The Parent Trap

Woman Running in the Mountains by Yūko Tsushima, translated from japanese by geraldine Harcourt. new york: new york review books. 288 pages. $18.

The cover of Woman Running in the Mountains

ALL WOMEN ARE NOT UNHAPPY,” the Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima wrote in the Chicago Tribune, but women are made to suffer more “just because they are women.” By design, a system animated by capitalism and heteropatriarchy is especially cruel to single mothers. I remember nearly nothing of my childhood, yet I harbor acute recollections of my mother waitressing or bartending while I perched primly atop a barstool, memorizing my Mariah Carey cassette and learning what humiliation borne of economic necessity looks like. The phrase “to make ends meet” has one origin in dressmaking, meaning to gather the least amount of material required to successfully constitute the garment. As a child, it seemed to me that womanhood was this sort of labor, a relentless scraping together conducted in perpetuity, always alone.

Yūko Tsushima’s early fictions brim with women like my mother—and, now that I am older, women like me. Impoverished working girls, divorcées, the single mothers of “illegitimate” children, childless matrons haunted by infertility, and aimless women carving nooks of erotic autonomy out of one-night stands and extramarital entanglements. If disassembling the system in toto is an impossibility, one must tenuously fashion pockets of freedom within its folds.

Biographical information on Tsushima in English is scant. She was born in Tokyo in 1947, where she lived until her death in 2016. Her father was the celebrated novelist Osamu Dazai, who drowned himself when Tsushima was a year old. Like many of her characters, Tsushima went through a divorce and subsequently raised her two children alone. Although only a handful of her books have been translated into English, she was known for her prolificity and longevity, achieving broad acclaim in Japan and international recognition. (According to friends, there were even rumors that she would be a Nobel honoree.)

Early on, Tsushima worked in the twentieth-century Japanese confessional form of the “I-novel,” perhaps kin to what Sheila Heti has texturedly termed the “novel from life”: Tsushima herself remarked that “I write fiction, but I experience the fiction I write.” In Child of Fortune (1978), Territory of Light (1979), Woman Running in the Mountains (1980), and the story collection The Shooting Gallery (comprising short fictions published between 1973 and 1984), fathers are dead, physically and socially decommissioned, or otherwise absent. Ditto the lover-husbands, who spread their seed carelessly before abnegating familial responsibility. By contrast, her women are resourceful pragmatists forging radical lives. Teetering on the edge of disappointment or disaster, Tsushima’s heroines understand that living is a tough business, but it’s the only business they’ve got. You make do. What else is there.

The 2019 translation of Territory of Light reintroduced Tsushima to American audiences, and like that novel, Woman Running in the Mountains—translated by the late Geraldine Harcourt—tracks a year in the life of a single mother: here, of Takiko, a twenty-one-year-old office worker who has been impregnated by a married superior. The Tokyo neighborhood where she and her family live is cramped and dingy; their single-story home is literally overshadowed by taller buildings, its interiors lightless. Although the novel eschews showing explicit encounters with the family’s neighbors, they act as a shadowy disciplinary presence, a panoptic mass of condemnation once Takiko’s pregnancy is visible. Her ailing and abusive parents pressure her to seek an abortion or give the child up, but Takiko is immovable, rebelling against a social order that systemically subordinates single mothers. So while Takiko at first believes her child will be her ticket away from home, the reality is that her savings are exhausted and her employability nearly zeroed by the legal designation of her child as “illegitimate” in the family register she is required to provide to potential employers. So, she must raise the baby in her tempestuous family home while working unhappily at a noodle shop and as a door-to-door cosmetics salesperson, before finally landing a job she thrives in, as a commercial plant caretaker for the local Misawa Gardens.

Lia Rochas-Pàris, _Steine et Felsen 7 (Stones and Rocks 7), 2020, paper collage, 29 x 21".
Lia Rochas-Pàris, _Steine et Felsen 7 (Stones and Rocks 7), 2020, paper collage, 29 x 21″.

In its attentiveness to the labor and tangible costs of child-rearing, Woman Running elides sentimental fantasies of motherhood. Tsushima instead treats maternity as an economic and social institution—that is, as a material rather than a philosophical condition. Exhaustively indexing the cost of a stay on the delivery ward, of a studio apartment, of a medical procedure, of baby formula and nurseries—or of taxis taken to and from jobs that don’t pay the bills—reflects a delicately politicized fixation on quantifiable data. The novel’s blow-by-blow account of Takiko’s accumulation of debt renders unignorable the insidiousness and unnavigability of the system for single working mothers.

