Sunday, January 15, 2012

Number9Dream, by David Mitchell

Although it's the fourth of Mitchell's novels that I've read, it was the second that he wrote. It's become a cliche that many second novels fall on their faces because they're either a re-hash of the first, or too wildly, purposefully different. Number9Dream dodges every wary, 2nd-novel scrutiny that reviewers might give it. It's a world away from Ghostwritten, Mitchell's first heralded book, but every bit as imaginative and solid.

David Mitchell has the same sort of literary cult following as Haruki Murakami, and I'm one of those readers who is a card-carrying member of both. Number9Dream is set in Japan, where Mitchell taught for several years. As I read this book, I sometimes lost sight of which of my two literary idols had written it -- Murakami or Mitchell?

David Mitchell

Haruki Murakami -- Mitchell's long-lost twin brother?

Murakami's love of jazz, quirky Japanese culture, bloodthirsty Yakuza goons with Mongolian sidekicks, eccentric girlfriends and dysfunctional families all show up in this story. Murakami himself makes a wry cameo appearance, when the narrator -- young, naive, bumbling Eiji -- waits for the aforementioned Mongolian to kill him.
My final memories of life are the stupidest things. An unclaimed Haruki Murakami novel I salvaged from lost property, half finished, in my locker at Ueno -- what happened to the man stuck down his dry well with no rope? 
How can you not love a young man who, faced with death, thinks about an unfinished Murakami novel? Oh, he realises it's a nerdy thing, but there you have it. Eiji can only be himself. He freely discloses his flaws and fears to us, stumbling about in Tokyo as only a small-town boy could do, low on pretenses and caution. Eiji has come to Tokyo to discover the identity of his father, but a motley herd of variously sophisticated and nasty people is determined that he should not succeed. He gets by, though, with a little help from his friends, who include his landlord -- a video rental shop-owner who rents Eiji a "capsule" in which to sleep, his aspiring computer hacker co-worker at the Ueno train-station lost & found desk, and a waitress with "the perfect neck" who dreams of studying music in Paris and with whom Eiji slowly, methodically falls in love.

Mitchell embeds a couple of stories within his story. When Eiji makes contact with his paternal grandfather, the old man passes him the diary of his great uncle, who perished at the controls of a kai-ten in the war. Nowadays I hear kai-ten, and I think of the conveyor belts bearing single-serving plates of sushi and sashimi through a restaurant. For this devoted servant of the Emperor, however, it was the vehicle to greater Japanese glory: a manned torpedo. Needless to say, its success meant certain death for its pilot. (Mitchell lets us in on how two such disparate objects can share a noun: "‘Kai’ and ‘Ten’ signify ‘Turn’ and ‘Heaven’:) The great uncle's diary is a hugely moving view of the old-school Japanese warriors who still held dear a code of honour  and did not question the Emperor's divinity.  He describes, though, other sailors who felt that the war was being farcically mismanaged and mourned the tragic and futile waste of lives. In one of the final diary entries, the great uncle leaves a bit of parting, hopeful -- and in retrospect excruciatingly ironic -- advice for his brother, Eiji's grandfather.

It must pain Mother to trade Tsukiyama family treasures for rice, but I know Father and our ancestors understand. War changes rules. It is wise of you to tape Xs over the windows, to guard against bomb blasts. Nagasaki was ever a most fortunate city, and if raids come the enemy will target the shipyards rather than our side of town. All the same, every precaution should be taken.
In another lighter sub-plot, Eiji lays low for a time in a house belonging to his landlord's aunt -- an eccentric writer -- after one of his narrow escapes from Yakuza goons. He begins reading stories that the aunt had written, fantastic tales which afford him a much-needed distraction from his anxieties. The adventures of Goatwriter (yes, he is actually a goat) are full of giddy word-play and wit. It's David Mitchell getting his Irish on. In Japan.

Goatwriter found his pince-nez on a monocle chronicle and peered. The venerable coach had rolled to a cold shoulder of more still moored still moors. ‘Inky landscape, paperpulp sky. I remain in little doubt, Mrs Comb, we are in the margins.’ Hawthorn huddled in well-wallowed hollows...
Goatwriter never finished his sentence because a miraculous maelstrom of birds rose from nowhere and filled the air around the venerable coach – moogurning, phewlitting, macawbering, endizzying birds, many unseen since the days when mythology was common gossip.

