ON THE SURFACE, In Plain View looks like a textbook domestic noir thriller. Thirty-one-year-old Daidai takes leave from her job as a curator at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles so that she and her husband Hiroshi, a professor, can focus on having a baby. Pregnancy is elusive, creating tension between them, and because this is a certain type of novel, it comes as no surprise when conflict enters their lives in the form of Satsuki, one of Hiroshi’s grad students.
This is what is in plain view, but the novel quickly strays from the promise of its title. At times it plunges so far below the surface, you can’t see a thing. Physical cues are absent. Action jumps without transition. Conversations can be disorienting and obscure. But if you don’t require spoon feeding, Daidai’s story makes for an intriguing psychological dissection of a woman whose lack of a fixed identity sweeps her into dangerous territory.
Unlike Satsuki, who is from Japan, and Hiroshi, whose Japanese-American history Daidai has “memorized like the Pledge of Allegiance,” Daidai has a Japanese-American mother and an Irish-American father. She cannot claim the Japanese experience wholly, and she cannot claim the Japanese-American experience wholly, even though she tried with her last exhibition at the museum, a failed attempt to pay homage to Hiroshi’s family’s past. Without the cultural footing she desires, Daidai is a fractured woman. These fractures leave gaps to be filled. Enter Satsuki.
At the beginning, Satsuki’s arrival in Daidai’s life seems innocuous enough. Similar in age, the two women get acquainted at a party for Hiroshi’s grad students. They run into one another at Whole Foods where Daidai is buying cucumbers to make pickles, causing Satsuki to drop by unannounced at Daidai and Hiroshi’s apartment with advice on the traditional Japanese pickling process. Not long after, she shows up again with a gift of tea. It all seems perfectly normal and even welcome — an odd woman attempting to ease her homesickness, seeking out the company of another odd woman with too much free time on her hands.
Conversations fill their afternoons together, revealing that Satsuki is the kind of person who chats not about personal details, but about her philosophical views on life. For example, she explains to Daidai how she believes that every person is born in a box.
If your box is very small, then chances are you’re going to live your entire life in one place, like a canary in a cage. And if your box is big, who knows where you’ll end up, but chances are it’ll be somewhere different from where you started […] People born in big boxes are the fortunate ones.
When Daidai asks where she fits into this theory, Satsuki tells her, “You’re special. You’re protected so you can go anywhere you want.”
For many, such an assessment would be empowering. Instead, Daidai worries that special is “a euphemism for excluded.”
One evening, while Satsuki is having dinner with Daidai and Hiroshi, she receives a call. Her mother, Ritsuko, has died. A mother who, it turns out, had been living as a Catholic nun at the Holy Heart Monastery in the Hollywood Hills.
While Daidai has tentatively accepted Satsuki’s friendship, she hasn’t been entirely comfortable with it. Satsuki’s eager but deflective nature unsettles her, and Hiroshi’s sheltering attitude toward Satsuki makes her speculate that there is more between her husband and his student than a professor-protégé relationship. During all the time Daidai and Satsuki have spent together, Satsuki never mentioned her mother being in Los Angeles. Daidai finds this odd enough to warrant investigation. But after her first visit to the monastery (which results not in answers, but rather in the attention-diverting purchase of Japanese an-pan bread from the nuns’ bakery), she becomes pregnant and soon miscarries, further loosening her grip on her certainties about her relationship with Hiroshi.
Adrift in this desolate state, she discovers conflicting versions of Ritsuko’s death. But Daidai’s vague curiosity about this does not drive her to concrete action. She continues to ride the tidal motions of those around her, which include an invitation from Satsuki to visit Japan.
Even though Daidai “comes to consider Satsuki a friend,” it is a bit unclear why. She thinks Satsuki’s mother’s death is suspicious. She fears Hiroshi and Satsuki are having an affair. She is never fully at ease around Satsuki. Still, she goes to Japan, perhaps because the one thing that is firmly in place is her longing for a heritage to call her own.
