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Parallel Dreaming: Mieko Kawakami ︎ So Textual


By Rachel Schwartzmann ︎ July 2022 

As the edges of my room drifted away, a presence made itself known—I felt it before I saw it: jaws sinking into my lower back, a gentle purr escaping through crevices between jagged teeth and flesh. Its weight bore down on my body, and I couldn't bring myself to turn around. A dull pain emerged. Fear registered in every bone and muscle. I managed to catch a glimpse of its limber physique out of the corner of my eye. The lioness would not release its grip no matter how much I struggled to break free. The world kept going on around us.

Then I woke up.

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I have always felt a connection to the night. Thoughts flow more freely. Dreams take on new meaning. And in All the Lovers in the Night, Mieko Kawakami captures this time with elegance and precision. "Why does the night have to be so beautiful?" the book begins. ". . . The light at night is special because the overwhelming light of the day has left us, and the remaining half draws on everything it has to keep the world around us bright." The novel—which follows Fuyuko Irie, a thirty-something freelance copyeditor in Tokyo, through a quiet, isolated existence—explores the performance and pains of contemporary life.

For the most part, Fuyuko's world is small. "Apart from a few deadlines marked lightly in pencil, I had no plans whatsoever," Kawakami writes. "It crossed my mind that I would probably never notice if the previous six months and the six months to follow had been switched around." While the fog of loneliness looms throughout, Kawakami's talent for building atmosphere and dialogue illuminates an often reserved Fuyuko. Sunshine gives way to dusk, and we begin to (sometimes literally) see Fuyuko in a new light.

On the rare occasions that she ventures out, readers witness Fuyuko's tenuous conversations with other characters: from Hijiri Ishikawa, Fuyuko's calculating, self-possessed manager, to Mitsutsuka, a gentle, enigmatic figure Fuyuko meets at a culture center with whom she gradually forms a bond. As the book progresses, these fraught relationships point to more extensive explorations of work, friendship, dependence, love, and grief.

In one of her early encounters with Mitsutsuka, Fuyuko reflects on her childhood. "I mean, I slept like a normal person, or maybe not exactly normal. Because the whole time I was sleeping, I could see a lion," she tells him. The dream-like state Fuyuko recounts may be a blip in the larger narrative, but it conveys a lingering feeling of malaise that becomes central to her eventual reawakening. Going on to describe the scene, she says, "Yeah. A lioness. Bare skin, no fur. . . . It's not long after her hunt, so her stomach's full, and there's nothing for her to do. Nothing at all. She has no fear, no worries, no homework or any other work—those are just human ideas that mean nothing to her... Her body's strong and so's her heart, so no one dares to bother her.  . . . It's as if when she's asleep, sleep and the world are one and the same."

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"What do you dream about?" is a question many of us have been conditioned to answer depending on the context, but if I'm being honest, it's not one I find myself as interested in anymore. I'd rather consider its lesser-known sibling:

How do you dream?

I dream on the surface of life. People and places I know intimately become enmeshed with imagined scenarios. I've dreamt about tax conversations on different planets. I've looped the halls of my high school in a panic after "learning" I would not be able to graduate. I've had eerily realistic encounters with family members about things I cannot bring myself to say in real-time. Then, as if on cue, the weight of current earthly responsibilities pulls at the seams, and I'm awake again.

I've found that this experience is somewhat akin to looking at myself in a body of water. The distorted reflection is recognizable, but if I run my fingers across the surface, the water ripples out as far as the eye can see—scenes lose their edges. The interruption is disconcerting. In this way, my dreams scare me. Even though I'm quick to forget the details, the fear lingers.

Perhaps the same can be said in our waking hours, too. When Fuyuko catches a glimpse of her reflection in a storefront window, she comes face to face with "a miserable woman, who couldn't even enjoy herself on a day like this, on her own in the city, desperately hugging a bag full to bursting with the kind of things that other people wave off or throw in the trash the first chance they get." This moment marks a subtle turning point for Fuyuko. She must learn to course-correct beyond the lines of others' manuscripts—to wake up and take charge of her own story.

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It's pulling me closer now: arms wrapping around my chest, paws digging into my shoulders. I feel the soft bristle of whiskers on my neck. No one notices that I'm giving a lioness a piggyback ride down 7th Avenue.