On the long journey back to his home-town, Eiji dozes off, and his dreams come in steady succession. In one of them, he chats with his musical idol, John Lennon. Die-hard Beatles fans would know immediately that #9 Dream is one of Lennon's works. (I didn't, but I do now.) Another is Norwegian Wood, a haunting and enigmatic tune that Haruki Murakami used as the title of an equally haunting and enigmatic novel.
‘Truth is,’ John continues, ‘“#9dream” is a descendant of “Norwegian Wood”. Both are ghost stories. “She” in “Norwegian Wood” curses you with loneliness. The “Two spirits dancing so strange” in “#9dream” bless you with harmony. But people prefer loneliness to harmony.’
Eiji's twin sister, his other half, drowned herself when they were teens. His mother had abandoned them years before; his father remained a shadowy unknown. So what is his fate? Cursed with loneliness or blessed with harmony? That's what I relish about the narrators of Mitchell and Murakami novels: They're likable, even lovable. They speak honestly even when it's to their detriment. Like everyone else in the novels, I am attracted to these characters, but I can get only so close.

And that is the central question for Eiji: who is important to him? What do blood ties really mean? With whom does he, can he -- or any of us, really -- achieve harmony?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis

Courtesy of
Michael Lewis is a writer for Vanity Fair, and alongside the fellows at NPR's Planet Money, he has made the financial crises of the past five years more comprehensible for people without London School of Economics degrees. And for people with them, actually -- as it turns out, not all the financial "geniuses" who gave us vehicles like credit default swaps completely grasped the implications of their work. Lewis finds an exquisite balance: He doesn't simplify to the level of money for dummies; he presents the often Byzantine fiscal finagling in very human terms, both for the finagler and the finagled.

When he was investigating the American credit crisis, Lewis noticed that American economists had gotten into the habit of consoling themselves by looking to Iceland and muttering, "Well, at least we haven't done that."  One of them opined, "You have to understand. Iceland is no longer a country. It is a hedge fund." Lewis trundled off to Reykjavik to investigate. The trail of financial ruin led thence to Ireland, Greece, Germany, and finally to California, the boomerang ultimately returning to its source. We often speak of the global financial crisis as if it's one syndrome, a wide-spread pandemic caused by the same pathogen, exhibiting the same symptoms, but Lewis shows us that this is not so. The Icelandic flu is quite a different from the Greek plague. All the nations Lewis visits played a part in each others' fiscal demise, but each had its own distinctive mode of self-destruction.

Lewis characterises Iceland as "a nation of extremely well-to-do (No. 1 in the United Nations’ 2008 Human Development Index), well-educated, historically rational human beings who had organized themselves to commit one of the single greatest acts of madness in financial history."  One factor is the country's isolation. The Icelanders are a famously small, in-bred clan of people who suddenly felt that after 1100 years, the world might be ready to recognise their inherent greatness. They left their fishing boats in droves and entered international banking.
This in a country the size of Kentucky, but with fewer citizens than greater Peoria, Illinois. Peoria, Illinois, doesn’t have global financial institutions, or a university devoting itself to training many hundreds of financiers, or its own currency. And yet the world was taking Iceland seriously.

The Icelanders bought assets in a foolhardy fashion, and sold them to each other at madly inflated prices. When foreign economists questioned the numbers, the Icelanders dismissed them as envious busy-bodies. The economic boom was deafening. So was the collapse.

