In The Hole: Hiroko Oyamada Goes to Ground

While reading The Hole, the second novel by Japanese author Hiroko Oyamada to appear in English, I recalled the saying, “出る釘は打たれる”—the nail that sticks out must be hammered down. It’s an indictment of Japanese society’s pressure to conform, though this ubiquitous maxim does its own amount of hammering. In reality, Japan is less homogenous than it suggests, with rebellious grandmothers dyeing their hair purple while the nation’s artists, designers, directors, and dancers push the boundaries of the global avant-garde. Perhaps alert to the irony, Oyamada chooses to literalize this saying as her characters sink into human-sized cavities in the ground.

The start of The Hole led me to expect themes and events similar to those found in Oyamada’s novel The Factory—translated, like this book, by David Boyd—which emphasized the surreality of employment and identity in a society where one’s job dictates status. Asa, the first-person narrator, prepares to relocate for her husband’s new job, which is close to his family’s home. His parents offer to let them live rent-free in a second house behind theirs that Asa can’t remember ever seeing. This lapse calls her reliability into question, but it might be due to stress. As a temporary worker—a thankless position with low pay, often occupied by women—she’s pushed to exhaustion for little compensation, and she’s hardly upset at having to quit her company to follow her spouse. But it soon becomes clear that the locus of the uncanny in this book is the family, not the workplace as in The Factory.

The story chronicles Asa’s displacement from a couple’s isolated life in the city to an extended family compound in the countryside, with all its impenetrable relationships and ceremonies. The shift beckons the fantastical. When husband and wife arrive at the former’s childhood home, on the wettest day of the rainy season, “it was so dark out that it could have been the middle of the night.” Asa barely sees her father-in-law and has no idea what kind of work her mother-in-law, Tomiko, does. There seems to be slippage between the two women. Tomiko looks much younger, as if she’s Asa’s sister. The final sentence of the novel reckons with their fungible identities as Asa tries on a convenience store worker’s attire for her new job: “When I got home and put on my uniform in front of the mirror, I couldn’t help but see Tomiko staring back at me.”

Of course, people frequently swap identities based on associations and emotions in dreams. What’s happening here seems to have a different cause—Asa’s new social position, a mixture of isolation and scrutiny. Hers is a circumstantial physical distancing, triggered by the fact that she has no car in a rural town, where bus service is limited and the summer humidity discourages travel by foot. Anyone who’s passed late July and August on Japan’s main island knows that the post-rainy-season heat effects a peculiar synesthesia; a person sweats visions amidst the cicadas’ vexed music. In The Hole, the cicadas act like an unfathomable Greek chorus, constantly speaking but expressing nothing. In this, they parallel the children who swarm the nearby riverbank and convenience store, popping up from nowhere and with nowhere to go.

At the same time, everyone in the neighborhood seems to know who Asa is. Despite feeling alienated, she’s being watched. Eerily, several characters refer to her as “the bride” even though she’s not a newlywed. The word evokes submission and innocence, and possibly a fairy-tale rite of initiation that she’s undertaking without her knowledge. It’s also reminiscent of how people are often named by their relationships in Japanese. One word specifies a woman as an “older sister” or “younger sister,” while another designates a protégé, whose mentor must be understood in context. People calling Asa “the bride” hints that, willingly or not, she is being embroidered into the fabric of her family and her neighborhood.

Its threads begin to warp when Asa meets an unsettling figure who claims to be her brother-in-law. In this novel, family trees shade strange blossoms. He seems to live just behind the house, but neither her husband nor anyone else has ever spoken of him. He calls himself a hikikomori—one of the shut-ins who refuse to leave their home for school or work. Along with the alleged brother-in-law, Asa encounters her husband’s grandfather and an unclassifiable animal, both of whom are closely connected to the pits by the riverbank.

Gradually, Asa is shown to be a shut-in of a different kind, the housewife-as-hikikomori. She only strays from home to run tedious errands for family members or tumble down rabbit holes. There’s literally no middle ground here between the mundane and the bizarre. None of the people around Asa seems surprised to find her in either spot. As a neighbor comments, “From where I was standing, all I could see was your head poking out of the ground. Right away, I thought, that has to be the bride.”

The back-cover copy references David Lynch, and for once, the comparison feels appropriate. Like Lynch, Oyamada isn’t interested in coy dream symbols; she wants the reader to feel as if they are dreaming themselves. In Lynch’s and Oyamada’s works, the point isn’t to decode the severed ear or weird animal like an eager Freudian but to let the mood wash over you. Yet we also get the sense that Asa is finally waking up to an unsettling truth, only decipherable through the senses.

Oyamada, who has won some of Japan’s top literary honors, acknowledges Kafka’s influence. But The Hole also dialogues with a long-standing tradition of pits and wells in Japanese literature and film. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle features several subterranean hollows, Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes strands the reader in an existential crater that could be interpreted as hell or salvation, and the secret behind the curse in Koji Suzuki’s Ring, the novel that inspired the Japanese and Hollywood film franchises, lies at one’s bottom.

Yet Oyamada’s holes don’t feel that malevolent. When I studied butoh dance in Japan, a teacher pointed out that Japanese people don’t fear being close to the ground: “Western dancers leap. We crouch down.” Decades of sitting on the floor fundamentally changes bodies, accustoming them to closeness with the earth. In this story, the holes are less a foreshadowing of graves than a union of person and environment. The combination of loneliness and forced community transforms a person like Asa, making her one with the land around her—part of some unknowable depth—if estranged from her closest family. Indeed, Asa derives more companionship from the deaf, senile grandfather and other shadowy outcasts than from her husband, whom Asa compares to “a porcelain doll.”

Readers expecting full-blown phantasmagoria in the climax may be disappointed. But the maddening isolation and the way time drips in The Hole will be familiar to all of us in the era of COVID-19 quarantines. Maybe, as this novel proposes, we just need to let ourselves fall down, down, down.