Archaeologists love garbage dumps for a reason. The layers of debris, detritus shed from our days tell a story – our castoffs reveal ourselves. In Japan, then, a culture so structured as to leave little to no room for linguistic exceptions, it follows that exacting protocols exist even for refuse. In a crowded island nation, these rules serve both a pragmatic and a social function. Modeling the American system of conspicuous consumption and disposal, permitting the consumer tectonics that produce vast ranges of landfill would swamp the Japanese islands.
Social reasons also exist for Japan’s complex gomi (garbage) laws. In a crowded nation, it is impolite to burden others with oneself. Each person attempts to occupy as little space, physical and psychological, as possible.
Into this world, enter Marina, a twenty-two year old American English teacher with an inability to conform to rules, a clandestine lesbian relationship, and a grief that she strives to contain, but which threatens to burst the seams of its vessel and leak into her life. This is the basis for Malena Watrous’ novel If You Follow Me. Based loosely on Watrous’ own experiences teaching in the small town of Shika on the remote Noto Peninsula following the suicide of her father, If You Follow Me leads the reader on a deft exploration of the human need for, and desire to escape, structure.
Watrous divides If You Follow Me into four parts, breaking Marina’s year into the four seasons. In an echo of this motif, the town of Shika is awakened each morning to an audio blast of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons from loudspeakers that test the warning system for the nuclear power plant above the town. Each chapter begins with a Japanese vocabulary word that sets the tone for that section. Tellingly, the word for Chapter One is semai: “narrow; confined; small.”
Though Marina, by her own admission, reads “only the books that my mom sends in her care packages, mostly comedies of manners,” Marina takes comfort in the formulaic structure of these novels saying, “At least I know when to cringe and when to cheer, who to be charmed by and who to be wary of.” The structure of her real life is equally unambiguous, and to Marina, far more incomprehensible. “There are rules here too, governing my days and shaping my weeks, but four months into a one-year teaching contract, I still don’t have them down.”
Conflicts between conformity and rebellion, structure and chaos, the hidden and overt weave throughout this novel. Through the glass of Marina’s misadventures, Watrous takes us on a tour of the dichotomous wonderland of humanity. The Carroll allusion is intentional. One of the many quirks of Shika is an Alice In Wonderland-themed museum designed to explain the workings of the town’s nuclear power plant. Like Alice, Marina has tumbled down a rabbit hole of incomprehensible rules and conflicting desires.
Although Marina and her lover Carolyn begin their stay in Japan with the intent of concealing their relationship, they soon learn that even the functions of their own bodies cannot be concealed.
“Ogawa-san called you again to complain about our trash?” I ask, and he nods. “Just because we didn’t wash the label off one wine bottle?”
“No…” he says. “Not just for that. Maybe also because of…woman thing?”
“Gender?” I ask, mystified.
“Not gender.” He bites his lip and speaks quickly, without looking at me. “Woman thing happens every month…You threw evidence in recycling bin. But this can’t be recycled, for obvious reasons of sanitation. Next month, please throw on a Tuesday, together with other burnable gomi, so Ogawa-san won’t have to handle your…personal waste.”
Nothing is ever shed; even the status quo cannot be preserved. When Marina and Carolyn first enter the “traditional Japanese house” that Marina has manipulated Carolyn into sharing, they are greeted by the stench of rotting meat from the ancient refrigerator. Their ensuing attempts to rid themselves of first meat, then refrigerator bring about the first of the gomi conflicts with the town. The refrigerator suffers from intermittent failure, refusing to preserve anything they bring into the house.
Although the attempts by Marina and Carolyn to rid themselves, first of the rotten food then of the refrigerator itself, form the comedic heart of the book, If You Follow Me has its own layers of emotion. These layers are as difficult to sort and categorize as Marina’s gomi. Marina, who has such difficulty remembering the rules for trash disposal, maintains rigid control over all other aspects of her life, refusing to release her lover or her grief for her father. Carolyn, a lesbian who came out in high-school, flirts with Joe, a male English teacher, in an attempt to break Marina’s strangle-hold on her life.
Watrous deftly weaves the thread of communication and language throughout the novel, showing how we fail each other through speech. The question of failed communication with her father at the end of his life follows Marina to Japan.
After a year, my mom seemed sad but also resigned, already moving toward acceptance at a clip that made me feel scared and left behind. When my dad was alive, she often served as our go-between, telling the two of us what to say to each other, when we needed to say thank you or apologize for something… “He’s so proud of you. He’s terrible at expressing his feelings, but he loves you so much. You need to know that.” With him gone, we were unsure what to talk about. Where there had always been a triangle, symmetrical and balanced, now there was just a line.
Marina failed to communicate with her father, assuming he would always be there. In trying to keep Carolyn, she fails once again to talk, to give her lover the full benefit of the facts. Language acts in different ways through translation, as well. Marina’s supervisor at the school in Shika communicates with her through letters. Though the ostensible purpose of these letters is to instruct her on “gomi law” indirectly, without bringing shame to either party, gradually, the written word reveals more about the budding relationship than either of them intends. Ultimately, Marina learns most about communication through a strange assortment of students: an elementary school boy and his severely autistic brother, a former “shut-in” neighbor who attends the high-school, a pregnant teenager, and a Korean girl with her own language barrier.
The traps and releases of language permeate the novel, leading both Watrous’ characters and the reader on an excavation of the layers of communication and emotion. Though rich in its exploration of human deception and pain, If You Follow Me’s wry, casual voice and humor lend it delightful readability. Marina’s voice doesn’t flinch away from her failures and imperfections, and Watrous has created lively and memorable characters. Though the ending dips a bit too far into the well of the tidy and improbable, If You Follow Me is a good-friend of a book: open, honest, humorous, and joyfully imperfect.