From 2003 to 2007, while the value of the U.S. stock market was doubling, the value of the Icelandic stock market multiplied nine times. ...
When their three brand-new global-size banks collapsed, Iceland’s 300,000 citizens found that they bore some kind of responsibility for $100 billion in banking losses—which works out to roughly $330,000 for every Icelandic man, woman, and child.
Trying to grasp how any of this could have happened, Lewis, to his own amazement, simply arranged an appointment with the Prime Minister. Even this told him something about the country.
There is a policeman sitting behind a reception desk, feet up on the table, reading a newspaper. He glances up, bored. “I’m here to see the prime minister,” I say for the first time in my life. He’s unimpressed. Anyone here can see the prime minister...
Half a dozen people will tell me that one of the reasons Icelanders thought they would be taken seriously as global financiers is that all Icelanders feel important. One reason they all feel important is that they all can go see the prime minister anytime they like.
This sense of self-importance, however, is not always bolstered by a corresponding competence.
There’s a charming lack of financial experience in Icelandic financial-policymaking circles. The minister for business affairs is a philosopher. The finance minister is a veterinarian. The Central Bank governor is a poet. Haarde, though, is a trained economist—just not a very good one.
As Lewis noted, Icelanders are well-educated, and most PhDs are not content with fishing careers. Lewis interviews Stefan, a former fishing boat captain turned failed currency trader.
“I think it is easier to take someone in the fishing industry and teach him about currency trading,” he says, “than to take someone from the banking industry and teach them how to fish.” ...
“You spent seven years learning every little nuance of the fishing trade before you were granted the gift of learning from this great captain?” I ask. “Yes.” “And even then you had to sit at the feet of this great master for many months before you felt as if you knew what you were doing?” “Yes.” “Then why did you think you could become a banker and speculate in financial markets without a day of training?” “That’s a very good question,” he says. He thinks for a minute. “For the first time this evening I lack a word.” ...
In retrospect, there are some obvious questions an Icelander living through the past five years might have asked himself. For example: Why should Iceland suddenly be so seemingly essential to global finance? Or: Why do giant countries that invented modern banking suddenly need Icelandic banks to stand between their depositors and their borrowers—to decide who gets capital and who does not? And: If Icelanders have this incredible natural gift for finance, how did they keep it so well hidden for 1,100 years? At the very least, in a place where everyone knows everyone else or his sister, you might have thought that the moment Stefan Alfsson walked into Landsbanki ten people would have said, “Stefan, you’re a fisherman!” But they didn’t. To a shocking degree, they still don’t.
 In Greece, Lewis discovered that the banks were not really at the root of the problem:  "The biggest problem the banks had was that they had lent roughly 30 billion euros to the Greek government—where it was stolen or squandered. In Greece the banks didn’t sink the country. The country sank the banks."

A newly appointed Greek finance minister held meetings to determine the scale of the country's financial disaster. For days, people timidly raised their hands and mentioned this deficit, or that debt, all of which had somehow managed to stay off the official books. "By the final day of discovery, after the last little hand had gone up in the back of the room, a projected deficit of roughly 7 billion euros was actually more than 30 billion. The natural question—How is this possible?—is easily answered: until that moment, no one had bothered to count it all up."

Part of the problem, he patiently explained to Lewis, is the absence of revenue. The Greeks seem to consider it a point of honour to avoid paying taxes. Lewis interviews two former tax-collectors. At first he thinks they're having a bit of fun with him.
“If the law was enforced,” the tax collector said, “every doctor in Greece would be in jail.” I laughed, and he gave me a stare. “I am completely serious.” ...
“This wasn’t all due to misreporting,” he says. “In 2009, tax collection disintegrated, because it was an election year.” “What?” He smiles. “The first thing a government does in an election year is to pull the tax collectors off the streets.” “You’re kidding.” Now he’s laughing at me.  I’m clearly naïve.
That official corruption is endemic in Greece is now indisputable, but Lewis points out that the officials were not unwilling to share their ill-gotten wealth. In fact, they handed it out in gobs.
As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was turn their government into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it. ...
A businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something.
When EU membership put limits on the amount of budget deficits and inflation, the Greeks resorted to stunts like removing high-priced tomatoes from the consumer price index. This tomfoolery simply never occurred to the more stolid EU member nations who looked at the numbers and didn't question them.

