An Analysis of the Narrative Voice in Yoko Ogawa’s THE DIVING POOL
By Geoffrey Miller •
A different woman character narrates each of the trio of novellas in Yoko Ogawa’s collection The Diving Pool. In the opening, titular piece there’s Aya, a school-aged girl living at a countryside orphanage run by her parents. Next, in in the urban setting of Pregnancy Diary, the narrator is an unmarried, part-time worker living with her sister. And finally, a middle-aged, married woman living in the suburbs serves as our guide in Dormitory. Beyond identifying as female, there is no overt connection between the three narrators save their sense of detachment from themselves. But for Ogawa, that’s more than enough slack for her to manipulate our preconceptions through the lens of her imperfectly graded narrators and turn us all into first-person POV monsters.
Can you see what I see?
Ogawa’s technical genius in The Diving Pool stems from her use of an unreliable first-person narrative voice. Thusly scaffolded, the POV forces a reader to walk through each narrator’s world as she does, slightly naïve to the thoughts of others. While the reader navigates the chronological and geographical spans of the stories, the effects of detachment and the myriad ways an individual can experience abandonment are rolled out for them in lockstep with each woman. But, as with everything, the rub comes in the how.
I’m here, I just don’t know who that is
The voyeuristic sensation permeating Ogawa’s stories doesn’t source from a lack of narratorial engagement but rather is a manifestation of each narrator’s spectatorial interpretation of themselves. The floating sensation this detachment creates percolates through each story’s arc and serves to lull the reader into a state of mutual compliance. With her foot in this door, Ogawa’s montage of seemingly innocuous doses of detachment hypnotically mesh until finally climaxing with a frightening gestalten totality into acts of child torture, intentional birth defects, and serial murder.
This quality of subtle show-don’t-tell bread-crumbing works well with the first-person narrative voice, as the reader is never thrown out of the ‘role’ each story asks them to assume by one outlandish action. For example, in Pregnancy Diary our narrator is a young woman who works part-time selling grocery samples while living with her sister and her sister’s fiancé in a typical urban environment. When we learn ‘our’ sister’s pregnancy is what’s behind her emotional vicissitudes and irrational eating requirements, we as a reader are relieved that our narrator is ashamed of her earlier selfishness. And then when the narrator, the younger of the two sisters, accommodates her sister’s needs and eventually starts eating her own meals outside to keep away the smell of food, we feel that relief. These actions don’t make her perfect but rather relatable, the reader feels the thoughtfulness behind the actions and buys into their role in the story. And then Ogawa goes to work, as these concessions are soundtracked with a comment about how the narrator can’t imagine her sister’s fiancé as ‘a husband’ and sees the baby as little more than a chromosome. You want to pull away, even just a little, but you rationalize and tell yourself it’s just jealousy and turn the page to find out what you do next.
I did what now?
Then one day while making grapefruit jam, the narrator remembers reading a pamphlet about how grapefruits can destroy human chromosomes. Curious, yes, but still plausible or, that is, until the sister and her fiancé come home to the aroma of freshly cooked jam and an unheard comment from our narrator, “I wonder whether PWH would really destroy chromosomes.”
And there is Ogawa’s brilliance: she’s turned her narrator, and by proxy her reader, into a monster, who together head for the hospital to congratulate her sister with the words, “I set off toward the nursery to meet my sister’s ruined child.”
Time and movement—brings it all together
In Dormitory our narrator is a middle-aged, suburban housewife who is starting to feel depressed while waiting to join her husband in Sweden. Thoughts of her single life marquee her nostalgia until a memory about her college dormitory is joined by a right-now buzzing in her head. Coincidentally, a nearly unknown nephew distracts her from the coupling with his request for a recommendation to board at the same dormitory. Her subsequent call to the dormitory produces an invitation from the manager, who, it turns out, has been feeling similarly sentimental and agrees to help relocate her nephew. The sense of grounded motion created via these apparently trivial past-present connections translates into a very relatable role for the reader and once again Ogawa has successfully lulled her reader into her first-person POV.
However, like before, the macabre begins working its way into the narrator’s reality: the dormitory manager has neither legs nor arms, is a suspect in the disappearance of a student resident, and is fascinated by the functioning of other people’s limbs. Yet, by spacing out the delivery of these facts over a series of meetings with the dormitory manager, when the nephew is suspiciously never there, Ogawa renders the reader, just like the narrator, sufficiently distracted by the newfound sense of revitalization and usefulness growing within her.
Ogawa’s mastery of the first-person POV clicks when her narrator admits to feeling concerned by the manager’s sudden familiarity with her nephew’s joints and muscles. But even this doesn’t force the reader out, indeed the awareness only humanizes the narrator; well, at least until she finds the manager dead with blood dripping through the ceiling of his room. The direct voyeuristic structure of Pregnancy Diary hasn’t been repeated here, but when the narrator’s initial buzzing memory is annotated by the discovery of an enormous man-sized beehive concealed in the ceiling of the manager’s room, a reader can’t help but wonder what they’ve done.
Because of this place—I feel what I feel
Ogawa writes, “It is always warm here: I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.” An interesting way to express heat, of course, but in The Diving Pool it’s also the school-aged narrator referencing her reaction to the environment in order to understand her emotional state and, through it, her connection to reality. The dynamics of a teenage girl trying to understand herself emotionally is an easy buy-in for a reader and with it, Ogawa’s first-person POV is once again locked and loaded.
Even when this story’s voyeuristic element is revealed, the narrator spying on her crush during diving practice while hiding under the school bleachers, it’s admissibly awkward because of her disposition towards connecting the environment with her emotional state; the reader can easily see this as her causing her own effect. After all, it’s what she did at the pool when it was the humidity that made her feel hot and not the presence of her one-sided love for her diving friend. Or, on the way home from school, when it was the thinning crowd around her as she walked away from the train station that explained her loneliness rather than her feelings of abandonment and lack of attention from her parents. However, this environmental referencing also distances her from any sense of emotional responsibility, but because of Ogawa’s thousand-cuts presentation, the reader takes each one in stride and keeps walking with the narrator.
Yet, when the narrator puts one of the infant orphans into a large barrel only so that she can listen to her screams, the reader can’t not wonder about her claims of emotional ignorance. Nevertheless, even this act of revenge on an orphan for stealing her home and her parents is done via the environment. The child is placed in a covered barrel, a physical representation of the narrator’s isolation. “And I had tried my best to love every one of them because I was the orphan no family wanted to adopt,” she says, as ‘we’ watch the infant scream in terror from inside the barrel.
How’d you make me do that?
Again, Ogawa has managed to get the reader to play a monster by scaling each of her narrators’ idiosyncrasies and using our stereotypes regarding their situations against us: sisterly accommodation with the part-time worker, loneliness with the housewife, and emotional confusion with the teenager. And, each time, the naturalness of Ogawa’s narrative keeps the reader inside the narrator as the understandable feelings of abandonment begin to manifest. These feelings, like the narrators themselves, are relatable. We know these things, which is why we want to know these narrators and it’s this wanting, this need for connection, that allows these narrators to carry us along until, just like the chair on the bottom of the pool illustrating the collection’s cover, we ended up somewhere we know we shouldn’t be.
By early morning GEOFFREY MILLER is a writer of flash and science fiction, some of which has appeared in PANK, Juked, and The Ilanot Review. Along the way, he earned an MFA from City U in Hong Kong and a few Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations. By night he is the editor of NUNUM and a very slow jogger.