“Are you okay?” That is the question asked, in one form or another, in nearly all of the stories that comprise Christopher Barzak’s new mosaic novel The Love We Share Without Knowing. It is a deceptively simple question. It is a question that you ask when you can sense that something is wrong, but you don’t know what, or what to do. It is a question that you may be asked when you are not behaving in accordance with someone’s idea of “normal.” And it is a question you might be asked when you are haunted. So many of Barzak’s characters are all three of these.
Teenage Elijah Fulton’s family moves to Japan due to his father’s job with Sony. Resentful of the move and missing America (“Genki desu ka? Are you okay?” asks his sister, p. 7), Elijah takes up running to “get away from everything” (p. 1). One day Elijah gets lost in the forest and finds a secluded shrine; a fox (or perhaps a kitsune, a Japanese fox spirit) emerges and leads him home. Some time later, Elijah rebels by taking the train to Tokyo. Again lost, and unable to identify the train home, Elijah is once again rescued, this time by a Japanese girl named Midori who is dressed as a fox. But when Elijah tries to contact Midori the next day, he learns from her father that she committed suicide more than a decade ago.
Kazuko was best friends with Midori when they were teens; now in her 30s, Kazuko lives in a loveless marriage and works a thankless job organizing foreigners come to Japan to teach English. Still haunted by Midori’s suicide and the death of the plans they had made, she forms a confederacy, a suicide club, with three other alienated and disillusioned Japanese (“Doshita no?” one asks another, p. 31: “what’s the matter?”).
Meanwhile, a group of four Americans who teach English for Kazuko’s company find a measure of friendship in being strangers in a strange land together. Some find resolution to what made them leave America; some do not; one, the narrative suggests, may find the sort of love that slowly becomes a part of you before you realize it (“What’s the matter?” he is asked on p. 133). Another American, lonely and empty (“Are you okay?” he is asked, p. 58), finds the sort of love that is fast and desperate. He seeks to capture all of his Japanese lover, then is captured by him in return. He is saved by a Japanese girl who says she’s trying to save herself; her name is Ai, which means love (“What’s the matter?” she is asked, p. 86). Another Japanese man who is struck, or cursed, with blindness (“Are you okay?,” p. 91) may not be so lucky, despite the efforts of an American woman—one of the four friends—who is hired to save him by conversing with him in English.
There’s more, but you get the idea: The Love We Share Without Knowing is not a travelogue of the physical world. Rather, Barzak’s novel is a story suite of personal and cultural degrees of separation, that works as a single piece more by the accretion of emotion than by linear plot. It is as much about America as Japan: in particular, how the interchange of the two cultures, the differences and commonalities revealed, throws into relief the complexities of the 21st century world of which that interchange is part. It is a balancing act. There is a surface-level balancing of nationalities and cultures, genders, sexualities, ages. There is a balancing of different types of love. There is a balancing of lingering and leaving, including a gentle, non-judgmental effort to grasp the idea of suicide (if Barzak’s first novel One for Sorrow tried to come to terms with the murder of a young person, The Love We Share Without Knowing seems focused on death, figurative and literal, as a choice of the young).
There is also an effortless balancing between contemporary life and traditional fairy tale—including between American and Japanese fairy tales, and the way the two often don’t mesh. In a sequence that spans several stories, an American man and his Japanese partner compare the very different types of “sleeping beauty” fairy tales in each of their cultures. The American then seems to fall victim to the Japanese version of the tale; yet, in a clever reversal of the American tradition of the story, he is awakened from his lengthy slumber by a Japanese woman’s kiss. The American rejects this fairytale interpretation, however—albeit ending with a line that, in evoking another fantasy tale, shows how alienated from his own life story he remains:
It had almost been a fairy tale, his life here spent asleep and dreaming. But he wasn’t Sleeping Beauty, and his kingdom hadn’t frozen in time while he slept. It had kept on going. It had kept tumbling and tumbling. (p. 204)
If fantasy is a genre that tends to speculatively literalize its metaphors, while general literature encourages a more direct reading of metaphor as meaning, The Love We Share Without Knowing hovers, ethereal, somewhere in-between (unsurprising, given Barzak’s association with the Interstitial Arts Foundation). Some story elements, such as ghostly Midori in the first story, demand to be read literally; other elements, fantastic effects such as characters stricken with blindness or coma-like sleep, suggest a more metaphorical reading. Each impacts our reading of the other, haunting the other, producing a ghostly effect in the text itself. As readers of the text, we thus can’t help but experience some of what Barzak’s millennial generation of characters feel.
