by Kenzaburo Oë [translated from the Japanese by John Nathan]
A Personal Matter is 1994 Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oë's feverish exploration of a first-time father's struggle with ethics and personal responsibility when confronted with the birth of a hideously deformed baby diagnosed as unlikely to grow up "normal." Great premise for a novel. Laughably bad execution. While some of the blame for the letdown probably lies in John Nathan's memorably erratic translation (no offense, but it was kind of hard not to laugh like a high school kid each time Nathan described how erected [sic] lead character Bird was when he should have just said that the character had an erection, was aroused, etc.!), Oë's definitely to blame for the lion's share of the problems here. To be more precise, the quality of his writing didn't measure up to the quality of his themes for me. A couple of telling examples. Early on in the novel, Bird meets his newborn baby and looks away in shock and disgust at the sight of the two-headed "monster" apparently born with a brain hernia. "My son has bandages on his head and so did Apollinaire when he was wounded on the field of battle," Oë writes (24). A remarkable image, truly powerful here, that would then lose its appeal for me after the fourth or fifth time that the novelist referred to it in quick succession. Aside from such unnecessary repetition, A Personal Matter is also full of over the top bad writing masquerading as clever wordplay. Bird "found himself caught in the claws of a formidable lobster of fatigue," we read at one point. Poetic? On its own, maybe. But Oë follows this up in the very next paragraph with Bird's out and out loopy confession to his adulterous girlfriend: "I guess I'm scared. I have this feeling a disgusting goblin of misfortune is waiting for me just outside" (109). In the face of such frequent and grandiloquent howlers, I lost interest in whatever grand thematic statement Oë was trying to make and the dimestore psychology of throwaway lines like "Bird's moral mechanism had been broken since he had abandoned his baby in the hospital" (116). "Moral mechanism"? Really? Even making allowances for the state of desperation that the writer might have been trying to evoke with his envelope-pushing prose and subject matter, I didn't connect at all with his tone, the monochromatic characters, or the conveniently pat ending in the last two pages of the novel that resolves everything with a nice little moralizing bow. In other words, maybe not as full-on dopey as Tender Morsels but a huge disappointment nonetheless.