People from My Neighborhood is a book about relationships. Kawakami Hiromi’s collection of micro-fiction, itself only 120-pages long, is about the members of the close-knit community in an exurban Tokyo town. For a volume of short stories, the relationships between characters are remarkably strong. Two and three pages at a time, the reader begins to see the tangled network of ties that bind the people from the neighborhood together.
Many of the book’s strongest relationships are with the narrator’s close friend Kanae. She frequently drives the action through her “delinquent” behavior. It is with Kanae that the narrator explores her budding sexuality; the two wish “to grow breasts as quickly as possible” so they can “fight aliens, wicked religious sects, and other forces of evil.”
People from My Neighborhood isn’t a conventional book of linked short stories, and it is the relationships between each story that make the collection pop. Each story flows into the next, linked, not by a narrative arc, but by a common theme shared with the story that follows it. In “The Crooner”, the neighborhood plots to get rid of a vicious dog. Next, “The School Principal”, an unemployed man in his mid-fifties, assumes command of the neighborhood’s canines. The story that follows is about another directionless, middle-aged adult. The continuity between these tales is all the more remarkable because these stories are collected from already-published work. It is almost as though the compilation, rather than the narrative, is using stream-of-consciousness.
As the volume progresses, Kawakami moves further into the territory of magical realism. “Weightless” is a striking example of Kawakami’s surreal storytelling and delicious sense of irony:
For the first time in ages, we had a no-gravity alert. ‘This is the Disaster Preparedness Office Speaking. We have been informed that a no-gravity event will take place between two and five o’clock this afternoon. Please remain indoors during these hours. If you must go out for any reason, please make sure you are well weighted down. This has been a message from the Disaster Preparedness Office.’
Kawakami also grows more political, and her stories become, to some degree, commentary on late-stage capitalism. In “Bass Fishing”, the price of shares in the town plummets and throws the town into chaos. In “Sports Day”, the local bank sponsors an annual physical fitness competition with events like money-counting and best loan evaluation.
“The Family Trade” is especially of the moment. Sōkichi Nashida leaves the neighborhood to avoid inheriting the family business. Everything he tries his hand at is a success. He makes a small fortune as a stock-broker.Starting a farm, he revolutionizes agribusiness. As a monk, he reaches enlightenment and transforms Japanese Buddhism. But try as he might, he can never secure for himself a wife.
Returning to the neighborhood, he reintroduces himself to the town’s denizens before going to work in the family trade: abstract art. He hates art, but “in a feat of sheer self-discipline” he becomes a renowned, though still unmarried, abstract painter. Though a success in all other things, Sōkichi never finds the kind of relationship he wants.
The publisher describes People from My Neighborhood as “super short ‘palm of the hand’” stories, a phrase coined by Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata. Kawakami’s is a book to keep on hand and to become intimate with: a book with which readers can have a relationship of their own.