Late in The Love We Share Without Knowing, we are told the tale of Gon, a mischievous fox, who stole an eel from a man named Hyoju.  The eel was intended for the man’s sick mother and, when she died, a remorseful Gon sought to atone for his misdeed by gifting Hyoju items he had stolen from his fellow villagers.  This only resulted in the other villagers discovering their belongings, blaming Hyoju for the theft, and beating him mercilessly.  Seeking to make amends yet again, Gon began to leave forest mushrooms and nuts on Hyoju’s doorstep.  The identity of his mystery benefactor remained a mystery to Hyoju, until the day he spotted Gon in the woods and, remembering the fox that stole the eel meant for his mother, killed him.  The mushrooms and nuts suddenly stopped turning up.  Thus, the identity of the mystery benefactor was finally revealed.

According to the teacher who tells the tale, “The moral is that there is an order to the world, that everything is as it is for a reason. […] Everyone must accept their fate. “  But one of her students feels just the opposite and confides in the reader: “I didn’t think the story was about accepting fate. […] Hyoju, if he wanted to know, could have discovered Gon at any time.  He chose the path humans almost always choose.  The path of ignorance.”

This folktale, with its dual theme of interdependence and unintended consequences neatly encapsulates the like sensibility that pervades Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing.  It is echoed in the interconnected lives and narratives that make up the book.  Different experiences and point of views are presented, intersecting and winding their way through each other and, while each snapshot stands alone, all eventually come together to form a bigger, clearer whole.    This isn’t a collection of short stories (as one might assume), but a novel (as the front cover reminds us).

The dueling interpretations of Gon’s tale go beyond the familiar debate of fate versus free will.  They also embody more practical points of contention pitting youthful rebellion against established authority, modernity against tradition, and the individual against the collective – all of which lie at the heart of The Love We Share Without Knowing.  These dichotomies are explored through our various narrators, emotionally distant and isolated individuals living in one of the world’s most densely populated societies.  They’re outsiders, from disaffected Japanese youth to visiting fish-out-of-water Americans, all seeking love, friendship, purpose, and acceptance in a seemingly loveless, unfriendly, purposeless, and unaccepting world.  Some elect to withdraw, choosing self-imposed social exile or even suicide.  Others reach out but seem unable to connect.  And yet, as is revealed through the book’s interlaced structure, their decisions and actions (even inactions) do have profound effects on others.

Reinforcing this notion in another theme that recurs throughout: masks, the various facades individuals adopt in order to cope with stress of “trying to fit in”.  At one point, a character runs through her thought process in choosing the right mask for her:

“There are so many masks to choose from, and after a while I began to think, which one will do?  I could be the bosozoku girl, riding a motorcyle, causing trouble with her tribe of wind riders. […] I could be one of those girls who wear Renaissance clothes, I thought, layers of leather and lace, a Gothic Lolita or a Saintly Mary, spending my hours walking the bridge near Harajuku station. […]

It’s when I passed by a shop window in Shibuya that I saw her.  The woman I would become.  She was kokujin, her skin the color of chocolate, her hair dyed blonde and dredded so that it piled up on her head like a bush.  She danced wildly, wearing camouflage pants and steel-toed boots with a white best over her black sports bra.  She was rapping.  Wavering her hands, shouting.  She was so fierce, so beautiful.”

With the physical transformation complete, the psychological metamorphosis presumably follows.  Yet, behind the mask, the same person remains: frightened, alone.  And, at the end of the day, what becomes clear to the reader is that as adrift as these characters may be, it is this sense of alienation that has the potential to draw them together, a commonality they can tap to draw strength from to secure those things they seek.  All they have to do is recognize it.

I found the book compelling and surprisingly dead-on in its ability to convey the deep, difficult to vocalize experience of Japanese cultural dissonance.  Although some of the entries resonated more strongly with me (If You Can Read This You’re Too Close, In Between Dreams) than others (The Suicide Club, Where I Come From), I felt the mix of subtle fantasy and real-world languor worked well.  Barzak’s prose styling is clean and elegant, reminiscent at times of Haruki Murakami.

