Mild Vertigo cover

The Trap of Domesticity: Mieko Kanai’s Mild Vertigo

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If you’ve ever felt vertigo, its associative sensations of spinning, of being off-kilter, will be familiar. But while it is a common type of physical dizziness, vertigo is also associated with a kind of metaphorical disorientation. Mild Vertigo (New Directions), a novel by the Japanese writer Mieko Kanai, produces a similar experience. First published in Japan in 1997, its debut translation into English by Polly Barton delivers Kanai’s prose in a voice-driven, highly reflective narrative of Natsumi, a housewife and mother living in modern Tokyo.

The book’s mild vertigo arises from the continuous cycle of the mundane routine that Natsume follows day after day, a whirl of eventless domesticity. She’s married with two sons, and meeting their needs is her full-time job. Natsumi rarely leaves her home, but change in routine occasionally occurs—though these new spaces mostly consist of grocery or clothing stores or the occasional outing with old friends.

What she mostly notices are the ordinary objects around her. She observes, for instance, that there’s “nothing remarkable about tap water,” yet remains fixated on the tap, “staring at it, and falling, again for some unknown reason, into a kind of trance.” Or while she shops for a new blouse, pivots in thought and conversation are seen. “She was very fond of it,” Kanai writes.

“It was elegant and refined and would be perfect for a British-style afternoon tea, although how on earth Natsume might run into a British-style ‘afternoon tea’ was beyond her, and the slim, stylish shop assistant had said, with the right bottom and accessories, you could wear it to a wedding reception or a concert, which had made Natsume want to reply, and who do you think I would go to a concert with? but instead she had nodded, and like a well-to-do wife enjoying her shopping trip, had said, yes, yes, I can see that.”

It’s through these trances that Kanai moves Natsume’s narrative, deemphasizing a traditional plotted arch to pull intrigue from a bland existence. Natsume is aware of her inertia and, in conversations with her mother, begins to consider her life as “boring, mediocre, and eventless, a feeling that existed separately from any feeling of dissatisfaction.” This realization is born out of her mother’s suggestion that women who espouse comfort with similar lifestyles “keep telling themselves this to believe it.” She relates this resignation to “sour grapes,” a taste difficult to swallow, which makes Natsume begin to comprehend fellow housewives and understand why she’s committed herself to being one as well.

One of the book’s bigger questions is whether Natsume will break from this cycle and seek work outside of the house. She toys with the idea of getting a job, though it’s unclear whether she feels an organic desire or pressure for not doing enough. But while she attempts to discern the true reason for wanting to pursue something, she wonders if this was “in fact what she really wanted to do or whether she’d despaired of this life in which it seemed as though everybody was supposed to have something they really wanted to do.” When she considers the idea with her mother, who suggests that work outside the home will be difficult, Natsume agrees but reasons that “everybody’s doing it, working in some way or another.” At this point in her life, she believes she won’t find anything “remotely impressive or cool,” and whether or not this is why she doesn’t move forward in her search for work, it does highlight the pressure she feels to do more.

The other side of this question is what she would be leaving behind by pursuing some activity other than her current roles of housewife and mother. Subliminal messaging seems to surround her that these roles—at least in Japanese society—are unable to satisfy all of one’s desires in life, but also that any time not spent dedicated to one’s family is frowned upon. It’s this impossible catch-22 that Natsumi must navigate to stave off her growing ennui and sate instead a sense of purpose.

This tension is further played out in Natsumi’s interactions with her family. In the conversations between Natsumi and her husband, for example, Natsumi tries to connect with him by describing what she’s been thinking all day and alone in long monologues and quick back-and-forth dialogue. At times he challenges her viewpoints or fails to understand—or try to understand—where her perspectives come from. It’s the stray cats and birds outside her apartment complex that she tends to find common ground with. But she’s careful not to be seen as a “cat lady,” what the neighborhood kids say to mock unmarried women. Inciting another metaphor, Natsumi recalls an article, written by a dutiful daughter whose father demands small tasks and praises her as a nekomashi, “better at least than a cat.” In considering birdcalls, Natsumi also imagines how birds screech from their cages like a parakeet owned in her childhood, how “from time to time she’d noticed that the same bird was crying out in the same way as it always did.” And it’s those screeches for freedom that Natsumi’s meditations on the mundane begin to emulate.

When Natsume has a day for herself—after her sons leave for summer holiday and her husband leaves for a business trip—we see how deep her habitual patterns as a housewife go. During this time, Natsume lets her hair down and removes herself from all normal tasks, such as shopping, cleaning, and cooking, but after waking up from a midday nap, “she panicked for a moment, but then quickly remembered that today she had the day to herself.” She finds some relief in being unneeded for one day, but still gets caught in old tasks, such as changing and washing bedsheets even though “today wasn’t sheet-changing day.”

To end the novel, Kanai circles back to the dizzying experience of vertigo. She’s repeating one of her routine activities, making a grocery list, and considering what meals to cook when she experiences the sensation of vertigo and accompanying nausea. She reflects on the “flat, monotonous life of the housewife—with all its set routines and its absence of spirit” and believes it “did deprive her of any kind of emotional space.” In the end, she doesn’t seek out other activities or work. If we are riding this metaphorical train with her, we leave Natsumi to continue along the unvarying landscape of her livelihood knowing that she’s chosen to continue it indefinitely.

It’s a clever device for Kanai to begin and end in a similar place after offering such a unique depiction of Natsumi’s life. But it’s the observations of subtle minutiae that make Mild Vertigo an effortlessly intriguing read. Between a stream-of-consciousness-inspired prose, image patterns, and consistent pivots of thought, Kanai establishes the most surprising thing about this novel: its ability to make the vertiginous hypnotic.




Gracie Jordan is a writer and editor with work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter at @Graciejordann. More from this author →