Distance and searching in Katie Kitamura's A Separation
Like her earlier work, Katie Kitamura's latest effort, A Separation, is hewn of taut, sturdy sentences that probe the folds of everyday life. But it departs from her previous novels' focus on men. This time, she opts to explore the inner life of a married Londoner who goes to an island in Greece in search of the skirt-chasing husband she recently separated from.
It doesn't take long to grasp that the mystery of the missing husband is really more of an armature upon which the narrator's interior monologue can be amassed, ably depicting—without, in the end, explaining—her emotional detachment. As she settles into the small fishing village, we learn that the locals all seem to regard her with a combination of indifference and pity. She quickly intuits that her husband has already bedded the hotel's young receptionist, and that the latter is defiantly unmoved by this hopelessly bourgeois wife's presence.
The receptionist's contempt, however, only mirrors the narrator's own aloofness, and Kitamura playfully invites us to side with the younger woman by resisting any temptation to portray the older as a paragon of moral virtue. All this is rendered very carefully. The evacuated reality of a Greek tourist destination mirrors the cosmopolitan ambivalence of its wealthy guests, but the irony of the situation only comes slowly into view:
A tourist—almost by definition a person immersed in prejudice, whose interest was circumscribed, who admired the weathered faces and rustic manners of the local inhabitants, a perspective entirely contemptuous but nonetheless difficult to avoid. I would have irritated myself in their position.
Separation is at once the narrator's position as a writer and the subject of the novel. We witness a series of missed encounters, conversations that never quite go where they are intended to, and earnest people unsure of what they want from each other or how to go about asking for it.
As it develops, however, the interpersonal microcosm Kitamura sketches evolves into a case study of our global, twenty-first century macrocosm—of how the great distances that characterize our digital global village hollow out the connection and intimacy people crave. Physical distance, despite the immediacy our communication technologies, is still distance. The result is something that feels like a pantomime, an imitation of life, to borrow the title of a Nicholas Roeg film. Everyone is precisely who they seem to be, and yet they glow at the edges with an inner intensity they are unable to access but which suggests the kind of disconnect now so mundane in the age of small screens that draw your attention far away.
A disappearance is a powerful conceit. At its core lies the classic genre of the ghost story, which Kitamura turns into an allegory of contemporary anomie and boredom. The world she weaves is at once static and infused with an instability and randomness that feels true to our age. She is unafraid to move between narrative, psychological, and philosophical registers, and her sententiousness has a partial, fragmentary character that keeps things from feeling heavy-handed. Everyday life, we are reminded, is the ghostliest realm of all, the province of separation, even when people are sitting directly in front of us:
She chewed on her steak and then, almost reluctantly, began to ask me questions about Christopher… I realized that this was what she had sat down to do—to ask me questions about my husband, to learn more about the man who had captured both her hope and affections.
This moment, like the book as a whole, displays an inversion of Woolfian interior monologue that leans hard toward Flaubert's irony, which is, in many respects, its antithesis—a situation in which inwardness and distance are interchangeable, for both the character and the reader. As in real life, we are left to speculate on our own motives as much as those of others.
A Separation will be published this February by Riverhead Books.
Saul Anton is senior editor of BOMB. He is the author of Lee Friedlander's The Little Screens (2015) and Warhol's Dream (2007).