I scour several dream interpretation sites to investigate why this animal once decided to take up space in my subconscious. At Dream Meaning Net: "To see a lioness in your dream represents your maternal instincts. You will go to great lengths to protect your interests. Alternatively, a female lion dream meaning symbolizes hope, victory, tenacity, and stamina." And according to Psychologist World: "To see a lion's head over you, showing his teeth by snarls, you are threatened with defeat in your upward rise to power."

I land on a few more pages, and after a while, a pattern emerges: ambition, strength, control, fear—the stuff of life, or depending on how you look at it, the stuff of nightmares.

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I was twenty years old when I made the initial leap into entrepreneurship—transforming my high-school-born Tumblr into a boutique content company that I ran at total capacity for almost a decade. Bright-eyed and naive, I believed that every beginning was a path to stability—success. But over time, the commodification of dreaming made it difficult to see beyond the edges of dreams that didn't have merit aside from professional gain. 

All the Lovers in the Night isn't solely career-centric, though Fuyuko's profession takes up considerable space on the page. Accordingly, Kawakami highlights work culture's performative landscape and how it often informs our sense of self. "I know we can't make something out of nothing," Hijiri tells Fuyuko early in the novel, "but the work we're doing is still really important.  . . .  I don't know how to explain it, but there's something to the work we do. Something that really matters. And I get the sense that you feel the same . . . That's what I live for. It's everything."

While reading their exchanges, which oscillate between Hijiri's assuredness and Fuyuko's apathy, my complicated relationship with "dreams" resurfaced. For many years, what I wanted didn't matter so much as making evidence of that work known: optimization, validation, repeat. Much like Fuyuko and Hijiri's line of work, I felt there was no room for error. So long as I was "dreaming," I was working. The more I was producing, the more there was to dream about. The more there was to dream about, the more there was to lose. The more there was to fear.

That's what I live for. It's everything.

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There was a period when I often dreamt about the space between adolescence and adulthood. The details vary, but those dreams always felt the most palpable—I watched myself living from a distance. Each time I awoke, I somehow grew closer to the young(er) woman I used to be.

It's challenging to recognize feelings of stasis when you're up against the demands of modern life. From day to night, season to season, Kawakami's use of time is essential for demonstrating Fuyuko's immobility. Readers gradually understand Fuyuko's mindset as her past converges with the present (revealing a devastating trauma she endured as a teenager). A few heartbreaking lines towards the end of the novel sum it up well: "I was so scared of failing, of being hurt, that I chose nothing. I did nothing."

For Fuyuko, work is not so much a calling but a distraction from recognizing that her life has value beyond the margins of someone else's story. After seven years of giving everything to my career, I felt a similar detachment. I could no longer see things clearly through bloodshot eyes and a hardened heart, and I needed a jolt to wake myself up from a work-induced haze. For my entire adult life, I had strived and achieved, ultimately cultivating an identity for consumption. When I logged on, I saw my dreams playing out on a screen: squares to fill, feeds to scroll, and boxes to check that suited other people's expectations about success. But when I finally looked in the mirror, I didn't recognize the person staring back at me.  

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How do you live?

I live on the surface of dreams. Fears and joys I know intimately become entangled in the mundanities of real life. Slowly, I've learned to live for the little things: when leaves change with the seasons, that first sip of hot coffee. I've held onto things that no longer serve me because I'm afraid of what void might remain otherwise. I've read books and websites that teach me about dreams and myself. And then, seemingly all at once, I'm asleep again.

"I'm no lion these days," Fuyuko eventually tells Mitsutsuka. "I can't believe I'd forgotten about that until now. It's like it never even happened. I bet if we weren't having this conversation, I never would have remembered." She adds: "Memory's funny, isn't it? We remember something out of nowhere, but so much of what happens we never think about again.  . . .  Sometimes a memory jumps out at you, even though almost everything is lost forever. But what if all the things that we can't remember are actually the most important ones?"

Days pass, and dreams serve as aspirational checkpoints to keep us on what's often a prescribed path. Yet, sometimes, the weight of them is too much to bear. Like Fuyuko: I was so scared of failing, of being hurt, that I chose nothing. I did nothing. But that stillness created necessary space: within it, I ultimately remembered that I had the agency to start anew—to make a change. For so long, I had forgotten how. I had been too busy dreaming about being someone else—someone not fully formed—stalked in the night by a lioness who had not yet made herself known.

It's easier to see now that this creature was neither there to harm nor help me: she was (is) my mirror—a wake-up call to face my ambivalence, depletion, frustration, fear. And just as I accepted her presence, I opened my eyes. The first signs of morning light streamed through the blinds. I saw another way forward.

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