WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS IN THE LIBRARY, by Michiko Aoyama. Translated by Alison Watts.
Here is a novel about the bone-deep thrill of things working out.
“What You Are Looking For Is in the Library” is the first of Michiko Aoyama’s many novels, originally written in Japanese, to be published in the United States. Its five narrators, men and women, range from the newly adult to the newly retired. The links between their lives are thin but strong, and the web that emerges between them, in Aoyama’s imagined Hatori ward of Tokyo, vibrates with the coincidence and interdependence of urban life.
The novel’s translator, Alison Watts, faithfully shepherds into English a cast of characters who are wonderfully wide open: smart and searching, but not trying to impress. The prose is diaristic and hyper-casual — the tone of much contemporary Japanese fiction.
“It was a shock,” 65-year-old Masao reports, “when New Year came after I retired, and I received none of the usual cards or end-of-year gifts. I was shaken to realize that all my relationships had been business ones, and that I had no real friends after all, not even somebody to drink tea with.”
Each character takes a turn with Mrs. Komachi, the gnomic librarian of the Hatori Community House, whose book recommendations push their lives in unexpected directions. Although she takes the stage as a hulking Studio Ghibli character — “Kyaah!” 30-year-old Hiroya exclaims, “The sight of a humongous, fearsome woman squished behind the counter nearly causes my heart to stop” — her precise development across the book’s five sections is a triumph of novelistic information management.
Reading “What You Are Looking For Is in the Library,” I felt preemptively protective, because it is the kind of story often dismissed as “cute” or “light.” Those labels don’t capture the muscularity of what’s happening here, nor do they capture the risk: Of course, kindness can be cloying. Good luck can be eye-rolling.
J.R.R. Tolkien invented a term, eucatastrophe, for “the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn.’” It takes real novelistic skill to set up such a turn — one that thrills and magnetizes to exactly the same degree as a gnarly twist or a shocking rug-pull.
Likewise, in a 2015 column for this newspaper, the writer Alice Gregory argued that “a truly radical 21st-century novelist” would “ask us to see the arduous and often acrobatic effort that goes into living a life of common decency.” Furthermore, “they would coerce us into believing that virtue is interesting and fun to think about and far more dazzling to encounter than malevolence.”
Over and over, Aoyama demonstrates how it’s done. In her Hatori ward, good fortune is not arbitrary or unearned; it is never a gauzy gift from the universe. It arises instead from action, experience and wisdom. Her characters appreciate each other; they are grateful to each other; they recognize in each other quality and potential. (Put these folks in a laboratory dish with the dramatis personae of a cynical HBO show and they’d annihilate each other, matter and antimatter.)
There’s more to Aoyama’s novel than kindness. There is a subtle, provocative thread about misremembering; a pageant of interesting jobs; and a suite of mature, cooperative relationships.
There is also the spectacle, for an American reader, of a society in which the worst that can happen to you … simply isn’t that bad. This novel’s entire plot depends on accessible civic infrastructure! The challenges of life in Hatori ward aren’t existential — a fact that is quietly but powerfully political.
And there is, of course, the library.
You’ve got to be careful with novels about libraries and bookstores. Even more with novels that include “library” or “bookstore” in the title. Most of all with novels that additionally feature a cat on the cover.
The risk, in all these cases, is flattery. It feels nice to be assured that the places you find appealing are, in fact, wonderful. It’s also boring. The standard for such novels, therefore, is that they reveal something interesting and true about these environments.
Aoyama passes the test. Her library is not an enchanted domain fragranced with the smell of books (which, I will remind you, is mostly the smell of glue). It is a small space in a neighborhood community center, down the hall from the room where adult students learn how to use Microsoft Excel.
“Rows and rows of bookshelves fill an area about the size of a classroom,” unromantic and unremarkable — except for the transformations it catalyzes in these characters’ lives, which amount, in all five cases, to a grand reconsideration of their options.
I’ve revealed that everything works out in “What You Are Looking For Is in the Library.” That’s no spoiler. It’s plain from the first page, from the tenderness with which writer and translator treat their characters. Yet the novel is an undeniable page-turner, its mechanism energized by a simple question, posed again and again by the uncanny librarian, Mrs. Komachi.
The question brings Michiko Aoyama’s characters often to the brink of tears; and not only her characters, but this reader, too. It is the great question of the library, and of the bookstore, and maybe of life:
What are you looking for?
Robin Sloan is the author of “Sourdough” and “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.” His next novel is forthcoming in 2024.
WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS IN THE LIBRARY | By Michiko Aoyama. Translated by Alison Watts. | 304 pp. | Hanover Square Press | $21.99