Daidai was born Carolyn Ann but changed her name to Daidai when she was a little girl. She was raised in a house containing a Buddhist altar and a martyred Jesus, and at one point she thinks that “her desire to curate rose not from the peculiarity of her origins, but from her inability to situate herself in the images she’d been given.” Added to this is Hiroshi’s admonition to leave Ritsuko’s death alone. He tells Daidai, “Japanese draw a sharp distinction between what can be shared and what must remain personal.”
“I’m Japanese, too,” Daidai replies.
“Technically,” he informs her, “you’re half.”
An intimate link to her origins, which Daidai once thought she would find through her husband, is vanishing, so it’s not surprising she wants to visit Japan — even if she has to do it with a woman she does not understand or trust. The cryptic plot thickens when, once in Japan, she meets Satsuki’s father. Ichiro is an art dealer, and his house is filled with secrets, including a perversion Daidai discovers on accident. Before she has a chance to discuss this with Satsuki, there is an earthquake and the nearby Fukushima nuclear reactor melts down.
Most authors of crime fiction cue with pacing. But the pace of In Plain View does not vary, not even during this geographically and emotionally ominous time. It makes you realize how much readers of genre fiction rely on short sentences, choppy paragraphs, and abbreviated syntax to know when to be frightened. But while this is unequivocally a crime novel, Julie Shigekuni did not build her career writing crime fiction. She has received the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature; she has written just four novels in the past 21 years, and what she lacks in the genre’s velocity, she makes up for in craft.
Incorporating Daidai’s layered relationships with her mother, her best friend Louise, and Louise’s brother Gizo, as well as a leisurely flashback in which Daidai travels to collect artifacts from a Japanese-American internment camp survivor, Shigekuni eschews a push-pull pacing. As a result, she unmoors the reader, creating a disorienting, heightened tension that grows exponentially upon Daidai’s return to Los Angeles. When Daidai tries to explain what she saw in Satsuki’s father’s house, Hiroshi is disturbed more by what he considers her prying than by her discovery. Daidai “couldn’t say whether the change had happened to him or her, only that the terrain of the marriage had shifted while she was in Japan.”
This is another difficult passage to navigate because this marital terrain is yet one more of the book’s enigmas. Daidai and Hiroshi don’t seem to get one another; every time Daidai suspects Satsuki’s actions or questions her presence in their life, Hiroshi dismisses her concerns. It gets to the point where you want to reach into the pages and smack him upside the head — he’s so dense. And although Daidai and Hiroshi have lots of sex, much of which they enjoy, they lack intimacy. So perhaps it is intimacy that Daidai craves from Satsuki as much as a key to her identity.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Nearly everything in this book is wide open to interpretation.
At one point, finally discussing her childhood, Satsuki tells Daidai, “People liked me because I offered back a pleasing reflection of themselves.” What seems more likely is that she has the ability to offer back a pleasing reflection of who they want to be. If this is the case with Satsuki and Daidai, it would seem safe to assume that Satsuki reflects back the Japanese woman Daidai wants to be. But who is that woman?
The reader is told that Satsuki is a brilliant scholar, but evidence of this is absent. The reader is also told that Daidai feels a “palpable connection” with Satsuki, but this connection is lost among contradictions — she feels claustrophobic with Satsuki in the house, for instance, but misses her when she’s gone. Most notably, “Daidai felt like a live conduit for whatever chemistry lay between Hiroshi and Satsuki.” While Shigekuni may offer hints of a union between the two, she does not give the pair chemistry in any recognizable way. Making the relationships even harder to decode is Daidai’s distance from her own emotions. She views herself with a curator’s eye — not as a human being, a woman, or a potential mother.
While all of this can be frustrating, there is something refreshingly honest about it. Daidai is a passive player in her own life and the lives of others, and Shigekuni lets her be herself without making authorial excuses for her behavior. Daidai may be a mass of inconsistencies, but she is real. She is a victim of her own ambivalence and of a dogged forward motion that gets the upper hand, leading to a climax both brutal and poignant as it reveals the inherent dangers of relying on others for a sense of self.