I’m curious to find out what others thought, particularly those who may not be familiar with Japanese culture and society.  What worked for you and what didn’t?  Let me know.  And, while you’re at it, start posting your questions for author Christopher Barzak.

43 thoughts on “April 12, 2010: The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak

  1. Hi Joe:

    I’m sorry to say that I didn’t read the book, but based upon your summation of the plot, I’m going to stop in at a Chapters and pick it up. It sounds fascinating!

    I’m off to Vancouver on a jet plane in the morning. Are you sure you don’t have time to come to my party? It’s being covered by a very popular Sci-fi news site called Wormhole Riders. Lots of free publicity for SGU…


  2. Hello Mr. Mallozzi,
    How could I send you an email about SGU with my thoughts?
    Thank you,

  3. @ Tammy Dixon – SEE??! That’s Bean’s problem…he’s never been an albino. 😉

    Ya know, Russell Crowe tends to have the same ‘icky’ effect on me as Bean does – or, he did. Although I liked him well-enough in Master and Commander, it wasn’t until I watched Cinderella Man that I came to really appreciate him as an actor (I don’t watch a lot of modern movies, and those are the only two Crowe movies I’ve see – though I DO plan on going to see Robin Hood). So, mebbe, Bean will eventually grow on me, too. I rarely write anyone off completely.

    Joe – that book sounds…depressing. It seems a lot of the books you read are ‘depressing’…or maybe it’s just my perception based on the overview. (Yeah, yeah, I read my share of depressing stuff, too… 😛 )

    Speaking of ‘depressing’ – for the last couple of months I’ve been quite up and positive – unusually so. It’s scaring the crap outta me…lol.

    Have a good night, sire!


  4. I think those feelings of isolationg and alienation are a cross-cultural thing, although the contrasts you pointed out are much more striking in Japan’s rigid societal structure. And even though I’m not the student of Japan that you are, I did enjoy the book. Like you, there were some stories I liked more than others but overall the book made a deep impression on me. I have to admit, I was a bit depressed after finishing it off but I attribute that to the author’s ability to make me sympathize with his characters, a major achievement since there were quite a few of them.

    Questions for Christopher Barzak:

    1) You lived in Japan for a couple of years teaching English. Was there ever a point when you stopped feeling like an outsider and considered it home? Do you think it’s somewhere you could settle down?

    2) Your book touches on the battle between tradition and the modern world (typified by the struggles between parents and their children). Since you lived in both rural and urban Japan, I’m wondering if you noticed a difference in the way this struggle played out in either environment. For instance, would you say youth were more rebellious in the big city as opposed to the countryside?

    3) Did you do any research on suicide clubs? They seem to be especially prevalent in Japan. Any idea why that would be?

    4) While I liked or at least understood most of the characters in the book, the one I didn’t and who rubbed me the wrong way was the American mother who comes to Japan to visit her son. She embodies the worst traits of the ugly American stereotype. Was this character pure fiction or did you encounter people like this while you were there?

  5. @PATRICIA, I will try to follow the web site, take lots of pic’s. We need to see who is there, yea I read the list. Sounds like fun. Thanks, Sheryl.

  6. Doesn’t the SGU Season 1 take place in 2009, taking in on the fact that the Premiere happens a little after the events of the Enemy at the Gate?

  7. PBmom: some of the private schools have scholarships to help a few kids that can’t afford the tuition get in. Check the schools near you for that.
    Also, There was a case near here a few years ago when a parent proved the public school couldn’t provide for her handicap son’s education. The school system was required by law to do so, so they HAD to pay for a private school tuition for the kid. Either that or a big fine.
    Prayers to you, we all want the best chance for our kids.

    Mr. M, saw divided last night. Thank you, for explaining how the stones got on the alien ship. I live with tension, so this wasn’t my favorite show. It had some good twists though. I noticed Chloe still has the purple shirt. How did they replace their shoes, though?

