Territory of Light

Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light comes billed as a novel, but that’s not exactly what it is. Rather, the book is a collection of linked short stories — or more accurately, a sequence of riffs, impressions — that trace, through inference as much as action, the adjustment of an unnamed Tokyo woman to living alone with her young daughter in the first year after her marriage comes apart. Presented in twelve narratives, or chapters, Territory of Light progresses month by month, in what is meant to be encountered as real time. That is not merely a device; the work here was initially published in consecutive issues of the Japanese literary journal Gunzō between July 1978 and June 1979.

Let me just say it plainly: I love this as a strategy. Among the issues with the traditional novel is (what let’s call) its novelness. By that, I mean the way plot can often feel like a chute in a slaughterhouse, herding us toward what is made to seem an inevitable denouement. And yet, is any denouement inevitable? No, what I am looking for is something that pushes back against the constraints of narrative: open-endedness, a sense of the characters as they live. In that regard, Tsushima means to offer less a full portrayal than a set of glimpses, in much the manner we experience ourselves. “And you may ask yourself, well / how did I get here?” David Byrne once sang. Tsushima frames Territory of Light through a similar lens.

What makes this all so vivid is both the clarity of the language and the piercing acuity of Tsushima’s eye. From the outset, she — or her first-person narrator — seems to want to do away with any conventional tendency toward dramatic tension or suspense. The book begins with a summary, as if to telegraph what we will see. “The apartment had windows on all sides,” the protagonist explains. “I spent a year there, with my little daughter, on the top floor of an old four-storey office building.” For Tsushima, the point (or one of them) is that life unfolds across the surfaces, that there is only so much we can know about each other or ourselves. That’s a tricky move when writing in first person, but the skill with which she pulls it off is one of the magnificences of the book.

This is a character, after all, who doesn’t know herself, not really, whose life until the moment Territory of Light begins has played out behind the scrim of social roles. Wife, mother, daughter, employee: They overlap like a layering of webs. “Things had been going badly,” she tells us in “A Dream of Birds,” the fourth story in the cycle. “My daughter had come down with the chicken pox that was going around at her daycare, and for over a month I couldn’t leave her in the center’s care. Unable to take time off, I’d left her with my mother, but then my mother had been unwell herself and I’d been forced to miss work for the past week. My boss, Kobayashi, had recently gone to the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver, and a man named Suzui, who was due to retire from another section of the radio station, had been assigned to the library in his place.”

The effect is to reveal how, in their proximity to one another, these identities, these postures, entrap her, holding her in place. Even the building where she lives stirs such echoes; its name and that of her ex-husband, Fujino, are the same. “It’s possible,” she observes, “that the building’s name evoked the closeness of my tie to my husband and that I impulsively yielded to that sensation, at the time, I dreaded being away from him and the changes my life was about to undergo.”

To highlight this enmeshment, Tsushima develops her stories obliquely, offering backstory almost as an afterthought. We don’t learn until late in the book, for instance, that the narrator is a partial orphan, having “entered the world at more or less the same time as my father departed it.” It’s tempting to read this, as it is in much of Territory of Light, through an autobiographical filter; Tsushima was, like her character, a single mother, and her father, the novelist Osamu Dazai, killed himself when she was one. At the same time, that’s both too simple and too concrete.

Tsushima, after all, was the author of many books; she won nearly all of Japan’s most significant literary awards before her death, in February 2016, at 68. In that sense, she is sublimating — as novelists must — her experience into character. Her narrator is more of an everywoman, trying to build a life of intention out of one that, up to now, has been defined by circumstance. “Though I was breathing with difficulty and my eyes were misting,” she confides, “there were certain things I owed it to myself to say.”

Territory of Light, then, is a record of that transition. As the year progresses, we see her drink to the point of recklessness or inattention, sleep with the married father of a child at her daughter’s daycare. Later, she has a fling with a university student her husband used to tutor; she has known him since he was a teen. There is no judgment in the telling, just a matter-of-fact recounting of events. “I’d got naked and held him tight,” she describes her encounter with the other parent, “and with a smile on his lips he’d lain on top of me, or placed me on top of him, and moved his pelvis. When I awoke in the morning, he was already gone.”

This is the greatest description of sex I’ve ever read — not because it is erotic but because it is not. It reminds us of the mechanics, the missed connections, while staying clear of the morality. Still, if Tsushima’s direct, almost clinical language reads as deeply feminist, the complexities belong to her alone. On the one hand, her narrator suffers a slew of unsolicited advice, mostly from men and elders. “There are several divorcées among my own circle,” a former mentor of her husband tells her, “and it’s turned out to be a sad mistake in every case.” On the other, she is complicit, in some ways, in her fate. The drinking makes her late for work and daycare, putting her daughter and herself at risk. The further we read, the more we wonder: Did this contribute to the break-up of her marriage? How long has it been going on? Because Tsushima doesn’t answer, we have no choice but to drift across the surface of the present, not unlike the character herself.

But why not? If Territory of Light has a message, it’s that the past is a trap, or that it doesn’t matter. What else can we do but move ahead? Such a perspective gives Tsushima’s narratives an existential urgency, as if they were a survivor’s testimony. The book is death-drenched; mortality asserts itself everywhere. A young boy falls from an apartment window. A woman throws herself in front of a subway train. “I was encountering a lot of deaths,” the narrator announces in “Flames,” “I couldn’t shake the feeling that deaths lay in wait for me at every turn.” Then, she is awakened late one evening by an explosion, accompanied by bursts of light. The sudden beauty feels like redemption. “[A] shower of sparks glimmered,” she enthuses, “and to the right a burst of light surged like an animate thing.” In the morning, she learns that a chemical factory has exploded, “causing several fatalities.”

It’s no coincidence that this scene takes place toward the end of the year chronicled in Territory of Light, nor that the death does not unravel the narrator’s feeling of redemption, her feeling of release. The giveaway is in that phrase “an animate thing,” which tells us that for her, light is life. “The light of heat, of energy,” she imagines. “My life was fully endowed with heat and energy. I couldn’t help but see myself standing there last night, transfixed by the glowing red sky, never sparing the approach of death a thought.” For Tsushima, this is the idea precisely. In a world where we cannot say for certain what we see, how can we know anything? Our days unfold like limbo or purgatory. We live in darkness and only occasionally get to see the light. Such a point-of-view may be unsentimental, but it is also the only one we’ve got. Or, as Tsushima suggests, halfway through this quietly brilliant work of fiction: “Time had stopped. I had lost consciousness with my eyes open. I could have gone on waiting like that for days, or indeed for years.”