Bookforum talks with Kelly Luce

Pull Me Under: A Novel BY Kelly Luce. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.
Kelly Luce. Photo: Tony Rinaldo

“No one is about to do anything crazy, except me.” We might want to worry if it’s a murderer who says this. Thankfully, it’s only Rio Silvestri, the high-functioning narrator of Kelly Luce’s novel Pull Me Under (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Rio is a nurse, jogger, wife, and mother of a twelve-year-old. She seems to have her shit together. But when she receives a letter from Japan, her life starts to come apart. Because Rio isn’t her real name. And we might have something to worry about.

She’s actually Chizuru Akitani, daughter of Japan’s Living National Treasure, the violinist Hiro Akitani. She grew up in Japan as a hāfu—her mother was American. She’s also “the girl who snapped” when she was twelve and fatally stabbed a school bully who was tormenting her. This moment of kireru—her snap—defines her in the eyes of others. After years in a mental asylum, she manages to come to Boulder, Colorado and reinvent herself. For over a decade, the “black organ” inside her has been tamed, and she seems to have put her past behind her. “No one in America knows about Chizuru, no one in Japan knows about Rio.” But when her father dies, Rio/Chizuru must return to Japan for the first time and face her past in order to finally resolve who she is.

The questions Luce brings up in the novel are deeply haunting, and her writing is as darkly engaging as the story itself. What struck me most was her originality in psychological metaphors. For instance, “My skull contained a sea. Memories and knowledge floated or sank or hung suspended, somewhere in the middle; there were periods of whitecaps and periods of glassy calm.” Chizuru doesn’t remember the murder, and her doctor says she “created a special compartment for the memory”: “Think of it as a safe below decks. The bad news is, you won’t be whole until you figure out the combination to that safe and face what’s inside. The good news is that once you do, you can accept it and move beyond it. It’s hard to stay afloat with too much cargo.”

Over the course of the fall I asked Luce about Pull Me Under, both via email and over drinks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she currently lives as a fellow of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.

I'm interested in the dualist idea of honne and tatemae. Can you explain these concepts for someone not familiar with Japanese culture?

The honne and tatemae idea reflects the contrast that sometimes exists between someone's private feelings and public actions; what a person is truly feeling (honne literally means "true sound") and how they present themselves to the world (tatemae, "building-front"). This divide isn't unique to Japanese people or culture, of course. But it's talked about a lot more often and explicitly. Maybe it's considered a more critical part of the culture due to Japan's emphasis on group harmony and the country's general homogeneity (not to mention compactness—when only 33% of your land is habitable, it's imperative that everyone gets along in close quarters). This idea of masking truth is a big part of the novel, and is mirrored in other dualities. Rio's life has been split in two time-wise, and secret-keeping-wise. She's biracial, and thinks a lot about what that means for her identity. Even her name during the first half of her life was different. The question is, which is the mask and which is the real thing? And is there such a thing as the real thing?

Knowing what these words mean literarily give them a different dimension; building a front over one's true sound, in order to achieve harmony.

These concepts seem to create a framework around Rio/Chizuru's personality split, a duality within a duality within a duality; as you mentioned, she's also a hāfu—half Japanese/half American. But at one point her old teacher says, "Rio's not hāfu—she's double." This being double implies something else. What do you think is the difference between being half and being double? Or am I making too much of the word?

You might be making too much of it, but let's explore the thread anyway. So, on one level, Danny's comment that "she's double" is a comeback that you hear these days in reaction to the stigma of being mixed-race in Japan, of being labeled "half." Using "double" switches the perspective, just like that, from lack to abundance. Rio is "only" half-Japanese to some, but she also has two languages, two options for citizenship (and therefore travel and education, etc.), two cultures to (ostensibly) feel comfortable in. "Double" puts the emphasis on the positives of being mixed-race.

So Danny's comment shows that she's up on the current conversation. But it also points to larger themes in the book, and maybe larger personal obsessions of mine, the way changing perspective can radically shift, even flip, the way reality seems—the way reality is. Think of optical illusions, or Magic Eye pictures. To Sal, her husband, Rio is his partner, mother of his child, and friend. To Danny, Rio is Chizuru Akitani, the girl who snapped—not to mention some other associations. Of course, Rio is both at once, but, if you want to talk physics, there's no such thing as a perfect observer.

Well, I'm glad we explored, because I was thinking double as in doppelganger, and wasn't aware of the current Japanese cultural conversation, changing her being biracial from a negative to a positive. But along with the theme of being split/double, this flipping of reality is also something I wanted to explore, in both a larger and also specific way.

One of the most frightening aspects of your book is how our life can be defined by what we do in two seconds of passion. Our entire reality can be flipped, forever, by a single action. An action that we might not have intended to do, and might not even remember doing. As an adult, Rio is a high-functioning nurse, wife, mother, and runner; but to Japanese people, she, as Chizuru, is and will always be a murderer. As someone writes about her in a newspaper: “Once a killer, always a killer.” But she doesn't feel like a murderer. "Is this who I am?" she asks herself. What are your thoughts behind presenting this idea? That we are what we do, even if that's not who we are.

