Review: The Melancholy of Mechagirl

This is going to be a criminally short review for one of my favourite books of the year, because I was too busy inhaling it through my eyes to write anything down. And so, as my brain is not set up to remember short stories as it remembers the plots of novels, and also because my copy of the book currently resides at my parents’ house, approximately a hundred miles away from where I am, The Melancholy of Mechagirl lingers in my memory only as a dream of wonders.

A warning: I tend to stray into purple-prose territory when I’m talking about Catherynne Valente’s work. Here, there be rambling.

The Melancholy of Mechagirl, then, is a collection of Valente’s SFF stories about Japan. As she explains in her foreword, it’s a place that crops up in all her novels to a greater or lesser degree; it’s somewhere she appears to feel ambivalent about, having lived there mostly alone as a Navy wife for some years. There’s a semi-autobiographical description of those years in – I think – “Ink, Water, Milk”, one of the stories in this collection, and it hits you like a gut-punch:

She is sad. She does not speak Japanese. Her husband went to the desert months and months ago. Every day she goes to the market and brings back chocolate, a peach, and a salmon rice-ball for her dinner. She sits and eats and stares at the wall. Sometimes she watches television. Sometimes she walks three miles to Blue Street to look at necklaces in the window that she wishes someone would buy for her. Sometimes she walks along the pier to see the sunken bicycles, pinged into ruin by invisible arrows of battleship-sonar, crusted over with rust and coral. She likes to pet people’s dogs as they walk them. That is her whole life. What should she dream of?

Valente’s prose is full of stuff, full of details; it’s embellished and sensual and specific (“chocolate, a peach, and a salmon rice-ball”). That accumulation of detail is, I think, what makes her work so rich; it defamiliarises our reality, makes us re-experience it as magical: “the sunken bicycles…crusted over with rust and coral”. Rubbish is elevated to symbol; as in a fairytale, everything in these stories has meaning, everything is there for a purpose, however mysterious, and it’s that which makes her stories devastating as well as beautiful.

Of course, we do have to confront the fact that this is a collection of stories about Japan written by a white author. Valente’s up-front about this in her foreword: she makes it clear that

It is not a book that purports to speak for Japanese culture in any way, but one which speaks for its author, for a span of ten years of circling Japan and never reaching it, and a single woman’s relationship with a nation not her own, but one which, very occasionally, sat down to tea with her.

(quote from her website, because as previously mentioned I am a terrible blogger who utterly failed to take notes)

The publisher is also, it seems, Japanese.

All of this opens up questions that are too big to answer here, or anywhere on the internet, maybe: to what extent can authors write about experiences that aren’t culturally theirs? To what extent are creators responsible for interrogating their influences, or trying to escape them?

For my part (which is not worth very much, white, Western, and knowing nothing at all about Japan), I do think it’s kind of uncomfortable that this is a whole book of Japanese stories – for the practical reason that a collection like this is, potentially, taking the spotlight away from a collection by an actual Japanese person. These stories (and poems) are gorgeous, as Valente’s work always is – but had they been anthologised differently, bound with other stories, they’d feel less like a “take” on Japan, an attempt to mediate between Japan and America.

But then, your mileage may vary, as they say.

And whatever I feel about the collection-as-concept, the stories and poems – which I know I haven’t said much about, and which are varied and jewel-like and often surprisingly formally innovative – are just too lovely not to return to.

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