Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

“Inside of me, there’s another person, with a form all his own, moving around as he pleases. It’s like my own body has become foreign to me.”

The premise for Diary of a Void promised a ‘surreal and wryly humorous cultural critique’ and I am afraid that while the commentary within this novel is fairly on point, it was by no means ‘thrillingly subversive’. Sadly, I found the execution to be lacklustre and part of me thinks that I might have found it more effective if this premise had not been stretched out beyond its capacity. Sure, Diary of a Void is a slim novel but I still found myself bored by the writing and the direction of the story. If this premise had been contained within the scope of a smaller medium, such as a short story, I probably would have felt more enthusiastic about it.

“As I wrote in my notebook, I wondered: How many other imaginary children were there in the world? And where were they now? What were they doing? I hoped they were leading happy lives.”

Despite its absurd premise, the storyline is presented in a cohesive manner and the tone of Shibata’s narration remains for the most part casually unadulterated. This last thing is what initially drew me in. Shibata’s blasé attitude towards her ‘fake’ pregnancy. In the office where she works, she is routinely asked and bullied into cleaning up after everyone else or preparing drinks/food for meetings or whatnot purely because she is a woman. To get her lazy and sexist coworkers and superiors off her back, Shibata one day announces that she can’t clean up because she is pregnant and the smell makes her sick. Shibata then proceeds to act as a pregnant person is expected to in contemporary Japan, for example, she gets a maternity badge on her bag (speaking of which i came across an article that mentions a survey in 2016 showing that over 40% of pregnant ppl choose “not wear the badge at all or not to wear it most of the time in Japan” and “roughly 10% of [those who wore them] experienced some sort of harassment”…which is f*cking depressing), starts using a diary app (hence the title), joins a prenatal aerobics class, and uses the time she would have been working over-time to binge-watch films & series on Amazon Prime, and chooses a name for her child (now this last thing funny). There are a few recurring characters, most notably a male colleague of Shibata who becomes far too involved in her pregnancy and proffers unsolicited advice to her all the time. The weeks and months go by and Shibata uses a towel for a baby bump (you can buy fake ones only but if i recall correctly shibata could not procure one).

There was nothing that I actively disliked about this novel, I was just thoroughly bored and rather underwhelmed. Shibata’s voice was monotone and although I usually liked deadpan & listless narrators, hers just didn’t win me over. I also really love slice-of-live stories, detailing the menial activities and generic conversations most people have day-in-day-out, and novels heavy on the navel-gazing, after all, I am a huge fan of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Either/Or, but Shibata’s life just didn’t interest me, which is curious given that she is faking a pregnancy. I was hoping that the latter half of the story would be more rewarding or bizarre or anything really but it keeps chugging alone at the same pace. I wish the author could have amped up certain absurdist elements in this story, I think this could have been a far campier and strange tale (the premise had potential…it could have given us Lars and the Real Girl by way of Woman Running in the Mountains & Mieko Kawakami with sprinkles of Kevin Wilson, Helen Oyeyemi, and Hiromi Kawakami…maybe even a dash of Han Kang?). Look, I wasn’t expecting the pregnancy element to be as out there as Julia Ducournau’s Titane but…it could have been presented in a less vanilla way or at least not have given us such a bathetic ‘resolution’.

The social commentary highlights the way women are still pigeonholed (as wives/mothers, or as having to choose between family and a career, being seen as inherently domestic), and how some people idolize pregnancy (the good ol’ Madonna/Whore dichotomy i guess). I guess I wish that the story had explored in more depth the realities of being a single parent in a fairly conservative country that still stigmatizes those who do not uphold so-called traditional family values (bleargh).

Anyway, I just didn’t get into this book but I can’t say I actively disliked it either. It was very much a meh reading experience for me. If you are interested in this novel I recommend you check out some more positive reviews (there are some very well-written ones out there too!).

My rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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