That's a deep question I'm not sure how to answer, which is I suppose why exploring it in a novel is attractive—there is no way to solve this equation; we have to be able to hold both things in our head, that we are represented both by our actions and our most inner, true selves, even if those selves don't always come forward to act and even if our actions in a heated moment, or as animal instinct, don't reflect our higher cognitive states. Most of us, I believe, struggle with identity all our lives, and wonder whether we have a static, unchanging core inside, or whether the self is a mutable thing.

But this is getting too philosophical. I don't really know what else to say without feeling like I'm losing the thread of the novel and what drove me to tell this story. Which is to say that I didn't specifically intend for the story to be "about" this question, nor did I intend to "present this idea." It was a side effect of the question that has always driven in writing this story, which is, "What would make a child do this?"

I hadn't thought much about what would make a child do that, because you make that bully Tomoya seem like such an asshole that it's like, yeah, he deserves it. To me, Chizuru’s violent reaction was understandable, after taking so much abuse from him. For me the more frightening aspect was thinking about secrets, the "inaccessible places in each of us" as you write, and that we can love someone we don't really know, which throws a disturbing light on how we usually think of love and marriage. But am I missing something? What was it about this question that was driving you to write the story?

When you say "this question," are you talking about the question I posed to myself as the basis for the novel: "What would make a child do this?" or the question you bring up, about never really being able to know the ones you love? Both are so interesting, and certainly the more gossipy question of motive brought me to the novel, the latter question is probably equally as juicy.

The answer to the former is that while I was living in Japan and first heard of these kireru crimes, I was teaching in public middle schools. My students were the same age as the kid in a nearby prefecture, with no history of violence or mental illness, who beheaded his classmate. I wondered what would drive a child to do this, especially in a society that's generally quite peaceful and crime-free. I was drawn to writing about a female, too, since most of the stories of violence we tend to hear involve men. But of course, girls and women carry massive darknesses too.

For both Westerners Danny and Rio, the Shikoku pilgrimage offers to fulfill a vague though singular need, yet many Japanese do the circuit so much they have "pilgrimage addiction," with many elderly Japanese going on bus tours to the sites rather than earning the pilgrim's purification through walking/suffering. What are your thoughts on how the pilgrimage serves a different function for insiders versus outsiders?

I don't know how common pilgrimage addiction is, actually, so perhaps "many" isn't the right word. But it certainly happens. I can see how it might become addictive to leave behind the stresses of everyday life—and to feel like you're making continual progress toward a goal.

When you say insiders versus outsiders, I assume you mean Japanese people versus non-Japanese people. And I'm not sure I can answer. A pilgrimage is deeply personal, and it would be unfair to say that an insider will get something different out of it than an outsider. Maybe one way to look at it is traditional versus modern. There are practitioners of Shinto and Buddhism (of all races and nationalities) who do the pilgrimage for the reasons the first pilgrims did it, and follow all the traditions and focus seriously on the spiritual aspect of the journey. And there are others who are motivated less by the spiritual traditional aspects and more by adventure, or the idea of unplugging, or challenging oneself. That's not to say those things can't lead to spiritual experiences. But it's also true that you can choose how deeply to engage with the spiritual possibilities of the pilgrimage.

It's like a pilgrimage is a vessel. If you own a fancy wine glass, you may not always use it for wine. You can drink coffee out of your Riedel. I think it's fascinating how a pilgrimage like this also attracts competitiveness and compulsion: the person who wants to break the record and go around the most times, the completionist who gets tired of walking so takes a bus to the remaining temples just so he can say he finished. One of the most touching parts of researching this novel was reading the stories of pilgrims, their reasons for walking. Some people are walking in memory of a loved one, some want to prove something to themselves, some feel lost. One lady just wanted to get away from her nagging mother-in-law, who lived with her family.

On a different, less deep note, it was very noticeable that for Rio Japan is a very sensual experience. The taste of the onigiri, the smell of yakitori—so much about Japan for her seems defined by sensory experiences like these. And there's also the heavy presence of running, of demanding things of her body: "Thank god for the pituitary gland," she says, "endogenous opioid inhibitory neuropeptides are miraculous things." What do you think about the relationship between such emphasis on physicality and her (buried) emotions?

As for the sensuality of Rio's experience, I knew I wanted her to be a very physical person. Part of that was just a reaction I have to a lot of fiction writing feeling too cerebral, concerned with ideas and themes that can become disembodied even when the characters are well-drawn and complex. The body is our interface with the world. Everything comes through it. And I think for some people, myself included, processing emotion is a physical act; there are things I can't just think through, I have to run them out (or play them out on a field or court). As Rio says in the book, when she hasn't run, she feels like her feelings take over. She runs to create distance and get perspective. It's chemical, of course—exercise is calming—but it's also a way of being in the moment. When you're running up a hill or biting into a tangy umeboshi, the wash of chemicals is real and immediate. It can be remembered and thought about, but there's no substitute for the onset of that in real time. Being sensually oriented is a form of meditation; it lets you avoid the running hamster wheel of the mind for a minute. And for Rio, a woman with a secret past life, this is imperative.

Randy Rosenthal is the co-founding editor of the literary journals the Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art. His work has appeared in many publications, including the New York Journal of Books, the Paris Review Daily, the Daily Beast, and the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently studying religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School.