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Book Review: Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels by Kenzaburo Oe

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I recently finished reviewing Oe’s well-known novel A Personal Matter, and was impressed by the way he handled an otherwise PC situation with maturity and not drenching the reader in sentimentality. This collection, titled Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels, offers a good overview of Oe’s work, even if all the tales are not at the same levels of quality. While the book claims these to be four short novels, they are really novellas or long short stories, with exception for the first (and longest) story The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, which is probably the weakest tale in the collection. It is not a bad story, but next to some of the others, especially the best tale in the book, Prize Stock, it fades by comparison.

The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away involves a narrator who is lying in a hospital bed, believing he is dying of cancer. In addition, he wears a pair of underwater goggles, which he has covered with dark cellophane. Amid his hypochondria, he revisits the past, relaying the stories of his youth during the war. Overall, the story has a lot of good potential, and it is a good story, just not up to Oe’s best. For one thing, it is a bit too long, finishing at around 110 pages. The sections where the narrator is revisiting his wartime past, telling his experience of how he heard the Emperor’s voice for the first time and what a disappointment it was, are the most interesting. The weakest are those involving his cancer obsession, and him getting agitated at the doctors for not telling him what he wants to hear — that he is in fact dying from the cancer.

The second work in the collection, Prize Stock, is by far the best and most memorable tale. Narrated by a child who discovers a black soldier, many elements of racism are touched upon without being preachy. The child’s voice accurately portrays a youth during that era, and the children marvel at the black solder as if he were an animal, rather than person. In one scene, where the boy and his friends notice the black soldier intelligently glancing at a tool box, they exclaim how “he’s like a person.” They also notice the things that young boys tend to notice, such as the soldier’s large genitals: “Suddenly we discovered that the black soldier possessed a magnificent, heroic and unbelievably beautiful penis.” Ultimately this tale not only touches upon racism, but the actual process of growing into adulthood, for by the end of the tale, the boy comments how he “was no longer a child,” and he does so after referring to the nearby stench as “the nigger’s smell.” Prize Stock is truly an outstanding piece of literature.

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness touches upon some of the similar themes in A Personal Matter, in that it involves a father and his mentally defective son. The son’s name is Eeyore, and the father is incredibly obese. Oe doesn’t pass on the opportunity to make some stabs at humor, for there are moments where the humor seems to be tongue-in-cheek: “And so it came about one morning in the winter of 196 — that the fat man and his fat son set out for the zoo together.” The moments where the father is telling the son about seeing versus imagining while they are watching the animals at the zoo are some of the strongest parts to the tale. Overall, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a very good tale, just a notch below the previous one.

Lastly, the book ends with Aghwee the Sky Monster, which is a bit odd. The storyline involves a man who is haunted by the ghost of a baby in a white nightgown. Immediately, Beloved comes to mind, and I would not be shocked if this story offered Toni Morrison some insights. It is still a solid tale, despite not being as interesting as the previous two stories, and despite lacking some of the stronger moments present in the first tale.

This collection is very good, with muscular writing and insights sprinkled throughout. I only found one weak paragraph in the book, where Oe and his translator John Nathan descend into cliché: “…his father telling him as a child, on another stormy night, that life was like a family emerging from the darkness, coming together for a brief time around a lighted candle, and then disappearing one by one into their own darkness once again.”

While this imagery is trite, the paragraph is forgivable since the narrator is relaying what the boy’s father said, yet I would still make the argument that better images could have been used. There is also an amusing introduction written by Nathan, which gives a bit of background concerning Oe’s life. There is a funny scene that Nathan describes, involving Oe and Kobe Abe while at a party for Yukio Mishima, where Oe walks up to Mishima’s wife and calls her a not so nice name in English. Nathan claims that after hearing Oe’s English, he decided to be the translator for his work. Hyperbole or not, it makes for entertaining reading.

Oe is definitely one of the Modern Masters, and this collection offers a good selection of what one can expect from his writing. Though for those new to Oe, I would still recommend reading A Personal Matter first, yet the story Prize Stock is outstanding, and makes any weaknesses in this collection seem irrelevant by comparison. Hell, even if the other three tales were terrible, Prize Stock makes the collection worth it. More reviews of his work will follow.

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About Jessica Schneider