Indeed, I don’t know if people who have grown up in the post-Cold War years have a stronger literary advocate than Christopher Barzak. Half of this is that Barzak gets it: it’s not that Barzak’s young characters are apathetic, it’s that they desire to feel strongly and truly in a time when all existing cultural systems of thought and action have been revealed as simplistic, confining, and false. Too often cultural traditions seem at war with a desire for self-awareness and self-expression, sharing and intimacy. Magic and the supernatural in Barzak’s writing become a way of articulating the disconnect between what characters are told of the world and their own intuition of its possibilities. So many of Barzak’s characters are ghosts because they are unable to instantiate themselves, unable to find anyone able to listen to what they need to say. So many of his characters are able to speak only through impulse decisions and actions that break with norms and traditions—his characters reflect a sense that the only choices that are truly ours, are our impulses: to fall in love, to leave, to remain; a lover, a nation, a life.
The other half is that Barzak is a superb prose writer. Consider the second paragraph of the third story:
These days, these cold winter days when the air is dry and bitter and the light grows weak early, I take comfort in the memories we made after we met and in the year that followed. It’s by memory alone that I keep myself warm now. It’s the memory of our love that keeps my heart still beating, beating still. It is a still life I lead, or a lively death, depending on your view of things. Perhaps I was always an object of mute meaning to you, though, and if that’s so, then nothing has really changed. (p. 57)
Its excellence is not just the way each sentence connects smoothly with its predecessor, or the rhythm and momentum of their gradually increasing structural complexity, or the lovely contradiction of “beating still” that is inverted for emphasis. It is the way the whole focus of the paragraph is slowly transferred from the narrator to the man, the “you,” that the narrator writes of—and how this very much encapsulates what the story is about. And it is the first sentence, that initially reads like a rare misstep with its odd redundant repetition: “after we met” seems to cover “the year that followed.” It lingers in the mind. So much so that when we reach the end of the story and learn that the narrator is caught in a mental loop, repeating those memories, the odd wording becomes, whether by conscious planning or unconscious artistry, just the right touch, a natural outgrowth of the story.
Barzak’s touch only rarely feels unnatural, artificially limiting. His main characters, while varied in voice and self awareness, do cluster towards a certain mean in other areas, such as ability to express their lives conceptually. While these younger characters are treated with gentle sympathy, older characters are not given the same grace (it’s notably ironic that one of the few stories that contains no variant of “are you okay?” is a story where a character’s mother travels from America to Japan after he has been hospitalized). Finally, the book does feel awkwardly conspicuous in its attempt to be a post 9/11 novel. When an American, conscious for the first time in months, questions, “is there still a war out there?” and when asked to clarify where “out there” is, replies, “anywhere”—the plaintive artlessness of the sequence stands out as more blatant in its choreography than its human need.
In contrast, the end of The Love We Share Without Knowing is a brilliant summation of the novel. Earlier, one of Barzak’s Japanese characters had mused at how easily the American word “okay” had been adopted by Japanese. The reasoning Barzak hints at is that, as an answer to a question, the word’s polite social agreement that masks any personal concerns had meshed well with Japanese standards of propriety. So when this novel of those who live on, those who do not, and those who linger in-between closes with a choice of staying that is somehow both affirming and yet heartbreakingly tragic, there is perhaps an element of “okay” there as well.
But The Love We Share Without Knowing is far, far better than okay.