  8. Hi Joe. I really intended to read the book for this month. Then life intervened with my 79-year-old mother having rotator cuff surgery on her right shoulder and the subsequent search for a reputable in-home 24 hour care giver to stay with her until she can do difficult things like put on her pants by herself, and I found myself in need of pure, silly fun. I packed “The Love We Share Without Knowing” when I took my trip to Seattle and Victoria, but ended up reading Terry Pratchett’s “Jingo” instead. I promise to do better next time. Unless some other family disaster occurs. But I have visited Japan several times and find the culture fascinating, so I will read the author’s comments with great interest. So ask good questions everyone!

    @das: I’ve enjoyed the Sharpe series. Sharpe is the “good guy” but in a gritty sort of way that I find fun and entertaining. However, I certainly understand your point of view. There are some actors I don’t really care for and I tend to avoid their movies.

  9. wwwwwwaaaaaahhhhhh Das may have some of those positive vibes. This is day 7 and no voice. I had white / yellowish mucous coming out my eyes this morning, how gross is that – is it safe to say I have a sinus infection. I did call the doctor and start my antibiotics, apparently I should have been on it earlier… but weren’t sure I had an infection.

    This is the work of the wraith.

  10. I would just like to know when SGU is going to advance beyond the brickering, floating around in space with no direction, lack of discovery with other worlds, going nowhere, do nothing, etc. etc. show. Why not bring back SG1 or SGA at least they were interesting and the characters had values.

  11. Salut Joseph!!

    Votre journée c’est bien passée? moi super, avec un grand soleil 🙂
    Ce livre à l’air bien, mais il est vendu en France?
    Lol je pense beaucoup à vous en ce moment car en Géographie ont étudient le Japon^^ c’est vraiment intéressant!!!!

    Gros bisou!!!!!!

  12. @ Kabra – NOOO! Not the work of the Wraith. Wraith can heal you! In fact, I betcha if you asked reeeeeaal nice, Todd would be more than happy to engage in a little life force ‘suck n’ puke’. All you need to do is find a crooked politician, slippery used car salesman, or pushy telemarketer (an annoying in-law may work, too)…introduce them to Todd…wait about 60-90 seconds…then persuade the freshly-fed pallid one into regurgitating all that yummy goodness into you chest. It’s that easy! (And it’s supposed to feel really good, too!) 😀

    Of course, if you want more practical advice, then best talk to your doctor. I’ve been able to avoid sinus infections this year by using a simple saline nasal spray several times a day. Not sure it will work while you’re sick, but afterwards it can really help to help clean out your sinuses and keep them open. I used to get ‘gunk’ coming out of my one tear duct, even when I wasn’t sick (but congested due to allergies, etc.). Ever since I’ve been using this saline spray I no longer have the gunk in my eye (it was only one), or post-nasal, or a nagging throat tickle. I’m swearing by this stuff! (I’m using a brand called Ayr – but I think they’re basically all the same, and much easier to use than a neti pot.) Hope you feel better soon!

    @Sparrowhawk – When it comes to male leads – especially if they’re supposed to be a ‘romantic lead’ – I have to be attracted to them in some way. And you know my type…thin and creepy and broody…lol. Oh, and they have to be beautiful, to boot. Of course, there ARE those who question my concept of beauty… 🙄 My mom and sister still marvel over the fact that I married a normal-looking guy. 😆

    Heya, Joe – have a good day!


  13. Even though the book didn’t resonate quite as strongly with me, I did enjoy it for its glimpses into another culture. The struggles between modern and traditional values is present in all societies and its interesting to see the similarities in how they play out. The Harajuku fashion crowd in their Victorian and Goth outfits are the same as Westerners who get tattoos, wear low hanging pants, or wear their baseball caps sideways. They rebel against society by asserting their individuality, but in asserting their individuality they’re joining a group and, in a way, giving up that individuality. Eventually, they’ll grow and become part of the old established order that their kids will rebel against.

    Some questions for the author:

    1. Your novel contains fantasy elements and has been nominated for a Nebula. Would you categorize it as fantasy? If not, how would you describe it? In other words, if I’m at a bookstore, what section would I find it under? Fantasy? General Fiction?

