Bullied and Shunned, They Found a New Way to See the World

When Eyes, lame and stammering, asks one of his classmates why he bullies him, the boy delivers a monologue of his own. “There’s no hell. It’s all made up,” the bully says. “The weak can’t handle reality. They can’t deal with the pain or sadness, let alone the obvious fact that nothing in life actually has any meaning.” The bully is the Nietzsche to Kojima’s Laozi, the ancient Chinese philosopher behind the Daoist principle of wuwei, or inaction. Philosophy is never referenced directly in the book, but it feels all the purer, all the more urgent, for the clarity of a teenager’s delivery.

“We’re letting it happen. We know exactly what’s going on,” Kojima says. “Maybe we are weak, in a way. But that’s not a bad thing. If we’re weak, our weakness has real meaning.” She reveals to Eyes that she chooses to be dirty, to wear torn clothes, to leave her wild hair untamed, even though her stepfather is wealthy. Kojima wraps her philosophy around herself like a force field, turning her torment into the ecstasy of martyrdom, grinning and glassy-eyed as the other girls shove her to the ground.

In a public conversation in 2017, Kawakami confronted the writer Haruki Murakami about the perceived sexism of his work, how his female characters are often sacrificed for the sake of the male leads. With “Heaven,” one encounters Kawakami’s own flat male narrator. Hapless Eyes, while enthralled by Kojima, does not understand her, and the bullying plunges him into a catatonic depression. We long to see the world through Kojima’s perspective but instead only glimpse her peripherally through his. The book feels off-kilter in that way, perhaps intentionally, the two protagonists functioning as a lazy eye and an all-seeing one — an overlapping double view of the world.

But the dissonances of the novel align into perfect vision for the breathtaking ending, which is an argument in favor of meaning, of beauty, of life. It is rare for a writer as complex as Kawakami to be so unafraid of closure, to be as capable of satisfying, profound resolution. But then again, to read her work is to feel that she is not afraid of anything at all.

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