"Heaven" by Mieko Kawakami; Europa Editions (176 pages, $23)
About halfway through Mieko Kawakami's slim new novel, "Heaven," a confounding change occurs. The unnamed narrator, a 14-year-old boy, foreshadows the coming turn at the end of his school break: "I felt something happening in my body. Whatever I saw, whatever I thought about, no longer felt real."
He is hesitant to return to eighth grade because he is bullied — punched, kicked, forced to eat chalk that had been shoved up his nose. He is fatalistic, telling himself "it didn't really matter what I did. Nothing would change."
But he also has a flowering months-old friendship with Kojima, another bullied outsider — he has a lazy eye, she is slovenly — which provides them both a degree of comfort. They write letters back and forth, talk atop the school's fire escape, take a day trip out of town. They discuss being outcasts and their internal scars, but they also laugh, share their likes and dislikes, even hold hands, possibly presaging an adolescent romance. Life is bleak but bearable, if not exactly hopeful.
Readers of Kawakami's English-language debut, "Breasts and Eggs," know, however, that she is capable of drastic narrative redirection. But whereas that title was really two books, story and sequel, masquerading as one, "Heaven" is a swift nine-chapter story whose second half grows oppressively dark and humorless, the narrator's terror radiating off the page, the children from the initial chapters subsumed almost entirely in polemic.
The "careful" bullies who early on administer beatings so as "not to ever leave a mark" catalyze the change, suddenly sadists who brutalize the narrator so violently that he must go to the hospital, then later attempt to force him to rape Kojima in a public park. Kojima herself becomes a Christ-like figure, her quirky coping mechanisms — petting the cat on her backpack or cutting things with her crafting scissors — replaced by fasting, a devout embodiment of her father's poverty, and the embrace of all those suffering "the strength of weakness." The antithesis to her conviction that "all the pain and all the sadness have meaning" comes from the nihilistic Momose, a bully who tells the narrator during a lengthy discussion at the hospital that "none of this has any meaning."
Both tracts that Kawakami treads — the well-crafted narrative as well as the aspirational philosophizing — deserve exploration, particularly by such a skilled author. But the ambiguous focus of "Heaven" makes it a rather frustrating experience as a novella. The text feels both overly formulated and half-formed, the story that initially draws readers in almost a charade. The extreme violence and Kojima's submission-is-strength arc may cause some to abandon the book. And those who do finish it may find the brief final chapter utterly jarring, as it tries to tie everything up with a cloyingly sunny bow, even implying that the narrator's suffering was avoidable, a consequence of his silence.