Yoko Ogawa's 2003 novel The Housekeeper and the Professor belongs to a genre I generally enjoy: the understated, realist first-person narration exemplified in my mind by books like Kenzaburo Oe's A Quiet Life, Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. As in those novels, there's nothing flashy about Ogawa's tale of a young female housekeeper who goes to work for, and then befriends, a brilliant but brain-damaged mathematics professor. The strength of a novel like this—at least, a novel like the one I think Ogawa is going for—lies in its narrative voice and its ability to take the reader inside the world, and inside the head, of the narrating character. That inside-the-head place can be peaceful or turbulent, but it must be convincing.
Unfortunately, unlike Oe's Ma-chan, Ishiguro's Stevens, and Robinson's Reverend Ames, Ogawa's housekeeper narrator never comes alive with a believable, unique voice or presence. She's bestowed with a sketch of back-story unencumbered with personalizing details—an unintended pregnancy in her teens, a truncated education, absent parents. But she herself seems more of a placeholder than anything, a blank canvas onto which the reader can project herself, imagine herself entering into this unusual position vis-à-vis a man whose only meaningful relationship is with numbers, whose short-term memory lasts only eighty minutes. A couple of things about this didn't work for me.
Let me clarify that I am fully able to appreciate a subtly distinctive narrative voice. I don't need a Holden Caulfield level of verbal tics and bad attitude to convince me there is a real person behind the fictional "I," nor radical unreliability to find a first-person narrator psychologically interesting. Here, though, the housekeeper crosses the line from "subtle" into "invisible." Her speech may read as slightly less specialized than that of the professor, but there is nothing about it that echoes, for example, her lack of education, or her slide from the middle to the working class. Nor is there any difference between the speech of the mother and that of her ten-year-old son. Perhaps we can deduce from her minimalist style that she is a reticent woman; from the lack of detail in her narration a certain dearth of meaning and beauty in her life prior to meeting the professor. But it's disconcerting how little sense a reader gleans of the housekeeper's own presence, considering that we access the story through her perspective.
And perhaps the "almost-absent" first-person narrator is not necessarily ineffective, even if it is a strange choice in a book with essentially only three characters. In The Housekeeper and the Professor, though, we need the housekeeper to be convincingly present, because the story is supposed to convey her gradually-formed attachment to the professor, her growing appreciation of the aesthetic appeal of mathematics as he presents it. This falls flat when, from the very opening of the novella, she speaks in essentially the same language as the professor himself (on page 62 of 174):
To me, the appeal of prime numbers had something to do with the fact that you could never predict when one would appear. They seemed to be scattered along the number line at any place that took their fancy. The farther you get from zero, the harder they are to find, and no theory or rule could predict where they will turn up next. It was this tantalizing puzzle that held the Professor captive.
Granted, she is narrating the story with the benefit of hindsight. Still, passages like this tempt the reader to believe that, despite her claims of having dreaded her high school math classes, the housekeeper was somehow "primed" (har har) for the discovery of number theory, and didn't have to do much growing after all to appreciate the Professor's mindset.
Which brings me to the book's treatment of math. I've got to say that, as a person who once named her rock band after a law of electricity and magnetism, I am perhaps FAR too dorky to comment here. Still, something about the depiction of the housekeeper's math-related perceptions seemed amateurish to me, or if not amateurish exactly, then akin to an episode of 3-2-1 Contact! aimed at introducing kids to the wonders of number theory. In short, I felt talked down to. Ogawa works hard to make her math-related material accessible, and I've read many a review that expresses appreciation of this. But the flip side of accessible is condescending, and for this reader, The Housekeeper and the Professor strayed over the line on a number of occasions.
I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they'd been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.
I mean, my problem here is not the ideas; I like the ideas. I obviously (again, see my band name) like the idea that terms and concepts from math and science can have aesthetic appeal and be applied in the arts. I understand the heft and satisfaction of a balanced equation. Heck, I missed problem sets when I gave up math to focus on literature and languages! But this kind of reflection seems to me something that should be shown rather than explicitly told, conveyed obliquely to the reader rather than served up to them on a tray. Cases where this kind of direct cogitation does work for me (Reverend Ames's theological meditations in Gilead, for example, or Ma-chan's explications of Céline), require the kind of narrative strength that Ogawa's housekeeper conspicuously lacks. In the passage above, for example, she claims that these number theory terms "sounded as though they'd been taken straight out of a poem"; where is the solid base for such a statement? Does she read poetry? We never see her mention any particular poets, or read any particular books. What does "poetry" mean to her? Did she read it in high school when she was supposedly dreading math? Did she like it back then? There is little to suggest any of the answers to these questions, and in their absence the housekeeper's remark about "taken straight out of a poem" is left to dangle unsupported.
Honestly, Ogawa's book suffered in my estimation from being read right after Alice Munro, who could probably sneak such a concept into a paragraph ostensibly devoted to stopping for gas during a road trip through rural Saskatchewan, with two or three words thrown in to illuminate perfectly the characters' childhood traumas. Ogawa simply does not have the same level of artistry—which I know is unfair to mention, because really, few do.
Still, the fact remains: "twins holding hands in the number line"? A little too precious for yours truly.