Lewis moves on to formerly jolly Ireland.
Ireland's financial  disaster shared some things in common with Iceland’s. It was created by the sort of men who ignore their wives’ suggestions that maybe they should stop and ask for directions, for instance. But while the Icelandic male used foreign money to conquer foreign places — trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia — the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland...  Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was buy Ireland. From each other.
Ireland has battled a stubborn inferiority complex born of centuries of relative poverty. The Irish themselves seemed a bit startled by their sudden prosperity.
As recently as the 1980s 1 million Irish people, in a nation of a mere 3.2 million, lived below the poverty line, yet by the start of the new millennium the Irish poverty rate was under 6 percent, and Ireland was the second richest country in the world, according to the Bank of Ireland. 
Lewis mentions one economic growth factor, unlikely to bring a smile to the Pope's face.
This in turn had been mainly driven by Ireland’s decision, in 1979, to legalize birth control. That is, there was an inverse correlation between a nation’s fidelity to the Vatican’s edicts and its ability to climb out of poverty: out of the slow death of the Irish Catholic Church arose an economic miracle. 
Ireland's boom was largely one of real estate. Development soared, as did property prices. It ended with a great number of empty buildings. And abandoned cars.
A few months after the spell was broken, the short-term parking lot attendants at Dublin Airport noticed that their daily take had fallen. The lot appeared full; they couldn’t understand it; then they noticed the cars never changed. They phoned the Dublin police, who in turn traced the cars to Polish construction workers, who had bought them with money borrowed from the big Irish banks. The migrant workers had ditched the cars and gone home.
And where was the Irish government during this great boom? Going about its usual business, it seemed, perhaps as puzzled as all the other Irish folk. When panic seemed imminent, the ineffectual Finance Minister made a television speech. He did not exert a calming influence.
Now the Irish people finally caught a glimpse of the guy meant to be safeguarding them: the crazy uncle had been sprung from the family cellar. Here he was, on their televisions, insisting that the Irish banks’ problems had nothing whatsoever to do with the loans they’d made . . .
The finance minister might as well be standing in front of Pompeii and saying that the volcano wasn’t really worth mentioning. Just a little lava! “THIS ISN’T ICELAND,” is what he actually says. “We’re not a hedge fund that’s populated by 300,000 farmers and fishermen."
“What happened was that everyone in Ireland had the idea that somewhere in Ireland there was a little wise old man who was in charge of the money, and this was the first time they’d ever seen this little man,” says McCarthy. “And then they saw him and said, Who the fuck was that??? Is that the fucking guy who is in charge of the money??? That’s when everyone panicked.”
Ireland's financial demise differed in another way from that in the US: While the American bankers who wrought much of the havoc walked away with full pockets, the Irish bankers were ruined when their banks collapsed.

Germany is, of course, at the centre of the custodial company charged with cleaning up this whole mess. It too played a role in the mess-making, but a more indirect one. Germany financed other countries' messes.
The curious thing about the eruption of cheap and indiscriminate lending of money between 2002 and 2008 was the different effects it had from country to country. Every developed country was subjected to more or less the same temptation, but no two countries responded in precisely the same way. Much of Europe had borrowed money cheaply to buy stuff it couldn’t honestly afford. In effect, lots of non-Germans had used Germany’s credit rating to indulge their material desires. The Germans were the exception. Given the chance to take something for nothing, the German people simply ignored the offer...
They lent money to American subprime borrowers, to Irish real estate barons, to Icelandic banking tycoons, to do things that no German ever would do. The German losses are still being toted up, but at last count they stand at $21 billion in the Icelandic banks, $100 billion in Irish banks, $60 billion in various U.S. subprime-backed bonds, and some yet to be determined amount in Greek bonds. The only financial disaster in the last decade German bankers appear to have missed was investing with Bernie Madoff (perhaps the only advantage to the German financial system of having no Jews). In their own country, however, these seemingly crazed bankers behaved with restraint. The German people did not allow them to behave otherwise. It was another case of clean on the outside, dirty on the inside. The German banks that wanted to get a little dirty needed to go abroad to do it.
Many older, traditional German bankers marvel at the fiasco. They never accorded young banking whippersnappers the towering, egomaniac status that America, Iceland and Ireland did, yet the risky loans took place.One statesmanlike bank officer reflects on his profession's more grounded past.
Banking, done in the proper German fashion, is less a free enterprise than a utility. “Why should you pay twenty million to a thirty-two-year-old trader?” Müller asks himself. “He uses the office space, the IT, the business card with a first-class name on it. If I take the business card away from that guy he would probably sell hot dogs.”
Lewis focuses upon Germans' love of rules. They adore them and adopt whole systems of them covering every aspect of life. The problem, he discovers, is that people who live by rules too often assume that others do likewise. One German financier mourns his lost faith in the United States' financial system.
"I did not have the idea that your market would completely collapse.” He pauses. “It has told something to me. I was in the belief that the best supervised of all banking systems was in New York. To me the Fed and the SEC were second to none. I did not believe that there would be e-mail traffic between investment bankers saying that they were selling . . .” He pauses again, and decides he shouldn’t say “shit.” “Dirt,” he says. “This is by far my biggest professional disappointment. I was in a much too positive way U.S.-biased. I had a set of beliefs about U.S. values.”
The German disappointment in the Greeks is even more pronounced. The only way to avoid the collapse of the Euro zone, some opine, is for the Greeks to, well... stop being so Greek.
At the bottom of this unholy mess, from the point of view of the German Finance Ministry, is the unwillingness, or inability, of the Greeks to change their behavior. That was what the currency union always implied: entire peoples had to change their way of life. Conceived as a tool for integrating Germany with Europe, and preventing the Germans from dominating others, the euro had become the opposite. For better or worse, the Germans now control the financial fate of Europe. If the rest of Europe was to continue to enjoy the benefits of what was essentially a German currency they’d need to become more German. And so, once again, all sorts of people who would rather not think about what it means to be “German” are compelled to do so.
At last, Lewis' boomerang loops back to its source, the United States. As he speaks with economists about the disaster that is the Federal budget, someone mentions to him that the government will just parcel the problem out to the states by cutting federal funds for this and that. Like all the international finance ministers who congratulate themselves for not being Icelandic, most state governments breathe sighs of relief that they're not California. Lewis goes out for an early morning bike ride with former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He quickly realises why the state's government cannot solve the problems. The people, in effect, won't let it.
California had organized itself, not accidentally, into highly partisan legislative districts. It elected highly partisan people to office and then required these people to reach a two-thirds majority to enact any new tax or meddle with big spending decisions. On the off chance that they found some common ground, it could be pulled out from under them by voters through the initiative process. Throw in term limits—no elected official now serves in California government long enough to fully understand it—and you have a recipe for generating maximum contempt for elected officials. Politicians are elected to get things done and are prevented by the system from doing it, leading the people to grow even more disgusted with them. “The vicious cycle of contempt,” as Mark Paul calls it. California state government was designed mainly to maximize the likelihood that voters will continue to despise the people they elect.

