The following is excerpted from Mieko Kawakami's new novel, All the Lovers in the Night. Kawakami is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Breasts and Eggs, and the highly-acclaimed Heaven. Kawakami's literary awards include the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Murasaki Shikibu Prize. She lives in Tokyo, Japan.
“Did you get the boxes?”
When Hijiri Ishikawa called, I’d just finished my work for the morning and was filling a pot with water to make a little spaghetti for lunch.
“Yeah, last night. But I haven’t opened them yet.”
Once I had the pot on the burner, I switched the phone from between my chin and shoulder into my left hand, went back into the other room and crouched down in front of the two cardboard boxes that had come the night before, then gave one of them a little push. It didn’t budge.
“No rush. There’s a lot in there. You’ve got tons of time before the deadline. Just don’t let it get to you this time, okay?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m used to it now.”
“You think?” Hijiri teased. “Sometimes you can be okay with something, then the next day comes and it’s a totally different story.”
“Yeah, I know, but I feel like I’ve got this under control.” I laughed. “Maybe because I haven’t opened anything yet.”
“Why do they always have to use so many sources? Can’t these people write anything on their own? I guess they’re all like that, but this one’s practically all quotes, right? The author probably wrote less than half the book.”
On the other end of the line, I heard Hijiri laughing through her nose. “I had a hard time just getting everything to the front desk. I was honestly worried they might not give me workers’ comp if I threw my back out.”
“But we got lucky,” I said. “I still can’t believe that all the books we needed were available from the same place. It’s like a dream.”
“You’re right about that,” she said. “By the way, I took the liberty of looking over the first proofs.”
I poured a warmed-up packet of meat sauce over the spaghetti and ate it. When I was done, I pulled my bangs back with a headband, took my pencil in my right hand, and set up my makeshift bookrest (a large drawing board that I bought at an art store in Shinjuku that I kept propped up at an angle on my long-neglected Greek dictionary and vocabulary book—what I had told myself would be a temporary solution until I got a proper bookrest, though four years had gone by in the meantime), sliding it up against my stomach as always to make sure it stayed put, then stared at the pages before me, working my way through the manuscript, interrogating one element of text after another.
When I got tired, I’d do some stretches, alternating between rotating my neck and my arms, then go into the kitchen and make myself a hot cup of tea, letting it cool as I took my time, sipping it slowly.
I felt like I could sit there and work at my desk as long as necessary, but knew that unless I took regular breaks here and there I would start to overlook things when I least expected, so I made sure to take a break every two hours. Once I’d relaxed for a good moment, I went back to my desk and repeated the same process, again and again.
As I worked my way through, I used the reference table that I kept to the left of the manuscript, which summarized the interpersonal relationships, timeline, and plot at a glance, checking for inconsistency with what the characters appearing in the novel were actually saying in the relentless stream of dialogue.
This novel in particular, which I had started reading two days earlier, had introduced so many people over a number of years—too many names to count. Since the story took place in a large mansion, I also had a diagram of the floorplan.
The name of the corset. Whether or not plumerias have white flowers. Is Charles Dickens really Charles Dickens?
Using my dictionaries and the internet to double-check proper nouns and historical facts, I would go over the text multiple times, just to make sure, whenever something tripped me up, even a little. Along the way, I found various kinds of spelling errors, making corrections with my pencil and flagging each one with a question mark.
There were always lines that eluded comprehension. When I found myself stumped as to whether something like this was intentional, or maybe some quirk of the author’s, I emailed Hijiri and asked her for advice. When we couldn’t solve it between the two of us, I left a note for the author in tiny script, asking for clarification.
Three years ago, at the end of April, I quit the company that I had started working for just after graduating college.
It was a little publisher that nobody had ever heard of, where they produced books that made you wonder who would ever read them. The only thing that they had going for them was their name.
The specifics of any job in publishing will vary slightly, depending on the scope and personality of the company, but on a basic level it’s all about making and selling books. One of the various jobs required to make that happen involves reading and rereading the many sentences that ultimately make up a book, searching for any typos and linguistic or factual errors—in other words, proofreading. That was what I did for this small company. I was a proofreader, spending every moment of my day, from morning to night, hunting for mistakes.
Though I had quit only after thinking things over from all possible angles, I’m still not sure why I felt like I had to leave. I feel sort of stupid saying I was tired of dealing with people, but when it comes right down to it, I guess there’s no other way to put it.
From a young age, I couldn’t bring myself to contribute to conversations like a normal person, much less socialize or go out with anyone, and I was never able to acclimate to the unique atmosphere of that little office. At first, my coworkers invited me out for dinner or drinks, but I always declined, offering a string of vague excuses, and at some point they stopped asking. Before I knew it, I had been left entirely alone. No one ever spoke to me unless they needed something, and when candy or cookies showed up during the workday, the box always went right past me and moved along to the next desk. It would have been one thing if the others had literally left me alone, but their indifference, over time, showed hints of bitterness, apparent in their silence and their looks, to the point where going to work was difficult to bear.
Once I was spending all of my time alone, not talking to anyone, I started to hear people whispering about me at odd moments in the day. A few of my coworkers even used a secret language that they thought I didn’t understand to talk about me right in front of me, making jokes at my expense. Once this had become normal, they started asking me all kinds of nosy questions that had nothing to do with work. Aren’t you going to get married? Why not? What do you do on your days off? I said that I stayed home. They laughed, practically snorting. What’ll you do with all the money that you’re saving? This kept going, one question on top of another. If I was silent, unsure of what I was supposed to say, the girls seated nearby would prick their ears up, careful not to look away from their computer screens and trying to keep their lips sealed as they laughed without making a sound.
