DIARY OF A VOID, by Emi Yagi, translated by David Boyd and Lucy North
Blame it on social media, on synoptic attention spans, whatever: The speculative conceit reigns in today’s publishing industry, where few novels deliver on their promise of revealing social commentary. But a particularly good one can still entice even the most cynical of readers. In Japanese author Emi Yagi’s award-winning debut, “Diary of a Void,” a single woman in her mid-30s, frustrated by her baffling job at a company that makes cardboard cores for paper products, spontaneously pretends to be pregnant in order to conceive. become. from menial tasks like making coffee and cleaning up after meetings — the stench of unappreciated labor exacerbates her morning sickness. Over the course of the novel, she carries out the lie.
“So this is pregnancy,” the narrator, known only by her last name, Shibata, thinks as the unexpected benefits of pregnancy pile up. “Such a luxury. What a loneliness.”
American readers, who live in one of the six countries in the world that do not guarantee any form of paid parental leave, will find the idea that pregnancy can be a “luxury” less well-known than a reader in Japan whose Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare publishes a pamphlet, a “diary”, in which expectant mothers can track their pregnancy and delivery.
Once Shibata is ‘fertilized’, she is allowed to leave work every day at 5pm and take a year’s maternity leave without question (although the lack of overtime does cut her budget). Encouraged by one of the many invasive male co-workers to “do her best to take care of herself,” she uses her newfound spare time to go to the grocery store before all produce is picked, cook elaborate, healthy meals herself, and participate in the classes “Mama Aerobics”. (Her new lifestyle has led to her gaining weight, and of course she’s conflicted: plumpness, plus strategic shirt padding, helps her keep the ruse.)
But a woman’s loneliness transcends national politics. It’s not just the lie that isolates Shibata from those around her—few friends or relatives in this short novel—but also the experience of even being hypothetically pregnant. Her male co-workers treat her with “reverence”, and they’re super obnoxious too. “You’re finally getting in the mood,” her desk neighbor remarks when he sees the subway-appropriate pregnancy badge on Shibata’s bag one morning. The most curious and “helpful” of her co-workers, he has a sense that she’s carrying a boy, a prediction she fulfills later in the book.
If she was occasionally heavy-handed — an encounter with a stained glass window depicting the Virgin Mary could have been more elusive — Yagi has a light touch to the endless ironies that made her premise possible. There’s humor (“since I got pregnant” becomes a lovely chorus), but also the realization that the alienation of pregnancy and motherhood is not a respite from the oppressive office culture that inspires Shibata’s experiment.
While the external pressures on Shibata’s body could connect her to truly pregnant people, her efforts to bond with them go nowhere, and not just because she can’t relate to what they’re going through physically. When an aerobics acquaintance expresses her fear about her unhelpful husband, Shibata replies that she doesn’t understand. “I’m always so alone,” says the narrator. “It’s been like that from the moment we come into this world, but I’m still not used to it – how lonely we all are.”
As the lie begins to get surreal, palpable gut kicks and a seemingly legitimate echo make the reader think for a moment that our narrator may have been deceiving us, or himself, all along. Fortunately, the conclusion of the novel is less correct: in the end nothing remains but the void, “just big enough for one person.”
Lauren Oyler is the author of ‘Fake Accounts’.
DIARY OF A VOID, by Emi Yagi, translated by David Boyd and Lucy North | 213 pp. | Viking | $23