Does a book about an average person’s life have to be just an average book?
The Shadow of a Blue Cat
By Naoyuki Ii
Translated by Wayne P. Lammers
The Shadow of a Blue Cat follows the self-consciously narrating Yuki Yajima, a 50-odd year old businessman at a strange juncture in his life. An old friend-turned-enemy is dying from cancer, and his teenage daughter’s struggles with school seem to be turning into outright delinquency. The novel then jumps around in time, as Yajima explains how he got to where he, his family, and his business are today—often times going as far back as his childhood, and his relationship with his long deceased uncle.
As hinted at above, Yajima is a pretty insecure guy. He opens the novel practically apologizing that you have to listen to his middle-aged ramblings:
I imagine I should start with a disclaimer. I’m not some fresh-faced kid of seventeen or twenty, or even an upstart of thirty, which some people actually argue should be considered below the age of majority these days. No, the fact is, I’ve already slid right on past the big five-oh—a milestone no one thinks is pretty and few are eager to reach—to become a man of fifty-one.
Now if a reader were to say that it’s unsettling to have someone who’s passed the half-century mark presenting himself as the narrator of a novel styled after the young writers of a generation ago, I’d have to agree he has a point. But however much I may agree, I expect to press ahead in exactly such a style, for as I struggle to come to terms with my fifty-something self, it has become all too uncomfortably clear to me that a style more suited to man my age simply doesn’t exist.
And ramble he does. His conversations with actual people in the novel, and not just to the reader, show Yajima as one who likes to talk in rhetoric, and abstraction. He’s a classic over-thinker; he has all sorts of interesting philosophical questions as he tries to frame his real life situation, but like many who over-think things, it makes him rather ineffectual, with no clear solution or plan of action for his problems. In short, he’s kind of a putz, though at least a well-intentioned one.
If The Shadow of a Blue Cat were a debut novel, the cynical part of me might have wondered if Yajima’s insecurities were really just a manifestation of Ii’s insecurities as an author. However, this is far from being Ii’s debut work (it came out in 2006, and Ii has been a working writer since the early 80s), so I appreciate the character work here. Yajima is a fully realized human being with all too common human problems.
Structurally though, the book has some issues. The pacing, especially in the first half, is incredibly poor. Storylines jump fast enough to give the reader whiplash, and in places that are just plain awkward, seemingly designed to artificially heighten dramatic tension. And occasionally it gets just plain confusing as to what things are happening at one point in the timeline.
A good portion of The Shadow of a Blue Cat is devoted to the ups and down of Yajima’s career, and the circumstances of how he started his own business. Personally, I found this plotline rather boring, partly because of its delicate mix of vagueness and technical jargon. However, I am not the business-type, so your mileage may vary.
Much more successful was the relationship between Yajima and his daughter Ryo. The story of Ryo’s descent from promising art student to rebellious teenager is moving and feels very real, even filtered through Yajima’s point of view of the whole situation.
The uncle is set up to be this very important figure in Yajima’s life, but after the first half of the novel, he largely disappears from view. The uncle’s story is also the most outrageous and unrealistic in contrast to Yajima’s humdrum corporate and domestic existence.
The Shadow of a Blue Cat was specifically selected by the Japanese Literature Publishing Project to be translated with the intention of selling it to foreign publishers. The question I always ask myself as I read JLPP books—though I found myself asking it a lot while reading this particular novel—is: why did they choose this work of all possible works to be translated?
There are many possible explanations for JLPP worthy status, and each work tends to be different. Is this work particularly significant in the Japanese literary cannon? Hardly. It is too recent, and Ii, though winner of a handful of literary awards, is not an author that stands out particularly with the current generation of writers.
Could this work be a particularly commercial success, i.e., is it likely to sell and make everyone money? Again, no, I don’t see this work as having commercial appeal at all—the story is just too average. No murder mystery, no fantastical elements (save for the uncle’s bizarre story), no adventure to speak of.
Does this work make for a good representation of Japanese society and culture? This is the closest to being the reason for its selection, as far as I can tell. If there’s one underlining theme to the whole story is the relative social and spiritual emptiness of Yajima’s generation. This is the generation that caused, and then lived through, the economic bubble bursting in the early 1990s. This is the generation of salaryman that had to toil and struggle because of the mistakes of others, with almost nothing to show for it for a whole decade. And this is a man that, for all his philosophizing, is a man of frighteningly little action. Compare that to Yajima’s uncle’s generation—with their student riots and his flamboyant lifestyle—and Ryo’s techno-savvy, post-9/11 (oh yes, 9/11 is a minor plot point in this story) “degenerate” generation: Yajima’s whole output seems to be a void.
Although meaty as food for thought, the novel itself is just as humdrum and bland as Yajima is. There are definitely some moments throughout the novel that are genuinely moving—again, see the story of Ryo—but Yajima is just too average to hinge a story off of. Perhaps, as a twenty-something no-good whippersnapper, I just can’t relate to what it’s like to be middle-aged and have responsibilities. But surrounding Yajima with people with more interesting stories to tell only highlight Yajima’s—and ultimately the novel’s— blandness more.
Originally published December 16, 2011.