The people are accustomed to living beyond their means: "The average Californian, in 2011, had debts of $78,000 against an income of $43,000."  When Schwarzenegger began to grasp the scale of the red ink, he did not panic. He seems at least to have experienced a mild sense of alarm.
“We were all of a sudden short three hundred million dollars in revenue for the month,” says Schwarzenegger. “I somehow felt, Uh-oh."
So when a state is bankrupt, what does it do? Cut funding to the cities. After Lewis' bike ride, the former governor's associates quipped, "Hey, it could be worse. We could be living in Vallejo!" Lewis of course headed to Vallejo.
WELCOME TO VALLEJO, CITY OF OPPORTUNITY, reads the sign on the way in, but the shops that remain open display signs that say, WE ACCEPT FOOD STAMPS. Weeds surround abandoned businesses, and all traffic lights are set to permanently blink, which is a formality as there are no longer any cops to police the streets. Vallejo is the one city in the Bay Area where you can park anywhere and not worry about getting a ticket, because there are no meter maids, either.

Vallejo now has one civil servant -- a mayor who took the job under duress.
Since the bankruptcy, the police and fire departments had been cut in half; some number of the citizens who came to Phil Batchelor’s office did so to say they no longer felt safe in their own homes. All other city services had been reduced effectively to zero. “Do you know that some cities actually pave their streets?” says Batchelor.
Vallejo's funds are now struggling simply to meet the retirement pay of retired civil servants; the city cannot afford to hire any new ones. Lewis consults a social psychologist who says the whole issue is the American lust for immediate gratification. 
The problem with police officers and firefighters isn’t a public-sector problem; it isn’t a problem with government; it’s a problem with the entire society. It’s what happened on Wall Street in the run-up to the subprime crisis. It’s a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences...
A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control’s color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern. The boom in trading activity in individual stock portfolios; the spread of legalized gambling; the rise of drug and alcohol addiction; it is all of a piece. Everywhere you turn you see Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for a short-term reward.
The pain of need may be the only way to get Americans to change their ways, he says. Heaven knows the Icelanders, Irish and Greeks are feeling the pain now. Boomerang gives us the clear picture of our global financial relationships, but each country has experienced its own, distinctive boom and bust. Each can look at the others and think, Phew! We haven't mucked it up as badly as they did, but eventually the shrapnel from our own time-bombs wakes us up. Or will, shortly.

