BOOKS:Shopping for pick-and-mix answers

LIZARD by Banana Yoshimoto trs Ann Sherif, Faber pounds 9.99
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THE first story in this collection was serialised on posters aboard Tokyo's commuter trains. The style is ideal: a brand of highbrow copywriting employing short sentences, quickfire dialogue and sudden zips of homespun philosophy. Yet there is nothing banal about Yoshimoto's characters or the lives they lead. Beneath bland labels like "office worker", "doctor" or "student" beat hearts grown heavy with sadness, damaged by childhood trauma, burdened by questions about the meaning of life. Work is something they have to do, offering little satisfaction and providing no identity. Love and death are what matter here, and those questions of honour and tradition we once expected from Japanese writers hardly figure at all.

This is the voice of young Japan. Banana Yoshimoto was born in 1964; the Tokyo she describes is modern, agnostic, international, a youthful population shopping for the same pick-and-mix answers as her brothers and sisters in the west. Yet the eastern quality is unmistakable. Politeness controls the most soul-searching moments; confrontation is avoided. And lurking behind the neon pillars of free love and sexual equality are assumptions from a more ancient culture: a commuter considers leaving his wife and thinks about the consequences after death when "my spirit comes home on a summer evening during the Bon Buddhist festival"; an ageing parent casually remembers having been introduced to his wife by a matchmaker; and always, when the women in these stories marry, they immediately give up their jobs.

Such contrasts are deliberate. Descriptions of housewifely days spent searching for "the perfect bathmat" make their own quiet statement. More puzzling are the author's feelings towards the emptiness of her characters' lives: are long periods spent watching daytime television and sleeping considered anarchic or plain sad in a highly motivated society?

Yet there is plenty of emotion and violence bubbling beneath the surface. In "Helix" a building explodes as a young girl tells her boyfriend about love; they admire the pretty effects '"like fireworks". An 18-year-old has run away from her parents' religious sect; the sickening guilt at disagreeing with a father is all Japanese, her wish to support her dropout boyfriend a more recognisable impulse. Yet for all her apparent frankness, Yoshimoto's relationship with the reader remains slightly distant, almost secretive about its direction. In "A Strange Tale from Down the River" revelations about a woman's past as a sex junkie are surprising enough; then the story turns out to be about death.

There are other barriers to understanding. In Yoshimoto's last novel, Kitchen, the English was youthful and slangy. This time the author thanks a different translator, Ann Sherif, for having "built that bridge spanning the Pacific". To where? This is the language of downtown LA, a muffled, teenage-dropout idiom which does not fit Yoshimoto's cool, middle-class characters. But then perhaps such banality was there from the start. In an afterword to the American edition, the author dedicates her book to the late Kurt Cobain, a punk idol remembered as much for his rage against convention as for his work. Like simple stories on billboards, the art of his life and death has the ability to communicate right around the globe.