Asa’s husband has just been transferred, so the couple moves into his parents’ rental house, next door to her in-laws. When they move, Asa must quit her job, but “it’s not really the kind of job that’s worth holding on to” anyway. A coworker assumes Asa must be thrilled to become a housewife. She will be “living the dream”, free to bake or garden. And, of course, to have children. “Once you move out and you have some time on your hands,” her coworker conjectures, “I bet you’ll get pregnant in no time.”
As Asa soon learns, the transition away from full-time work is jarring. She feels disconnected from herself, like the Asa who had to work all day was a different person. She finds that life doesn’t seem real anymore. This new unreality is an important point of departure in the novel. Like Alice follows the white rabbit, Asa soon tracks an unnameable black animal onto a riverbank where she falls into a mysterious hole that seems like “a trap made just for [her]”. Once she escapes, truth and imagination begin to blur. Was the hole real? Who are the children overrunning the town’s 7-Eleven? And what of the unknown brother-in-law she is surprised to meet, the one who may or may not exist?
Readers of Hiroko Oyamada’s novel The Factory will find some of her narrative techniques familiar. Both novels are full of unanswered questions. Oyamada’s writing is again profoundly atmospheric, inviting in a kind of existential dread. In The Hole, cicadas drone noisily and ceaselessly, “a spray of emotionless noise” so loud that Asa wonders whether it comes from inside her. Every day feels hotter than the last, even as summer comes to its end.
There is an emptiness in The Hole because young people like Asa sometimes face a grim reality. Culture and economics limit her choices. In post-bubble Japan, it is primarily privileged youth newly graduated from college who get hired for jobs with the best pay and perks. Asa can get a job, but she is too old to find the kind of permanent employment her mother-in-law enjoys. At her age, a person (a woman, no less) can only hope for contract or temporary work—the kind of work with lower pay and fewer benefits. Neither she nor her husband especially want children. Her husband drives their only car to work every day, so Asa is trapped at home too far out of town to visit a library or shopping mall. There is nothing for her to do and nowhere for her to go:
My body was getting heavier with every passing day. Not that I was gaining weight. On the contrary. But I could barely move. It was as if every muscle and joint, every cell in my body, was stuck.
Asa begins to lose touch with reality, not just because she has been taken out of the world by quitting her job, but also because there is no place in contemporary society for a woman defined by neither her children nor her work. The titular hole is not only the literal one into which she falls, but also the societal forces that limit her choices. Left with no good choices, Asa eventually takes a job at the 7-Eleven simply to get out of the house.
The Hole magnifies the plight of some younger adults, particularly women. Work is banal. Childrearing is unappealing. And being a housewife is not, as one of Asa’s older neighbors describes it, “a summer vacation that never ends.” What, the novel asks, is left for a woman to do?