Territory of Light invites us to recognize the peculiarity of seeing, to perceive it as potentially extreme in its openness to every world and temporality.
It’s difficult to assess the writing of late Japanese author Yuko Tsushima without highlighting its autobiographical tendencies. Tsushima often wrote tales that inhabited the perspectives of women abandoned by men, of single mothers and of individuals whose fathers passed away too soon. A cursory glance at the author’s life discovers many of these same details there: she was divorced and ended up as a single mother in Tokyo, and her father—an acclaimed novelist himself—committed suicide when Tsushima was only one year old.
Territory of Light, her 1979 novel originally published in 12 separate installments by a Japanese literary magazine, also features (as its narrating protagonist) a recently abandoned mother whose father died when she was very young. But it does the book a disservice to read it as entrenched only in Tsushima’s “I,” as glowing reviews in The New Yorker and The Atlantic have already pointed out. Instead, we can come closer to the novel’s brilliant core by highlighting its expanded notion of the eye, an eye whose everyday line of sight reveals prophetic vision, alarming dream and half-vanished memory.
The book’s narrative is quite simple: our protagonist, unnamed, finds an apartment where she can begin raising her daughter on her own. Along the way, she faces a number of obstacles: a husband that won’t even show up for divorce mediation, a daycare that refuses to consider the difficulties of her living situation, belittling relationship advice from bosses and acquaintances. There’s also the daughter herself, who is temperamental, wild and frequently irksome.
All of these barriers—as well as the sublimely beautiful occurrences that shine their way into the narrator’s life—seem tied to the space of her flat, a top-floor haunt surrounded by windows that let in the light of the feverish sun. It’s as if the narrator has looked directly into its brightness for too long, just through existing in the apartment’s space. The result of this, however, is not distortion but revelation: the light slices through the physical world to lay bare the unseen in its total grotesqueness and splendor.
This fact, not the novel’s autobiographical factors, makes Territory of Light a remarkable read. We see what the narrator sees in light, even though her vision remains a secret from everyone else. One particularly chilling example of this involves a young boy who falls to his death from the tenth floor of his apartment building. Around the time of this fall, she recalls dreams of her own about the experience of plummeting from a great height and pays close attention to her daughter’s tendency to throw toys from the open windows of their flat to a neighboring roof, several stories below. These visions and realizations are not purely frightening for the narrator: she remembers a feeling of relief upon dream-hearing the crash of bodies to the ground and sometimes wishes for her daughter’s death. Thus, when the boy falls, there is the possibility that she has not only foretold it but also enjoyed it. In her mind, his scream becomes a whoop of delight.
This is titillating, nightmarish stuff, and it’s tempting to see the protagonist as a fantastical figure of sorts, a magical Chosen One—perhaps a hero, perhaps a villain—destined to remain in marginal shadow for everyone but the novel’s readers. This is in chiaroscuric contrast to the boring, albeit more stable, individuals that dominate the world around her: neighbors that berate her for not being more aware of her surroundings, mothers that actively seek to possess and control their daughters. Then there’s her reliably pathetic husband, who doesn’t seem to understand her evasiveness even though he’s the one that initiated their separation. One of the novel’s marvelously pointed ironies is that the husband considers himself an artist yet is completely ignorant of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s inspired existence.
On the other hand, to turn Territory of Light’s narrator into a mythical being would be to miss the novel’s presentation of her existence as overwhelmingly real. When others are not pitying or aggressively insulting her, they are forgetting or ignoring her completely (she’s literally slept on at several different points in the book). Part of her response to this is to pay close attention to those individuals that occupy a similar position to her own, like drunks, aging wanderers and the dead. Movingly and perversely, her daughter joins her in these pursuits. Together, they lovingly rub the back of an alcoholic stranger who has passed out in the street and laugh excitedly at their pet goldfish that has flopped out of its water to an untimely demise.
Territory of Light invites us to recognize the peculiarity of seeing, to perceive it as potentially extreme in its openness to every world and temporality. It’s both enlivening and terrifying to view as the narrator views, a strange and harrowing delight to exist in the twitch of her yawning iris.