It’s not always clear what is happening in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole, but by the time the reader notices how little he understands, he is too immersed in the novel to put it down. Obviously, I am speaking in the third person about my own experience, but I doubt that this experience is unique.
The premise of The Hole is captivatingly mundane. A twenty-nine-year-old woman named Asahi Matsuura quits her “non-permanent” job because her husband, who has a “permanent job,” is being transferred out of the city to an office not far from the rural town where he grew up. There, the couple will live in a house next door to her husband’s parents’ house, and Asahi will be, at least temporarily, unemployed. “It’s not like I was doing anything that important,” she tells her husband. He is, as usual, looking at his phone. She, meanwhile, is looking at the television, where a comedian is chasing after a large unidentified animal:
“After we move, I hope I can find something better. It’s probably going to be part-time, right? I wish I could find a permanent position… Then again, I’m turning thirty this year, so…” “But we won’t have to worry about rent up there, so what’s the rush?” “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Just then, on TV, the comedian lunged at the wayward animal, but fell short, landing face-first in a puddle of mud. Glancing up at the screen, my husband muttered “idiot” and laughed. I laughed, too. We moved into our new home two weeks later. (6)
The tone here is reminiscent of minimalist American fiction: the short sentences, the juxtaposition of quietly charged dialogue with deadpan description of everyday things. But even in these conventionally realist first pages, Oyamada plays a few unusual notes, letting us know this won’t simply be another piece of fiction in the Carver–Moshfegh mode. For example, until her husband is transferred, Asahi appears not to have known that his parents owned a second house. “I must have seen it when visiting,” she tells herself, but she cannot “conjure any memory of the place” (2). This minor enigma—the inability to remember something one must have seen—lays the groundwork for some major enigmas to come.
Asahi is one of Japanese literature’s more passive narrators. At times she makes Toru Okada in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle seem decisive by comparison. Responding to this passivity, other characters repeatedly project their own fears and desires onto Asahi. A coworker acutely envies her move to the country, where, says the coworker, Asahi will be “free to look after the house, bake, do a little gardening”—to “live the dream” and, possibly, have a child (8). “I don’t know why,” Asahi reflects, but this coworker had
always been under the impression that I wanted a child as badly as she did. I’m pretty sure she thought I’d been trying to get pregnant ever since I got married but wasn’t having any luck. I suppose I could’ve said something to set the record straight, but I just went along with it. The truth was I wasn’t trying to have children—not that I was bitterly opposed to the idea. (10)
It is in this same detached spirit that Asahi agrees to give up her role in the world of work and move to the house in the country, where she soon feels oppressed by her surfeit of free time. To anyone who has ever been unemployed, Asahi’s thoughts during her first weeks of freedom will be painfully familiar. With nothing to occupy her except housework and making dinner, she is “pretty sure I’d get sick of my new routine within a week—but it only took one day. Every day after that was as mind-numbing as the one before, ad infinitum” (22).
At this point, The Hole begins to drift from the realm of realism toward some more dreamlike domain. In a scene that echoes the one she earlier watched on television, Asahi, on an errand to the local 7-Eleven, follows a strange black animal along the riverbank, where she falls in a hole four or five feet deep. Trapped, as if treading water underground, with no way to get out, she watches as a click beetle flies in her face, listens to the cicadas scream all around her, observes black ants and red ants “soldiering around” in the grass (34). After a while, she is rescued by a middle-aged neighbor, Sera, who helps yank her back up onto solid ground. “You’re the bride, aren’t you?” Sera asks her (37). The bride? “No one had ever called me that before,” Asahi thinks: “When I was working, people always called me Matsuura” (38).
At the convenience store, Asahi meets a man who will claim to be her brother-in-law—a hikikomori (shut-in) who, unbeknownst to her, has been living alone in a shed near the family home since he was in his teens. Whether this man is real is one of the novel’s many mysteries, but he is certainly entertaining. Adolescently cynical in the classic Salinger style, he is irritated by Asahi’s story of falling in the hole and launches into a litany of questions: Is she some kind of idiot? Does she think she’s Alice, that “run-of-the-mill tomboy” who “gets lost in her own fantasies” (73)? Does she think he’s the white rabbit? (The Hole is not shy about its predecessors: a few paragraphs later, he will complain the cicadas are so loud he sometimes thinks he’s going to metamorphose into one.) As for the mysterious black animal that no one but Asahi sees, he simply sighs: “People always fail to notice things. Animals, cicadas, patches of melted ice cream on the ground, the neighborhood shut-in. But what would you expect? It seems like most folks don’t see what they don’t want to see” (81).
