I Confess

An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. New York: Columbia University Press. 344 pages. $20.
The cover of An I-Novel

I thought that in the interest of financial stability Nanae ought to increase her hours of part-time work rather than stocking up on lottery tickets.

“You know those tickets never win.”

I know[1].”

“Why don’t you quit buying them then?”

Yeah. But I still have a dollar and a few dreams. A person can’t live without dreams, after all.”

“I suppose not.”

“Anyway, nothing good ever happens in life.” She sighed.

This was her constant refrain. I gave my stock reply: “No, it doesn’t. Good things just don’t happen.”

“I’d have been satisfied with something small. I don’t need a million dollars. I’d have been very happy with a hundred thousand.”

While Nanae had never sold a piece of sculpture to a museum, she had participated in several group exhibitions and had sold several pieces to private collectors—but sculpting didn’t put food on the table. She made her living, or tried to, working part-time at an architectural design office where she constructed architectural models on a scale of one hundred or two hundred to one. She was good with her hands, and her work was highly valued for being “very Japanese,” detailed and meticulous, so the hourly rate was more than decent; but in the end it was just a part-time job, and she never knew how much work would be coming her way. For a major project she’d go in every day for weeks at a time, but between projects she’d have nothing. She really ought to have combined that with some other job, but as she pointed out, (a) not many jobs paid as well as that one; (b) since she wasn’t physically strong, it was ridiculous to think of taking a crummy, low-paying job; and (c) if she economized, she could manage fine on her earnings.

The upshot was that Nanae made no effort to find other employment, apart from an occasional interpreting job. Mother had given us equal shares of the proceeds from the sale of the house, with the warning that this was “really and truly the last time,” and with her share Nanae had made a down payment on the loft in SoHo where she now lived quietly with her cats, no man in her life, working on her sculpture. Sometimes she played her Steinway, a relic of her piano-playing past, bemoaning how “fat” her fingers were getting. She had purchased the loft for a good price, but making it livable cost a surprising amount of money, and now, with Henryk gone, she had to be responsible for all expenses. By the end of summer she could no longer make ends meet and was reduced to begging me for a loan. (I hadn’t touched my share of the money from Mother.) The monthly maintenance on her SoHo loft was itself considerable, and she talked about how she should move to a cheaper place in the East Village. She had a big, old, beat-up car, one that our parents had bought for her long ago, and she said that when it broke down she would give up driving. I didn’t want to know more, so I didn’t ask.

Nanae had become just another struggling artist in a city full of them. New York, like Vienna or Berlin or Paris of old, still attracted swarms of aspiring artists from all over, despite the diminishing dominance of the United States on the world stage. Leaving aside those lucky few who could rely on wealthy parents, artists survived for the most part by taking on small jobs, holding their hours to the bare minimum. Those serious about their art could be hard to distinguish from those who simply wished to avoid taking on a regular job. Objectively speaking, Nanae was now one of this ambiguous crowd, neither well off nor in dire straits. Given that many artists lived across the river in Brooklyn or Queens, unable to afford Manhattan rents, perhaps she was doing well just to have her own loft in SoHo, which had undergone thorough gentrification.

But I refused to take comfort in this view. I somehow felt that her living alone with her cats in Manhattan must be part of a crazy, interminable dream of mine, and the real Nanae must be off in a Tokyo suburb raising not a pair of cats but a pair of children in grade school. Instead of rising just before noon and reaching for a hand mirror, then lifting her chin, closing one eye, and applying glossy jet-black eyeliner, she was up early in the morning amid the clamor of Tokyo rush hour, hair a mess, putting breakfast on the table and shouting to her children to hurry up and get going. I wished—no, I prayed that this was the reality, because otherwise, I had a hard time imagining how she would live out the rest of her life. If she could make a living as a sculptor that would be one thing, but few people in the world did. The bar was especially high for someone who was a woman, and Japanese.

Time brings most artists to some sort of turning point. Many of Nanae’s friends had switched course to earn a living, moving on in different ways. Some refused to the end to “sell out,” but even they were forced at some point to make the transition from promising artist to artiste manqué. I wouldn’t have been bothered in the least if Nanae sold out. She tended to look down on people who went into solid professions, but if she would just go ahead and get a job telling at the Bank of Tokyo or somewhere, I would quietly have thanked whatever gods prompted her to do so.

[1] Note: Italics indicate words and phrases that originally appeared in English in the 1995 Japanese edition of An I-Novel.

Excerpted from An I-Novel. Copyright © 2021 Minae Mizumura. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.