On an almost completely unrelated note (the author DOES mention Sei Shonagon in passing in this novel), can anyone recommend a particular translation of The Pillow Book? I’m making up my Christmas list right now, and I’d like a copy of the book but have no idea which translation is best. I think I put down the Waley, but I’ve heard mixed reviews about that one.
Anyway, on with the show!
Miyuki Miyabe, All She Was Worth
I read Miyabe’s Shadow Family last year and was thoroughly underwhelmed by it, but this? This ROCKED. I don’t know if the translator of Shadow Family was just a hack or if Miyabe is a hack who lucked out with All She Was Worth’s translator, but either way? AWESOME.
Shunsuke Honma is on sick leave after being shot in the leg; he spends most of his time going to physical therapy, watching over his young son, mourning his wife, and feeling cut off from the police force he’s spent all of his adult life serving. Then Jun, a distant relative of his wife, comes to him with a problem: his fiancée is missing. He pressured the young woman, Shoko Sekine, into applying for a credit card before their wedding, and she was rejected. Turns out she’d filed for bankruptcy before and wasn’t eligible. When Jun confronted her about not coming clean, she went white, mumbled something, and left. And then he couldn’t find her.
Pretty early on in the investigation, Honma realizes why Shoko never told Jun she was a bankrupt: she honestly didn’t know. Because she honestly wasn’t Shoko Sekine.
All She Was Worth was published in Japan in 1992, so in some ways it feels dated. Only rich people talk on cell phones, and 1983 is referred to like it was only yesterday. In addition, things are not nearly so computerized, and multiple characters express such unfamiliarity with computers that they claim to not even know what a mouse is.
Yeah…in 2009? EVEN MY 80-YEAR-OLD GRANDMA HAS EMAIL, MY GOD.
The novel’s age can also be a weakness because it’s clear that Miyabe is trying to be as topical as possible, and when a book is nearly 20 years old? Yeah, not so topical anymore. Still, All She Was Worth manages to have resonance even today, thanks to the stupidity of humanity in general and our complete inability to LEARN OUR GODDAMN LESSON ABOUT CREDIT ALREADY.
Japan apparently had two big credit crashes in the decade before Miyabe wrote this—one in the eighties that mostly had to do with land prices, and one in the early 1990s that had to do with credit cards. This is important to the plot because Honma decides to try to find the fake Shoko by tracking the real Shoko, and the real Shoko got caught up in a credit craze in the early 1980s. Tragically, this means that we get treated to at least one big info dump by her bankruptcy lawyer. Which can be hella boring, but the lawyer makes several good points: credit is “the ghost of a ghost,” because it’s an imaginary system based on a symbolic system (that is, currency). Also, the (then) current credit situation in Japan is “Like a six foot tall man with a sixty foot shadow”; basically, you’re extending huge amounts of credit to people who will never, ever make enough money to justify it. Put it this way—why would you give a credit card with a 10,000 dollar limit to an unemployed college student? Because you know they’ll run that card the hell up and have to pay you ridiculous amounts of interest. It’s a system designed to screw people, and it should really be illegal. But it’s not, and it definitely screwed over the real Shoko Sekine: she ran her cards up, then had to quit her job at a legitimate company because she was being harassed at work by loan sharks, and then had to turn to hostessing to make ends meet. She finally had to file for bankruptcy, and even afterwards she was in such a tenuous legal and financial position that she was afraid her mother’s life insurance money would have to go to the bill collectors and she wouldn’t be able to get the poor woman a proper grave.
Of course, the fake Shoko didn’t know any of this. Because if she had, she NEVER would have targeted Shoko Sekine and stolen her identity. I mean, if you could choose to be anyone, then why the fuck choose to be bankrupt?
Anyway, after finding out about the real Shoko’s life—although not finding the woman herself—Honma begins to slowly piece together how the fake Shoko must have stolen her identity. And this is where things get a little shaky, because a lot of the tricks fake Shoko pulled were largely dependent on there not being a computerized system in place like, ANYWHERE. For example, when Honma has one of his active-duty friends check with one government agency, they turn up two different entries for Shoko Sekine; one for the real Shoko dating back about a decade, and one the fake Shoko created just two years before. Since the files were all on paper, and therefore a pain in the ass to search through, the agency didn’t check to make sure Shoko didn’t already have a file. They just took fake Shoko’s word for it when she said it was her first time applying at the agency.
It wouldn’t be IMPOSSIBLE to pull the same trick with a computerized system—perhaps they’d design it so that the system didn’t automatically check for duplicate entries—but it would be a hell of a lot harder.
Leaving aside the datedness for a minute, let’s get back to the plot! Bit by bit and piece by piece, Honma comes closer and closer to the fake Shoko. And now, I will cut for spoilers.
“Shoko Sekine” is actually a woman named Kyoko whose family was destroyed by the land price crisis of the early 1980s: all sorts of people, including her father, bought land they couldn’t afford for a small downpayment and then got buried under ballooning mortgage payments.
GEE DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?
Anyway, the family had to go on the run, but Kyoko’s parents got caught: her mother was forced into prostitution and later died of neglect, and her father disappeared completely. Kyoko herself was forced to quit school and got married young—but that marriage ended in large part because the creditors came after her and her new husband when they couldn’t find her father. Even though she was not legally responsible for any of her parents’ debts, various loan sharks made her and her new family’s lives difficult by showing up at her father-in-law’s business and talking about how he wasn’t living up to his financial responsibilities, etc. The family lost business over it, but that alone wasn’t enough to make her husband want to divorce Kyoko. He was willing to stick by her and even went with her to try to find a way to legally proclaim her father dead (thereby dissolving his debts), but he fell out of love with her when he found her pouring over a list of unidentified male bodies in the library and muttering, “Please be dead, dad.”
Can’t say I blame the woman, but I doubt I’d want to be married to someone who felt that way, either.
So they got divorced, and Kyoko disappeared for awhile; according to her only friend, she’d been caught by the Yakuza and sold into prostitution. She kept changing addresses and moving from city to city, but she was always terrified that they would find her again. Which is why she went to work at a mail-order underwear company where they collected a lot of consumer data, such as your name, employer, address, number of living relatives…
That’s right: she picked out her victims via underwear company. I WILL NEVER BUY ANYTHING FROM FREDERICK’S OF HOLLYWOOD AGAIN.
I loved this, just because Honma sympathizes with Kyoko, and I sympathized with Kyoko, but at the end of the day? She murdered and dismembered a woman and stole her life. She had compelling reasons to want to disappear, but seriously. There’s no excuse for that shit.
Too bad she didn’t live in the US, where you just had to find a person who died in childhood and apply for a social security number in their name…but of course, now that children are issued SSNs at birth, even that scam is getting harder. DAMN YOU, COMPUTERS!
Recommended for: Mystery fans. It’s AWESOME.