Saturday, January 9, 2021

A product of its time, in unprecedented times

This is not a review. These are, in fact, extremely scattered thoughts following a rather disjointed and confused reading experience, that triggered within me a cascade of almost indescribable feelings. And yet I will try to explain them.

I finished reading The Emissary not three hours ago. I stopped trying to write critical reviews soon after completing a book years ago, realizing that I was never quite able to capture what the book meant to me and often ended up either overestimating how much a book would leave a mark on me or underestimating whatever undercurrent might constantly suck my thoughts back into a text weeks later. So suffice to say that writing a review mere hours after finishing the book is not something I'm really interested in doing. Again: This is not a review.

No, this is much more of a meditation of books as products of their time. It's a phrase I've used myself (quite often) to describe older texts that had literary value that seemed to expressly reside in the context of the time in which the book was published. Many stories do not translate well across generations and subsequent culture changes - a perfectly normal and acceptable phenomenon. But The Emissary is, of course, a fairly recent book. Yoko Tawada's slim dystopia was originally published in 2014 in Japanese, and translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani in 2018. I purchased it in 2019. Recent, recent, recent. So how could this book be a "product of its time" and why did that phrase continuously ring in my mind as I read it?

It starts in a public park, earlier this morning. The sun was shining, surprisingly warm for a winter day (sweater only), but of course it's been warm all week. I am sitting in a patch of sunshine and cracking open this novella, which I partially chose to take with me on my lockdown walk because it could fit in my coat pocket. And almost instantly, it strikes me that there is something absurd to the whole situation. Something that simply didn't work anymore.

The Emissary is a dystopia; it spends a good portion of its pages detailing the ways in which the world has fallen apart or changed. Its premise - like that of most dystopias - relies on hovering in the in-between space of being just slightly believable enough that it could become real, but still thoroughly unbelievable enough that it's not just fiction. Speculative fiction of this category has to walk a very fine line. 

When The Emissary was written (and translated into English), the idea of a country becoming wholly isolated from its surroundings fit in that in-between zone. When it was written, an environmental catastrophe that shapes and shrinks and wholly reshapes its main characters' world was speculative fiction. It could happen, but it hasn't. Except here I was on this too-warm Saturday morning in January (less than 1km from my home, per lockdown orders), reading this novel with a mask covering my nose and mouth, desperately trying to find a deserted patch of sunshine from which to read apart from the various families, couples, and individuals who had come out to enjoy the sunshine as I had. The dystopia I lived in seemed to mock the dystopia that Tawada had so carefully crafted. No, The Emissary does not remotely imagine a world like our current one, but to the contrary - the differences meant that her world no longer felt believable. Too many little references and ideas and world-building threads suddenly felt... dated. The book felt like something that had clearly been written in Before-times.

This is an exaggeration, of a sort. Tawada's work is, again, so distant from our current lives that it doesn't really change in response to whatever changes our world is going through. Rather, it was that I had changed. As a reader, I found myself approaching The Emissary with a jaded sadness that I'm sure I would not have had two years ago. Unlike straight-fiction which I've largely been able to read as before, the dystopian nature of The Emissary made me feel like its subtle misses and too-on-the-nose predictions placed it just out of reach, somehow. (Emotionally, that is.) I couldn't view this is an "irrepressibly funny, playfully joyous novel", as the back cover promises. At all. At all. The book seemed to drain me of all feeling and joy. It was interesting, yes, and there's a lot I appreciated about its writing, and if I ever write a real review there's a lot I can also discuss about its worldbuilding strengths, but I could not view it through an enjoyable lens. 

I imagine I will encounter more books like this in the future, that are reshaped by the experiences of this past year (these unprecedented times) and possibly by future events I cannot yet fathom (hopefully positive ones). It is inevitable that as the world barrels onward and history is made on an almost-daily basis, my relationship with fiction - its limits, its plausibility, its impact - will change accordingly. Perhaps I should have expected this sort of response to The Emissary and waited to read it, but I find myself rather grateful for the experience and the thought process it triggered. I am a changed reader after the past year - it's good to know that.


  1. Yes, I feel like a lot of recent books and especially articles written in, say, 2019, feel heavily dated now. I just read a book that ends in 2022 and was published in 2018, and...I don't know that 2022 will look the way normal did in 2018. It felt weird.

    1. Yeah... My hope is that things will ease back in the next year, but who knows?


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