Two from Japan, ideas, innocence


September's treat is two novels from Japan, representing two generations. "Norwegian Wood" (Vintage International, 296 pages, $13) by Haruki Murakami, author of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "South of the Border, West of the Sun," was published in 1987 in Japan, selling 4 million copies. Set in the late '60s, it follows Toru Watanabe, a Murakami everyman, in his first two years of college.

The student movement rattles behind his door, but Toru doesn't listen. He's no more impressed by those who raise the flag of the rising sun outside his dorm windows every day at 6 a.m., to the tune of the national anthem on a Sony tape player. Instead, he explores the "dark limbo" inside himself. Except for Sundays, he "winds up his spring" to face the world.

"Norwegian Wood" is permeated by suicides of the young, first Toru's high school friend Kizuki, later Kizuki's girlfriend. Toru establishes "a proper distance between myself and everything else." He listens only to Western music (the title is a Beatles song), and reads Claudel, Racine and Eisenstein -- and "The Great Gatsby." He is entirely lacking in ambition: "there was nothing I wanted to be."

He wishes, Toru tells a friend's dying father, "there were a deux ex machina in real life. Everything would be so easy! If you felt stuck or trapped some god would swing down from up there and solve all your problems." Murakami captures the heartbeat of his generation and draws the reader in so completely you mourn when the story is done.

"Asleep" (Grove Press, 177 pages, $21), by that younger icon, Banana Yoshimoto, explores the same opaque Japan from a woman's point of view. In the three tales that comprise "Asleep," characters die young, or of drink. They earn money in the sex industry without shame, yet identify with Japanese folk legends, like that of the earless Hoichi, betrayed by a ghost. Tea ceremony and ikebana persist. Relationships between the sexes are as difficult as they are in Murakami. "There was something lonely between us," one woman explains.

In this brief but powerful collection, people sleep too much, their senses "drained" in post-war Japan. Flowers are white, the color of death. As in most Japanese fiction, story passes gracefully into allegory. Yoshimoto reveals a Japan in which sex occurs with no great emotion and people have no compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning.

For an off-beat choice with a Japanese theme, try Helen DeWitt's "The Last Samurai" (Hyperion, 544 pages, $24.95) about a woman who decides that, absent a male role model, her son should learn what it means to be a man by watching Akira Kurosawa's classic film "Seven Samurai." This is a novel of ideas, sans linear narrative, and provocative. The style is plain, homiletic and enchanting.

"Innocence" by Jane Mendelsohn (Riverhead Books, 199 pages, $21.95), author of the best-selling "I was Amelia Earhart," is a brilliant gothic tale about a 14- year-old named "Beckett" (Rebecca). Beckett comes of age in a New York peopled by bats, vampires and, pace Murakami, teen-aged suicides. Her mother is dead. She's "the ugly girl, the smart girl, the boyish girl, the loser." Puberty turns her pretty, but it makes no difference. The young prey on each other ("the mermaids laughed in catty euphoria"), even as the world ignores their furtive attempts to grow up.

By the nightmarish ending, Beckett is persuaded that her stepmother is trying to confiscate her menstrual blood to make herself young again. "You should kill yourself," Beckett is encouraged by a voice in her head. Mendelsohn's novel is a harrowing cry of anguish, the siren song of a generation that believes continuing to live beyond one's teens is a matter of ambiguous choice.

"Worship of the Common Heart" by Patricia Henley (MacMurray & Beck, 358 pages, $14.50) is a superb collection of stories peopled by outcasts whose "life-dreams" are "thrust upon them by circumstance." In "The Secret of Cartwheels," a woman turns her back on her five children, so that her oldest Roxanne, age 13, has "no trust in anyone." In "Lessons In Joy," Alice Waverley persuades herself that younger men are best: "they had thin histories and few regrets." In "Aces," Henley writes: "for most women, having a child is like having all the windows in your house painted shut forever."

Henley's women hunt and fish and plant truck gardens. They eat their kill. Techno-America has no use for them. They can't even figure out how to live 9 to 5 lives, let alone notice the millennial prosperity. They subsist on the bones life casts their way. This is a collection of considerable distinction.

"What Are You Like?" by Irish writer Anne Enright (Atlantic Monthly Press, 257 pages, $24) withholds its truths until the very end. Berts loses his wife in childbirth, marries Evelyn, and raises his daughter Maria, who "always felt like the wrong girl." In this claustrophobic world "you can drown in a saucer of water." Not having a mother is "like a gash on your soul." A woman named Rose suddenly appears.

Maria wanders, having lost not only her mother, but the entire world. She spirals downward. "What are you waiting for?" her stepmother Evelyn demands of Maria, who will not visit. The reply is "Just," a word echoed in Rose's world. The ending is a miracle: "Berts was astonished, again, by women. How they have no choice." There is an exquisite biological reconciliation that lifts this book's spirits to heretofore undreamed of heights.

"Honeymoon: A Romantic Rampage" by Amy Jenkins (Little, Brown and Co., 282 pages, $24.95) is an anti-romantic London-based post-feminist generational tale. Jenkins posits the pursuit of love today as "spacious and hygienic." She readjusts the ironic credo that opens "Pride and Prejudice": "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something single woman in possession of good fortune must (a) be wanting a man and (b) be having trouble finding one."

Jenkins insists that women are no longer compelled to compromise "because they no longer need husbands to bring home the bacon. They can simply buy a liver and bacon ready-meal from Marks & Spencer." There are six steps to "Get A Husband." The sociological riffs make this novel fun.

Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 15 books and is currently writing a biography of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

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