Like Territory of Light, Woman Running gives its heroine an expansive fantasy life as an antidote to the tedium of the everyday. In visions that blur the line between reality and its opposite, Takiko imagines the freedom of total solitude atop an uncanny otherworld—an untread and unpeopled mountain. This dreamscape is occasionally bound up in Takiko’s mind with her mother, a dressmaker, whose childhood was spent in the deep winters of Hokkaido, intimating an intergenerational legacy of distress and desire wrenched from women within the confines of motherhood and the marriage contract. Though Takiko’s visions of the mountain offer respite in the form of an asocial elsewhere, they also “trap the girl in her solitude. . . . She lacks even the words to express her longings.” For to be beyond the bounds of the system is to be nameless, faceless, and without community—in other words, to live outside the bounds of being human. 

That Takiko envisions such severance from the self is unsurprising, as she largely navigates her life in a fugue state: her “pregnancy seemed not to be hers”; in sex, she “had lain blankly with open eyes, . . . lying there like lumber” as men “released” their desire into her. When not dreaming of the mountain, Takiko sees herself burned up in the light of the sun, she and the baby both “reduced to ashes.” (In a working woman’s novel so focused on the present, this recursive image eerily invokes Japan’s war dead.) But it is always her baby who summons Takiko back from her dissociations.  She seems to believe the body—lived in or otherwise—is inarguable, and so there is no experience of it that is shameful. In the novel, babies are drawn contiguously with poplars, hothouse plants, and the polyvocality of cicadas: living creatures that are not inculcated (as adults are) in the laws of civilization.

Tsushima meticulously builds the novel’s dualisms—urban and wild, social and solitary, mind and body—only to complicate or entirely unravel the logic of opposition that binds them. The titular mountain is itself a slippery double image: it is both the mountain of Takiko’s imagination as well as a private wooded expanse beyond the city, which is affiliated with the Misawa Gardens. Takiko hopes a visit to this “mountain” (as she thinks of it, though it is not literally one) will allow her to emotionally connect with a coworker she is attracted to, a kind, married father of a child with Down Syndrome. Takiko seems to believe this man could solve the “problem” of her own relationship to motherhood.

But Takiko learns a difficult lesson, which is that sometimes the fuck isn’t going off and a mountain is often just a mountain. The man rejects her advances; in the clarity of the morning light, her city life still awaits her. The collapse of the utopic possibility of the pastoral is soon paralleled by a devolution of Takiko’s fantasy realm as a mode of escape. As her child grows and develops independence in body, feeling, and language, the amorphousness of Takiko’s experience fades; her senses sharpen, and her own subjectivity becomes, finally, legible. The shift here is not one toward the solitude of the mountain dream; instead, the novel redraws the bond between mother and child as one of symbiosis or intersubjectivity. An unfamiliar sense of Takiko’s self-presence and desire surface for her. The dream of the icy mountain, in turn, is condensed into a more horrifying image, that of a quartz crystal that will annihilate her personhood. This jewel takes on the tenor of an uncanny, alien symbology, a “crystal of despair, . . . a cold, jagged crystal that would never mold itself to a human body.” In this new formulation, Tsushima contends that total autonomy—a divorce from the mundanity and suffering of the world—would mean to divest oneself, too, of the pleasure and joy to be found there. 

The struggles of single mothers have grown only more dire in the four decades since Woman Running was published. As Yoshiaki Nohara has compellingly written, “the twin taboos of being a divorced mother and being poor” leave a majority of single mothers in Japan barely scraping by at or below the poverty line, and legally and culturally, little has shifted to account for these disparities. The current global pandemic, as well as broader escalations in the failures of late capitalism and climate catastrophe, continue to expose fault lines in every possible apparatus of modern life. If “precarity is the condition of our time,” as anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing has suggested, then the inequities in how we experience this condition are nowhere more apparent than in the ways we imagine—and fail to imagine—futurity. 

Jamie Hood is the author of How to Be a Good Girl (Grieveland, 2020). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SSENSE, The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Vulture, the New Inquiry, and The Drift. She lives in Brooklyn.