Friday, January 6, 2012

I Haven't Dreamed of Flying for a While, by Taichi Yamada

I think it must be the sake. How else to explain the raft of Japanese novelists and film-makers whose sense of the ordinary includes, for example, talking cats and disappearing hotel rooms? Writers from all over the world dabble in the surreal, of course, but the Japanese are somehow more blase, more matter-of-fact about things like downpours of toads from the sky. If there is a boundary between this universe and some alternate one, it seems fairly nebulous in Japan.

In the deliciously quirky film, The Kamome Diner, two middle-aged Japanese women walk down a street in Helsinki. One of them relates an extended conversation she'd just had with a Finnish woman. "I didn't realise you spoke Finnish," her friend remarked.  "I don't," the speaker replied.

Mr. Taura, this novel's narrator, is a middle-aged sales manager at a pre-fab construction company who has not coped gracefully with a recent promotion. As the book opens, he's lying in hospital with a broken leg after jumping off the second story of a sushi restaurant.

Although the workaday world proves a challenge for Mr. Taura, he opens himself up to the woman who lies in the hospital room's other bed; a screen separates them. There had been much discussion among the nursing staff about the impropriety of putting them into the same room, but there's been a train crash, and the hospital is overloaded. The two patients begin in a classic Japanese fashion -- both apologise for intruding upon the other's privacy and proceed very timidly into conversation. Perhaps emboldened by the screen between them, each begins to disclose more personal details. Suddenly, startlingly, the woman asks Taura to imagine and describe a sexual encounter with her. She wanted, she told him, to experience lust with someone other than her husband. She regretted all the things she hadn't done. Initially appalled, he gets into the spirit of the thing, and thus -- their words the only thing to penetrate the blue fabric screen -- begins the intimate relationship between two strangers. The following morning, as the nurses wheel his bed to a private room, he catches a glimpse of his former roommate, and he is shocked to see that she is old, with brittle gray hair and wrinkled skin.

Some months later, Taura takes a call and recognises the voice. He doesn't want to meet her. He does want to meet her. He tries to avoid her, but they meet again, and he learns her name: Mutsuko. To his amazement, she is a few years younger than he. Neither of them can explain it, but it's clearly so. As they're eating in a restaurant together, Taura turns to speak with the foreign couple at the next table. When he turns back to Mutsuko, it dawns on him that he's just been conversing in French. He doesn't know the language, but that is just one of the bewildering aspects of their evening. He and Mutsuko retire to a hotel room and consummate (physically this time) their passion. In the morning she is gone.

She reappears some months later, a decade younger still. And on it goes...

We all look back as we age. We think of all the things we could have / should have / might have done, but now it's too late. In one sense, Mutsuko's bizarre situation is what we all think we'd like: Her 67 year-old mind, with all its accumulated wisdom, occupies a body that grows a few years younger every couple of months.

In Yamada's novel, however, we see Mutsuko only when she elects to contact Taura, and they focus mostly upon their physical relationship and the practical obstacles posed by her reverse aging -- why is the middle-aged man sharing an apartment with the adolescent nymphette? How can a 5 year-old reasonably transact banking? 67 year-old Mutsuko told Taura in the hospital that she regretted all the things she hadn't done. As her body dropped off decades much as a reptile sloughs skins, did she do the things that propriety or fear had stopped her doing before?  We never know. She never tells Taura what she's done when she's not with him. I did not end this tale with the sense that Mutsuko had accomplished what she'd wanted. She'd just faded back, and back, until she disappeared, just as she would have if her clock had moved forward.

I fly in my dreams. With no mechanical help whatever, I just soar through the air. I love these dreams when I have them, and I miss them when they stop. When I finished this book, I wondered about its title. We aren't so limited by 'reality' in our dreams. We fly, we are younger or older, or kinder or more bold. The laws of time, gravity and continuity are dashed. Our dreams are, I suppose, like Japanese novels. Rules are fewer. And for people who live in societies that are hobbled by rules and regulations, dreams and novels give us pause. In dreams and novels we live with less fear. We love with less fear. If nothing else, Mutsuko loved fearlessly as her clock wound back.

No, wait. She didn't. She always sensed when she was about to lurch backward in time, and then she bolted from Taura. She did not want him to witness the transition. She loved and trusted him to some extent, but it was far from unfettered. On the other hand, whenever Mutsuko contacted him, Taura left his family and his professional responsibilities and bolted off to meet her. If either of them loved without fear of consequence, it was he. I suppose each of them freed the other from rules and time, just as our dreams free us from the limitations of gravity.