The brother-in-law, stuck in adolescence, articulates what we might assume are Asahi’s own unspoken thoughts about having found herself playing the role of her husband’s “bride,” a childless twenty-nine-year-old housewife. “It’s just,” he says when she asks him why he became a shut-in:
families are strange things, aren’t they? You have this couple: one man, one woman. A male and a female, if you will. They mate, and why? To leave children behind. And what are the children supposed to do? Turn around and do the whole thing over again? Well, what do you do when what you’ve got isn’t worth carrying on? (87)
Much of The Hole’s unsettling power comes from the way Oyamada displaces Asahi’s ambivalent feelings about family and work onto events, landscapes, and characters. Written in the dialect of conventional realism, the novel is like a dream in the conversational as well as the Freudian sense. By this I mean it may be useful to think of Asahi as Freud thought of the dreamer, not merely as the main character but as the only character—the one who hallucinates all the others. There is some evidence for this in the extreme flatness of all the men except the brother-in-law. Each of them is defined by a single trait: the husband, who is always on his phone; the father-in-law, who is always golfing; the grandfather-in-law, who is always watering the garden even in the pouring rain. This grandfather’s bizarre death (I will reveal only that it involves finally ceasing to garden and going to the riverbank) leads to a conclusion that, even as it signals a return to realism, cannot be explained by the rational mind.
The Hole is Oyamada’s second novel, and the second to be translated into pitch-perfect contemporary English by David Boyd. As with Oyamada’s previous book, The Factory, comparisons to the movies of David Lynch are inevitable. Everything from the ants in the grass to the general atmosphere of quotidian creepiness will put readers of The Hole in mind of Lynch’s cinematic universe. Comparisons to Murakami, whose heroes have a habit of disappearing down wells, are also hard to resist. In fact I wondered, while reading about Asahi’s isolation and confrontation with beings no one else sees, whether Oyamada was perhaps deliberately alluding, by way of Murakami, to Japanese shamanistic traditions such as komori—the practice of seclusion prior to the female shaman undergoing the journey to the other world—and the concept of a “guardian god” who takes the shaman on such a journey (Blacker, 98, 164; Waida, 462). But being almost as ignorant of shamanism as I am of the Japanese language, wonder is all I can do.
Whatever its symbolic underpinning may be, The Hole is a brilliant representation of familial emptiness. Oyamada is expert at conveying the lack of meaning Asahi and her husband find in their interactions with their relations. For Obon (the late summer holiday set aside for honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors), the two of them drive to see her parents, who are not so much as described. And when her husband’s grandfather dies? Asahi tries asking him what the old man used to like to do, and he replies (not looking up from his phone): “Well, we went fishing a few times, but I don’t think he liked it all that much. It was a little awkward, really. We never caught anything” (107). A few feet away, the grandfather’s body is laid out for the wake. “What makes you ask?” he says.
Oyamada, Hiroko. The Hole. Translated by David Boyd. New Directions, 2020.
Alex Andriesse studied English literature at Boston College, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Robert Lowell. His translations from the French include Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1768–1800 (NYRB Classics) and Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy (forthcoming from NYRB). His translations from the Italian include Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text (Dalkey Archive Press) as well as essays by Roberto Calasso, Italo Calvino, and Pietro Citati. He is also the editor of two volumes of Best European Fiction and The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick (forthcoming from NYRB). He lives in the Netherlands.
Carmen Blacker. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1975).
Haruki Murakami. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated by Jay Rubin (New York: Vintage, 1998).
Manabu Waida. “The Patterns of Initiation in Japanese Shamanism,” Anthropos 89.4/6 (1994), 461–469.
 See Susan Fisher’s “An Allegory of Return: Murakami Haruki’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2000), 155–170, for a discussion of shamanic elements in Murakami’s best-known novel—especially the descent into a dry well. In an interview about Sputnik Sweetheart, Murakami himself says that “women serve as mediums (shamans) in my stories. They guide us to dreamlike things, or to the other world.”