In three words, I would sum up this novel as succinct, creative and suffocating. I know what you're thinking; 'suffocating' is not a particularly positive word. However, I mean it in that you can't stop reading because as you do, the description keeps hitting you over and over, hardly giving you time to breathe. Equally, the presence of sand in the novel, all around the characters, in their food and drink, on their bodies, creates a sense of suffocation at all points.
Yet, although the premise of an insect collector being imprisoned in a sand pit seems in some senses depressing and perhaps boring, Abe really makes sure that it is neither.
So to the beginning but without ruining too much of the novel: we meet Niki Jumpei, an insect collector who has impulsively decided to visit some sand dunes somewhere in Japan to find insects, specifically sand beetles. By nightfall, desperately needing a place to stay, he ends up deep in a sand pit, seemingly offered hospitality by a woman who lives in a deteriorating house at the bottom. By morning, the ladder to freedom has been taken away and so begins Niki's fascination and hate for his imprisonment.
What was interesting was that the protagonist, Niki, came to the dunes because he had a fascination with sand initially. He talks about how it 'flows' around the world and its 1/8 of a millimetre size. And in the novel, the sand does flow through it and it does seem to get into the smallest places. As you read, you can almost feel the sand on your skin, grating at you as it does Niki. His initial fascination soon becomes questioned by the woman he lives with in the dunes, who has lived with sand in a completely different way to him- it doesn't flow for her, it weights heavy on her body, her home, everything she owns. Sand for the woman destroys her possessions, soils food, killed her husband and child.
Niki is educated about sand and a new way of life. Yet he schemes constantly, trying to find his escape. Yet almost like a case of Stockholm syndrome, Niki eventually finds comfort in the woman. If anything, he seems to be more attached to her than she is to him as Niki constantly notes her lack of sincerity. It almost seems she is merely desperate to have a man in the pit with her to help her clear the sand.
Some may have found the minute detail in this novel a bit too liberally spread but I found them exciting to read. I became submerged in the claustrophobic sandy landscape and Niki's turmoil.
Most interesting was that the exact thing that Niki wanted throughout the novel becomes meaningless. Although some may call this obvious, I still enjoyed this. When the ladder is finally returned and left unattended, what does Niki do? It leaves the readers with a few questions: what happens when you finally obtain the unobtainable? Moreover, what happens when you see the world from another perspective and it changes your priorities?
A fantastic read for fans of succinct and alternative fiction. If you like unusual descriptions and facing a situation completely different to your own, this may just be the read for you...
Eileen R. Tabios’ THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA is reminiscent of Ginsberg's “Howl” with the constant refrain of “I forgot” instead. This collection encompasses a huge range of content, from intimate reflections to broader observations about different cultures, places, religions and people. When I was reading, I simultaneously felt as though I was lying beside Tabios like a lover or confidant, as well as moving through the generations of her family or the past of her country. There is a continual pulling closer to and then transportation to miles away from a foreign land with a potentially dark history.
There are also very poignant moments, such as “I forgot my mistake,” though Tabios then goes on to suggest quite the opposite. There is a lot of to and froing in this sense—tracing the past, reliving mistakes, reconsidering good and bad times, thinking about her history and what it means about who she is now. For this reason, I was sometimes unsure if Tabios is referring to herself or taking on numerous personalities in her poetry. Either way, the images pile on top of one another, like a constant deluge of water battering the reader. For instance, she wrote, “I forgot how quickly civilization can disappear, as swiftly as the shoreline from an oil spill birthed from a twist of the wrist by a drunk vomiting over the helm.” This image begins with a broad concept and slowly shrinks inwards like a hedgehog curling itself up to hide away from the world and protect itself, while the oil spill and the drunk vomiting over the helm imagery also reminds us of how careless we are as humans and how we are probably privy to our own destruction. It is hauntingly accurate and savage.
Moreover, there are a lot of instances where the power of nature crept in: “I forgot the grandfather who willingly faced a fire, fist trembling at the indifferent sky” and “I forgot I saw a city bleeding beyond the window.” All of these images seem to be a reminder that there is a lack of control over nature, and much like Tabios’ poetry, they can suddenly wash over you, lick you like a fire and make you feel exposed like a landscape after being ravaged by a natural disaster.
At other times, the writing is unsettlingly intimate, for instance, “I forgot you living somewhere along my spine. I forgot integral yoga to squeeze you more efficiently out of bone marrow.” I particularly love some other specific lines, for example, “I forgot the horizon is far, is near, is what you wish but always in front of you” and “I forgot you falling asleep in my skin to dream.” These lines are usually sweet but also tinged with an element of horror, hope, love, and the feeling that things can change right before your eyes.
I really enjoyed this collection and I look forward to reading more of Tabios' work.
You can purchase the collection from KFS