    2. What do you like to read? Do you have the opportunity to read genre fiction? If so, do you have any favorite authors?

    3. I’m curious about what inspired you to write the novel? Was it a case of being fascinated by the Japanese culture on your visits there? Did you draw on any real-world experiences in Japan when writing the stories?


  14. Nothing but great things to say about Gusto di Quattro. Wonderful food, great service and good wine recommendation. They even remade the Spaghetti Quattro for me when it was too spicy for my wimpy palate.

    For all those visiting Van for the convention, DB Bistro Moderne is running a great $30 dollar prix fixe menu. Good way to check out fine dining without totally breaking the budget.

  15. ann cox, though I don’t agree with your assumptions of SGU, you forget that it’s essentially only 12 episodes into its first season, no show can give the viewers absolutely everything in a few episodes.

    Anyway, interesting articles going around about Syfy having Friday Night Smackdown, if that ever took the spot of shows that are actually worth a damn to people who enjoy Scifi, the decision makers are fools.

  16. We’ve been very lucky to have an excellent public school district to work with during GeekBoy’s school years. My heart goes out to all the kids who struggle more than they have to because schools won’t listen. The teachers and staff who are willing to listen and think outside the box are worth their weight in gold. We are getting ready for GeekBoy’s high school graduation, and I’ve been thinking back a lot to the teachers, nurses and other staff who were there for him. Even before we realized he was autistic, there were lots of people who could see that he was a little different but didn’t let that get in the way of appreciating who he was.

    He finished his high school credits last May, but he was allowed to stay another semester because his school case manager felt he needed some transition time before going to the community college. He took morning classes at the high school, with teachers he knew and was comfortable with, and then in the afternoons he went to the community college. It was perfect. This summer he is enrolled in a public speaking class at the college, which is jaw-dropping. The teacher also has Asperger’s syndrome, and she is excited to have him in her class.

    One of the things that I think helped with his high school experience was that in his particular school, there was no “normal” kid. There were rich kids, poor kids, gang members, black, Hispanic, white, blind, deaf, openly gay, you name it. The student population was so diverse, nobody was really “odd.” The teachers were used to students having different needs and behaviors, and they just rolled with it. It was wonderful. Every kid should have that.

  17. I am really surprise when I see comments, after all the years of being told how the industry works, that tptb should simply re-start SG-1 or SG:A. Do folks assume that these actors only want to play one character or be type cast. The truth is we had 15 years total of two terrific shows and they ended, for whatever reason. Personally I believe that SG:A ended because of it was becoming more expensive to produce, I know the outcry last year once the budget SGU came out everyone was up in arms regarding that but I always wondered how much the actors wanted to continue playing those roles?
    What I wished had happen was a half-seson of SG:A (about 10 episodes) where they tie up some issues and open up others that could lead into 3 or 4 direct to DVD movies but also tie-in SG-1 and introduce SGU in the last 2 or 3 episodes. Thats a lot of money!!

  18. Elway’s home! No pathology report until probably tomorrow afternoon, but for now, just glad he’s here 🙂 The doctor said we have a 40% chance that it’s good news, so bracing myself (if that’s possible) and still hoping. This “little” dog is too sweet for words, had everybody at UF coming by to kiss him and give him treats when we left. Stopped by his regular vet on the way home to buy some food and within 2 minutes you’d think The Beatles were in my car. All the girls and the vets ran outside to see him, left the whole place unattended. We’ve put a mattress on the living room floor so we can sleep with him as he’s not allowed to jump on or off anything (my bed) until the staples come out, so “camping” it is for the next two weeks. Whatever, as long as he’s happy 🙂

  19. Ok, ok, I almost passed out a few minutes ago when the phone rang and it was Elway’s surgeon. The bad news? We have to sleep in the living room for two weeks. The good news?

