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.