The Book of Kane and Margaret is a surreal delight of inventive artistry

When I was in graduate school, many years ago, I wrote my thesis on mosaic novels. Things like The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, or Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. My proposed definition of a mosaic was not quite the traditional “fix-up” novel of golden age SF. Rather, the idea that of the four fundamental elements of a work of fiction – plot, setting, character, and theme – one or more of these elements will by broken up over the course of the text. If this book were available at the time of my thesis, no doubt I would include it in a prominent place. The book takes place in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona during the years of the war. Each little vignette contains a Kane and a Margaret. Beyond this, the pieces of this narrative spill off in wildly inventive directions, re-inventing the story of Kane and Margaret over and over. They merge with insects and dreams. They fall in love, and kill each other. Or, she is an aging healer that cures smelly feet, and he is a boy who sprouts raven wings overnight. They pursue the sublime and touch it or not. They have a long life together, after the camp, or only one of them survives. All these possibilities tumble forward in a beautiful, dream-like prose. Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi has a clean and precise style of writing that serves him well when discussing insects coming to life in the form of a person, or the impossible insects that cure and heal or curse. The matter-of-fact style presents this impossible world with conviction and occasional bursts of beauty.

It’s difficult to talk about a book so burst open at its seams. There are so many different versions of Kane Araki and Margaret Morri that it after finishing the text their stories actually blur together in memory. It’s disorienting in a very pleasant manner, and works to present a vision of the experience of these awful internment camps. The setting is certainly a character of the story, as each pairing of Kane and Margaret pushes up against the surreal horror of quotidian life inside their unjust imprisonment. I don’t recall any murders in the desert where racist guards go out of their way to kill anyone, specifically. Mostly, the guards don’t want to be there, either. The Arizona desert before the age of air conditioning and in-ground pools is no paradise for anyone. By smashing open the quantum possibilities with a dreamlike blur, the author is able to convey a feeling of longing, a feeling of life stolen away, of people waiting and waiting for their pointless suffering to be over. The community longs for simple comforts: whiskey, animals as companions, love for each other, music, joy. The most powerful visions of Kane and Margaret, like the flying contraption that crashes in the desert, paint a portrait of longing for the sublime, for joy and freedom and wonder, that ultimately crashes. It is the vision of those people who are borrowed away from their lives, and lose so many years tucked into a corner of the country where no one wants them, and no one knows what to do about them. Obviously, no one should have done anything to them, at all.

I’m sitting in the dark, waiting for my son to wake up. My aunt, a nurse, just got the first dose of a vaccine, thank god. We’re all just waiting for the story to turn over, the page to turn, and the next thing will come that will be better. The next year will come, and things will be better in the next one. It’s a book that captures this feeling, and this moment, and it will do for a final book review of the year.

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