  20. Oops, sorry about that, I’m all over the place! The good news? IT’S NOT CANCER! He’s gonna be ok! There is not a happier woman on the face of this planet tonight. Thank you all for your good wishes and prayers. Again, they worked! We’re off to have some celebratory ice cream 🙂

  21. @ Deni — so glad to hear the news about Elway — keeping fingers crossed that the pathology report comes back with good news

  22. Quite an impressive BotM club selection. I had my doubts about it with your initial description of it. But I picked it up and gave it a try, and don’t regret it for an instant.
    I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I first started reading, but the story unfolded in an easy to follow way. I was caught a bit off guard by the revelation of the fox being the spirit of Midori. I had anticipated the story going a different way, and was pleased by the fakeout.
    In the suicide club there was a nice tension throughout the whole story, as we followed the participants through their meeting, planning, and finally executing their stated mission.
    As the stories moved along, I looked forward to finding the thread that tied one tale to those before it.
    The looping of the book back on itself with the reappearnance of Midori and other characters from the beginning seemed to be a natural, inevitable outcome of the book.
    A couple of things that I noticed was that I found it easier to empathise with the Japanese characters. They were, after all, largely trapped in their own culture. For the most part, what they knew of other cultures came from an inevitable distortion of perception due to lack of direct contact. It makes the cases where the Japanese are emulating facets of those cultures, from hip hop to Elvis, more amusing and baffling. It brings to mind one difference between Japanese and Americans. We as a society seem to prefer infiltration by the outside. As we come into contact with others, from the Irish to the Mexican/Hispanic, to the Oriental, Americans tend to portray a touch of xenophobia. As those people settle among us, or expand, we sneakily reach out and start stealing aspects of those groups. Food is the most obvious. Thirty years ago, Mexican food was a rarity in my region. Now it’s ubiquitous. But we also borrow clothing, language, music.
    With the Japanese, it seems to work differently. True, not the entire society embraces things from the outside, but when a sector of Japanese society decides something is interesting, they go for the full immersion. this is a quality that served them well in the late 19th century, as their self imposed isolation was broken and they faced the threat of an Imperialist Europe, and an America looking to expand its trading opportunities.
    All of which made the Japanese characters more interesting, even those more traditional characters. I found the American expatriots largely to be boring, or even annoying. Largely they chose to come to Japan. Unlike the Japanese characters, they elected to put themselves in a place where they felt out of place. Ultimately, most of them could escape back to the familiar, if not comfortable. This makes what comes across as whining even less palatable.
    It was also cool recognising at least one of the places mentioned in the book. Many many decades ago Ikabakuro was the station I changed lines at to go to school on the American base. The fact that a then blond haired child could commute in Tokyo daily is something that speaks to the Japanese society. Though in fairness, most American cities are in fact safer than tv movies and lurid headlines would make us to be.
    Anyways, in conclusion, a good read, albiet one that I would not have considered a fantasy or sci fi reading.

  23. Questions for Christopher Barzak:

    – What was your approach in writing The Loving We Share Without Knowing? Did you start with the idea of making it a collection of short stories and had it evolve into a more cohesive whole or was it always envisioned as a novel?

    – What has the reception to the novel been like for you? Did you ever imagine a possible Nebula Award being in the cards?

    – What’s next for you in terms of upcoming books or short stories?

  24. @ Deni – OMG I am so happy, my eyes are welling up. aawww that is such great news.

    @Das well y’know you got a point, especially if I can get rid of that annoying in law, hhhmmmm you got Todd’s number? I don’t know I may need to bring Shep along, just in case.

    I just never had whitish yellowish snot come out of my eyes, I drew the line there I got my Rx filled. Yeah that netti pot, I almost drowned using that thing. I have a thing with water and my nose and not being able to breath, I could have never have done that scene Elyse was in, in that tank. ugh.
    I do have saline nasal spray, I’ll have to try that on a daily basis, it can’t hurt. Thanks for the tip.

  25. Deni: Hooray! He can do without a spleen. Just curious but what did the biopsy say it was?

  26. My son is one of those who is attending an outrageously expensive but wonderful private school at taxpayer expense. It cost us a bundle in lawyering fees, but it has been worth every penny. He’s now in a program for Asperger’s students that is a national model, and thriving there. I’d highly recommend looking into private schools if the public schools are not meeting your child’s needs. It’s not hard to prove. You just have to keep good records.

