Hiromi Kawakami has made a name for herself as a writer with a defined sense of time and place, and how these forces change us. In Strange Weather in Tokyo, her lovers represent two periods of Japan’s history and how they must court one another in the present.
In The Ten Loves of Nishino, ten women grow and change, affected by the love of one man. In People From My Neighbourhood, however, Kawakami flexes some very different muscles as she dabbles in surrealism and comedy. Her sense of place remains, but it is beautifully abstract this time around.
The titular neighbourhood of this book is nestled in an uncanny valley where anything can happen. Across roughly 120 pages, we are offered 36 short and amusing stories of around 2-5 pages apiece, each one ranging from slightly strange to excitedly deranged.
There is an established cast of characters — some with real names, some with nicknames, and some with no names at all — and a first-person narrator who spends her time telling us about her neighbours and their peculiar ways. Peculiar to us, at least. To her, they are simply her neighbours. People From My Neighbourhood is very much defined by its surreal and supernatural elements.
To make this clear, the book opens on one of its least obliquely surreal stories: that of a cheeky and strange boy — reminiscent of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream — who doesn’t age at all, and who chooses to make a home with the nameless protagonist for the rest of her days. She doesn’t question it, nor does she welcome him. It merely happens.
From this off-key note, the book flows like a janky, trippy, and darkly funny musical featuring such characters as Uncle Red Shoes and Grandpa Shadows. “It seemed Uncle Red Shoes had not always lived in our neighbourhood”.
As the book progresses, the neighbourhood slowly comes to life, as though the lights in its houses come on one-by-one as the locals’ stories are told. We become familiar with these people, in or out of order. Kanae, for example, is a childhood friend of the protagonist.
We get a story dedicated to her older sister (a truly creepy tale of cruel sisterly abuse which ends on the image of what a doll’s brains might look like) before Kanae herself is fleshed out more thoroughly in “The Juvenile Delinquent”.
Kanae’s sister is, in a later story, struck by a curse which allows her to act as a medium, channelling the voices of the dead.
In that same story, a housing estate on the edge of town grows into a town of its own, eventually seceding from Japan and forming its own navy — one of many absurd moments which should elicit a sudden laugh from any reader.
The subtle strangeness of this neighbourhood is hugely reminiscent of Royston Vasey in The League of Gentlemen: a place full of usual people who behave unusually or are subject to unusual circumstances, be they quietly supernatural, antisocial, or plainly bizarre.
A wonderfully quiet example is “The Hachiro Lottery”, in which a boy named Hachiro, who is the fifteenth child of a local family, is passed around from household to household because his family cannot afford to keep and feed him. It’s one story among many which teeter between unusual and unsettling.
Compare “The Hachiro Lottery”, which is only quietly odd, to “Grandpa Shadows”, the short story of a man with two shadows, one far more sinister than the other. The sinister shadow has a habit of attaching itself to another person for days at a time as a kind of curse.
In one of its most strangely surreal and supernatural moments of People From My Neighbourhood, one man moves to murder another in cold blood by stabbing him through the heart when, suddenly, the would-be victim “turned into a large swarm of flies and flew away”.
From story to story – each one entirely unique but also loosely linked to every other like pictures in a tapestry – a map of the neighbourhood begins to form. Certain homes and streets, and the families who reside there, come into focus and become familiar.
Most get their own stories, and also feature in other characters’. One prominent example is The Love, a local pub owned by a middle-aged woman with no name and which gets no solid business but always remains. The Love’s owner is given quite the ending upon the book’s conclusion.
There’s no clean-cut narrative to People From My Neighbourhood. Rather, it is a collection of short stories all based in one single place, featuring increasingly familiar faces encountering bizarre situations or bringing fresh oddness to the town. It’s worth once more comparing this town to Royston Vasey, though without the political edge.
The secret to making People From My Neighbourhood so charming in its surrealness, and what so often had me laughing out loud to myself, is the shortness of its stories.
At only a handful of pages, most stories abruptly end with a sudden and absurd punchline. The absurdity, which hits often from nowhere at all, coupled with the brevity of the stories, is guaranteed to draw a jolt of laughter from the reader every single time.
This is a book of laugh-out-loud absurdity and jolly uncanniness. An exercise in experimenting with narratives, characters, and ideas. If you wish to look deeper into the metaphors and political parallels at play here, you may. I usually do.
But here I chose to let go and have fun with these excitingly strange and surreal stories. Though I couldn’t help but draw parallels with Tom Waits’ iconic What’s He Building: the story of a voyeuristic and nosy neighbour imagining absurd horrors out of thin air. There is certainly a darkly voyeuristic quality to this book, but it often melts away in favour of electric shock comedy.
It’s an absolute joy to see a writer as keenly insightful as Hiromi Kawakami dabble in surrealism and comedy. At times, People From My Neighbourhood feels like a science experiment. Kawakami has built herself a little town and populated it with people as she plays god with their lives. She makes strange and supernatural things happen without purpose or consequence.
She bends and breaks the rules of narration, plotting, and characterisation, and the end result is a vividly realised pocket universe filled with strange people who exist to shock us into laughter at every turn.