"NP" is an eerie, marvelous novel of Japanese "Generation X" youth caught in baroquely tangled emotional webs. Banana Yoshimoto proves herself worthy of all the hype and attention she received for her first novel, "Kitchen." In "NP," she has created an unforgettable portrait of Sui, a kind of female James Dean, suffering and confused but sincere, seemingly doomed and fatalistic, yet full of spunk and fight.
Although the basic relationships among the characters are twisted and crazy, they seem to arise naturally within the logic of the narrative: lurid material treated with subtlety.
"NP" is the title of a book within the book, a collection of stories written by Sarao Takase. He lived in the United States for many years, composed the 97 stories in English and committed suicide before they were translated into his native Japanese. There is also a legendary 98th story, dealing with father-daughter incest, and it is this story that haunts everyone in the novel.
Our narrator, Kazami, a translator, had an affair with another translator, Shoji Toda, while she was still in high school. He was working on "NP" when, unable to get the 98th story quite right, he too committed suicide; so had another translator (with his assistant) before him. All of this has taken place offstage, before the main action of the story takes place.
Kazami, now 22, attempted to translate the book into Japanese before giving up: "Quitting was a sign of a healthy mind--I think. . . . What would be an appropriate metaphor to explain my feelings when I was doing the translation? An endless meadow of golden pampas grass swaying in the wind, or a coral reef beneath a deep, brilliant blue ocean. That utter stillness you feel when you see a whole bunch of tropical fish swimming by, all in bright colors, and they don't even look like living creatures. . . . You're not going to live long with that kind of world in your head."
When Kazami becomes friends with Sarao Takase's daughter, Saki, she wonders about that 98th story, in which the main character "gets divorced and starts leading the wild singles life. Then he falls in love with a teen-age girl he meets in a bar on the outskirts of town. Only after he has slept with her several times does he discover that she is his own daughter." Is this Saki?
As it turns out, this story is based on fact; however, it was not about Saki, but rather about Sui, a step-sister, who is now living with Otohiko, her half-brother. Sui seems so unstable, and the relationship so doomed, that both Kazami and Saki are afraid that a "love suicide" is in the offing.
Kazami becomes fascinated by Sui and, to her own surprise, falls in love with her; she says she has never had lesbian feelings before. Sui is tormented, and has that fatal mix of innocence and just enough wildness to evoke the hero of "Rebel Without a Cause."
Banana Yoshimoto achieves some extraordinary effects here with her semi-ingenuous narrator. Nuance and the space between thoughts create irresistible tension here in a situation that might in other hands be melodramatic. Yoshimoto hits some of the same notes that a previous generation's literary masters (say, Kawabata or Tanizaki) might sound, and yet the effect seems artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh.
Yoshimoto's first novel, "Kitchen," was about omnipresent grief and a kind of pre-sexual adolescent love. It appeared in Japan when the author was 24, and "Bananamania" struck: She was a sensation. Her work evidently played on some deep cultural chord. I confess I read it with high hopes (for a review in these pages) but remained unmoved.
"NP" is on another level entirely. It is nearly flawless, and shows that Banana Yoshimoto is fit to stand alongside Haruki Murakami, who, at his best, is as good as anyone writing today.
Banana Yoshimoto is for real.