is too weak even to reply. “Death by Water” almost seems to be killing Choko. As Choko had planned to write his father’s death through the lens of a section in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” “Death by Water,” which imagines a sailor, Phlebas, drowning at sea. But “Death by Water” ends with a reminder to listeners who “consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you” to remember their own mortality. The darkly humorous suggestion is that perhaps Choko cannot write his father’s story because the only death by water that he—or Oe—should be writing is his own.
The author’s representation of lifelessness in Choko’s style makes for rather difficult reading. Oe is too engaged in meta-analysis of his own work, however, to be shaken by any such criticism—he simply writes that in as well. Choko is frequently mocked for writing such unpleasant prose. One critic calls his work “serial slices of thinly veiled memoir” and a “solipsistic and narrowly circumscribed world.” “Everything you say is true,” Choko replies. Oe anticipates every criticism of his work, whether of his prose or his intensely autobiographical style, and explains through Choko that without these techniques, he “wouldn’t have been able to write anything at all.” As he fails to tell his father’s story, however, they have become as much a trap as they are a tool. But no one is more aware of those limitations than Oe, who meets them head-on with the confidence of a truly great writer.
Oe’s imagination of the end is not all doom and gloom, however, and the final section of the book features a hopeful turn in tone and style. As the plot shifts unexpectedly to focus on an acquaintance of Choko and her attempt to stage a sexually explicit and politically controversial reinterpretation of a folktale, Oe revisits with energy and purpose many of the topics lifelessly debated around Choko earlier. A dull discussion about the similarity between the Kanji characters for forest and flood, for instance, takes on new meaning. It is not a coincidence that Choko simultaneously begins to meditate on the radically different books some authors write near the ends of their careers. “Death by Water” is not one of those books. But as its final chapters spring to life, the novel closes with an expectation of greatness that is almost greatness in itself.
—Staff writer J. Thomas Westbrook can be reached at email@example.com.
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