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'Death By Water' Will Pull You Under

In creative writing workshops, one maxim often gets passed around — so often, in fact, it can take on the weight of a commandment: "Show, don't tell." The idea, of course, is to convey emotion by depicting only what's happening, and to keep from spelling things out too much.

Kenzaburo Oe, it appears, has little regard for that advice.

In his latest novel, Death by Water, the Nobel Prize winner — only the second Japanese writer ever to win the award — doesn't hesitate to explain, well, just about everything. Characters don't converse so much as take turns delivering monologues. Literary works are quoted at length, then parsed as if by scholars — and then quoted again for good measure. Memories get summoned from the depths of the past, only to be described again from every conceivable angle.

In other words, don't let the book jacket fool you. This may be a literary mystery, but it's in no rush to reach a resolution. The aging novelist Kogito Choko, a thinly veiled stand-in for Oe himself, returns home in the hopes that the long-unknown contents of an old family trunk may hold the key to the secrets of his father's death by drowning, as well as the magnum opus Kogito hopes to write about it. But if you're looking for a conclusion in the contents of the suitcase — or, at any rate, looking for it to come easily — then allow me this word of warning: You won't find it here.

Instead, Oe takes the long way around. A theater troupe comes to visit, to delve deeply into the back catalog of Kogito's books — which just so happen to be the same as Oe's books — and to meditate on the radical possibilities of interactive drama. Kogito grapples with attacks of vertigo, and with his complex relationship to his middle-aged son, a composer who has been developmentally disabled since birth — much like Oe's own son, famously. And all along, the shadow of his incomplete opus lurks like a specter, quietly pecking away at Kogito — and at the reader, who's led to draw a connection from Kogito's book to the one we're reading.

Metafictional, autobiographical, "I-novel" — there are plenty of terms I could use to try to pin down what Oe's doing here. But it boils down to this: In many ways, it seems as if he is writing the writing of this novel — or, rather, writing the scenes of his not writing it.

Exasperated yet? Because at times, I was. Death by Water can be a maddening read. Between the book's tendency to repeat itself, action that amounts to little more than a play's stage direction and a translation that can get a bit stilted, I must admit to scribbling some frustrations in the margins.

Here's the thing, though: With time, the tenor of my scribbles changed from petty annoyance to notes to myself — folklore to research, patterns to explore. The details that may seem inexplicable at the start gradually become meaningful in their repetitions, a bit like Kogito's recurrent dreams — or, the current in the T.S. Eliot passage that lends this novel its name, which draws a drowned man into a whirlpool's endless circling.

What emerges is the deeply layered portrait of an elderly man blown backward into the future, his eyes planted squarely on the past. Kogito, who says relatively little in the novel, listens as other characters give shape to his doubts about the life he's lived, his insecurities, his continued confusions. It's an extended thought, relentlessly meticulous, and parceled out among a number of voices. Out of these fragments, a remarkably complex self rises to the surface.

So, simply, it's best to be patient here. Oe may have made a trek of a novel, but he's made one that's worth the extra effort. Eventually, by the final pages, all those early difficulties give way to another challenge entirely: Just trying to let it go.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.