  27. My dream would be to have a mini-series with the SGA folks or a combination of SG1/SGA to tide the Stargate fans over during hiatus’. I still really miss those guys/gals/non-humans!

  28. Some questions for Christopher Barzak:

    – What was the reaction from your Japanese friends to The Love We Share Without Knowing?

    – In your opinion, what are the two biggest cultural differences between American and Japanese people?

    – Why did you decide to move to and teach English in Japan? What brought you home?

    – Did any of the stories from The Love We Share Without Knowing grow from personal experiences while in Japan, or from student observations and/or their personal experiences they shared with you?

    – Are any of the book’s characters drawn from your Japanese acquaintances?

    – Did you go to Japan with the intention of writing a book, or just teaching and becoming a part of their society? If the later, how did the book come about?

  29. @Tammy Dixon: Hematoma 🙂 F—ing huge one, about the size of two big fists. Liver was normal 🙂 Party at my house in two weeks, you’re ALL invited!

  30. im surprised at how fans are taking the civilians side after seeing what the military guys did. IMO, military had every right, considering those civilians were willing to cut water supply to them and their actions almost had young and scott die. i would be pissed too and im not sure how ill treat them normally after that. Young is cool, i find him likable and trustworthy. and Tamara shined in this episode. dialogue was the best, only thing left out was a resolution or changes after, there had to be consequences. else, it would be really awkward.

  31. @Elway and Deni, Wow that is wonderful news! still sending positive healing thoughts your way. Have the ice cream for me too.

  32. @ Deni – A party??! I LOVE parties! Drinks all around! 😉 Give the big fella hugs and kisses for me, and Elway, too! 😀

    @ Kabra – Do I have Todd’s number?? O boy, do I! 😉

    As far as the goop coming out of the eyeball…this is how my ENT doc explained it to me…

    If you have a lot of sinus problems you start getting build-up in your sinus passages, narrowing them and not allowing for proper drainage…just like a clogged sink. I never had goop coming out of my eye until 1992, when I had a similar bout of illness like I did last year. Ever since then I’ve had stuff come out my tear duct whenever I’m sick and blow my nose…so that’s like, 17 years? Sometimes it would happen when I just blew my nose without being sick. I asked the doc…and he said that it’s because of build-up. Mind you, I’m not a ‘snotty’ person, and I don’t go around sounding congested, so I had no idea that I had narrowing sinus passages. I tried a nasal rinse (like a neti pot, but slightly different), and it worked, but it aggravated my nosebleeds (which developed after being sick for the entire winter/spring in ’09). So, in the fall I switched to the nasal spray, and that’s when all my problems started to clear up. I still get some mild congestion (blame it on my love for a good feather pillow!), but everything else has cleared right up, even the goopy eye thing. I didn’t realize how much I could NOT breath until comparing how I felt last year with how I feel now. My nosebleeds have pretty much stopped, too. I keep the saline spray right here on my desk, and use it at least in the morning and night – more often when the heat is cranking. If something SO simple can ‘keep the doctor away’, it’s worth a try! Now…to eat an apple a day… 🙂


  33. As someone who is considering spending a year in Japan to teach English, I have to say I found the book very interesting.

    Some things I’d like to ask the author –

    1) What drew you to Japan? Was it just a desire to travel, get away, live somewhere new?

    2) What kind of culture shock did you experience? Was the contrast between your life in the U.S. and your new life in Japan more striking when you were living in the city or the countryside?

    3) How much did the feelings of your American characters mirror your own feelings toward your Japanese co-workers? The general sense I got from the book was that the westerners are welcomed and treated politely but never really accepted as part of the community. Is this true?

    4) You present a number of cross-cultural relationships (ie. westerners dating Japanese men and women) but never explore the reaction of the older generation with more traditional ways of thinking. From your experience, is this still an issue with many Japanese (that some say is a pretty xenophobic society) or has the modern world caught up with their social mores as well?

    5) Now that you are back in the U.S., what are some of the things you miss most about Japan? And, given the chance, what Western ideals, ideas, or comforts would you like to transplant back to Japan should you ever go back?

    Thanks for answering my questions.


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