Most of the questions came from a woman in her fifties, like she was the leader of the group. She was the sort of person whose manner of speaking conveyed an immense pride in having built a family alongside her career, raising two wonderful children. I had been seated next to her since my first day at the company (and, if I hadn’t quit, I’m sure this never would have changed until the day that she retired). None too shy about speaking her mind, she waited for those moments when it was just the two of us. Apparently offended by what she saw in me as the self-absorption of a single woman who did nothing with her life but work, she reminded me, at length, sighing periodically, of how much effort it required her to keep her life afloat, and how easy things were for people like me. And when the other girls were around, she never said anything of the sort, but picked on me instead, to win their favor.
The more I worked in silence, and the longer I stayed at the company, the worse it felt to be there. One day, I overheard two of the new girls, who were almost ten years younger than I was, saying I was only playing nice because I had nowhere else to go, that I must be allergic to fun—as if I was to blame for never turning down a job or ever being late for a deadline. This made me so confused. What kind of fun was I supposed to be having? If somebody asked me to do a job, and I didn’t want to do it, what was the right way to turn them down? If I thought about things long enough, I would always lose track of my own feelings, which left me with no choice but to proceed as usual, without taking any action. Maybe the girls were right about me having no place else to go, about there being nothing fun about my life.
That was when I got a call from Kyoko.
“The person they’ve been using ended up quitting, and they’re looking for someone who can step in right away.”
I hadn’t seen Kyoko in years, and this was definitely the first time she had ever called me, so initially I had no idea what was going on. However, since she insisted that there was something urgent that she wanted to discuss, I agreed to meet up with her to talk that weekend.
Kyoko was an editor who had worked for ages at the company, but she had quit a few years after I started, in order to go into business for herself. She described her work as editorial production.
“I started picking up a lot of work on the side, and now I have a team of people working for me. We do photography, editing, design work, writing projects. I don’t even know what kind of business I’m running anymore.”
She opened her mouth wide and laughed. It was a sort of conspicuous laugh that I remembered well. Then there was the funny way she said my last name—Irie—that made me feel a bit nostalgic.
Kyoko had gained so much weight that, for a moment, I failed to recognize her when she walked into the cafe, but the supple skin of her perfectly made-up face gave me the feeling that she looked much younger than the last time we had met. When I started at the company, I was twenty-two, and I’m pretty sure that she was thirty-two, which would make her just over forty. Not that she didn’t have her fair share of wrinkles, normal for her age, but all the same, she had a certain liveliness about her.
Rolling up the sleeves of the thin black sweater she wore over a soft-looking white blouse, Kyoko looked right at me and said that it was turning out to be a hot one. Unable to respond while looking her in the eye, I let my gaze fall to where her chin met the skin of her neck, nodding at intervals as I listened to what she had to say.
“I don’t know what things are like over there now, but do you have any room for some work on the side?”
A major publisher that Kyoko had been working with was looking for someone who could proofread on a freelance basis, which made her think of me, she said. As it so happened, we had only had lunch together once, with a few other people from the company, but had never shared anything close to a conversation, just the two of us. We may have worked in the same office, but I barely ever spoke with anybody there, just quietly went about doing my job, and certainly had no connection with her. So I was less happy than mystified, maybe even a little uneasy, to hear that her thoughts had turned to me after all these years.
“I could run it through my company, but I’m a little hesitant to make my team any bigger. Anyway, they’re looking for somebody who has experience.”
As she spoke, Kyoko played with a thick silver ring on her index finger. Skin bulged above the ring’s circumference. Looking at her hand, I took a sip of my black tea, then closed my lips and nodded a few times. The tea was lukewarm, with a bitter, powdery taste.
“I know you’ve got plenty on your plate at the office, and I don’t mean to push, but this is a major publisher. You wouldn’t have to worry about the work being erratic. Plus, they’re really flexible. Think of it as a part-time job. If you could carve out just a little time . . .”
I replayed the last words Kyoko said inside my head. Carve out just a little time. After I had started at the company and grown accustomed to my work, I stopped watching TV, unable to endure the frustration of not being able to correct the errors I found in the text appearing on the bottom of the screen. I didn’t usually read books or listen to music. I had no friends to go out to eat with or to chat with for hours over the phone. Other than in extreme circumstances, I never brought work home, and was able to take care of all of my responsibilities, research included, during working hours. At the latest, I was always home by eight, in time to fix myself a simple dinner, after which I had nothing else to do.
How did I pass the stretch of several hours that came night after night before I went to sleep? And how did I fill the vast expanse of time before starting my workday?
My memory was blank. All I could remember were the countless characters of text, printed in straight lines on white paper.
“That sounds nice to me,” I said, after a pause.
When Kyoko heard me, she opened her eyes wide. Every inch of her face was smiling.
I nodded and looked down at the floral pattern on my empty teacup.
“I’m so glad it’ll work out,” she said. “If anything comes up, don’t hesitate to let me know, no matter when or what it is.”
Grabbing a notebook from her bright orange leather bag, she asked me for my address and my email, which she wrote down swiftly with a thin silver pen.
“You should hear from them pretty soon. Thanks so much! It’s a big help. I owe you one. I’ll be in touch soon, okay?”
Kyoko drank the rest of her coffee and suggested we get going, so we got up and left the cafe. I tried paying for my share, but Kyoko said stop and smiled in a way that made her look a little worried. I apologized and bowed, returning my wallet to the tote bag slung over my shoulder. Ahead of me by then, she turned to say that she was glad that I was doing well and matched my pace for a few steps, then hailed a cab. Before she closed the door, she wished me luck and told me to give her a call if anything came up.
Excerpted from All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Published with permission of Europa Editions. Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved.