Thursday, January 15, 2015

Solanin by Inio Asano

The idea of the "quarterlife crisis" has become a cliche -- all of those mopey kids in their mid-twenties who don't know what to do with their lives. And it's definitely easy to make fun of them, to assume they're trust-funders or slackers or just clearly inferior to such stalwart generations as our own. But life transitions do cause stress and apprehension. And the path after college isn't necessarily clear or easy. (And we might remember something similar in our own lives, if we care to dig.)

It's not as if us older people have all of the answers, either -- unless the answer is to just shut up about want and should, and just live your life. Maybe all we previous generations know is that you don't get what you want, or what you're aiming for, or even what you hope you won't have to settle for. You get what you get, every minute of every day, and it's a surprise more often than you'd ever expect.

Meiko Inoue, though, is still at the point where she thinks "what do I do with my life" is an actual question that she can come up with an answer for, and not just a description of her actual activities. And she's paralyzed by that question, one of the many who doesn't want to do anything unless she's sure it's what she really wants to do. (Of course, she's wrong: time never stops, so she's doing every minute of every day. There are no time-outs, no do-overs. You do what you do, whether or not you realize it.) She's the central character of Inio Asano's four-hundred-plus page manga story Solanin, originally published in Japan in 2006 and brought here, in a translation by JN Productions, two years later. (It became a movie soon afterward, as well: aimless attractive young people are always in style.)

Meiko is young, of course: twenty-four, two years out of college and working as an office lady at a mediocre company in Tokyo. The job clearly won't go anywhere, but the pay is good -- enough to cover rent on a large apartment for her and boyfriend Naruo Taneda and still sock away savings -- and her unhappiness hasn't yet reached the bursting point as the book opens. But it does so quickly: like the punks before her, she might not know what she wants, but she knows what she can't stand, and this is it. She gives notice, she leaves work, she starts to live on her savings. There's no hint of finding another job, which periodically bothers both Meiko and Naruo.

But soon she's channeling her energy into pushing Naruo to achieve his dreams. The two of them met as freshmen at the Music Club of their school -- even in realistic, slice-of-life stories about twentysomethings, there's no escaping the black-hole-like gravitational pull of the school club in a manga story -- where he put a band together and she quickly became both his girlfriend and his best audience. That band, called Dotti these days, is still together, though they only practice twice a month and haven't played a gig since graduation. Naruo says that music is his passion, but he's working a part-time freelance illustrator, and shows no real inclination to make Dotti a priority. (And his two fellow bandmembers -- one working for a family drugstore, the other still in school as a year-six senior -- are no more motivated than he is.)

Don't get me wrong: she's not pushing all that hard. But she does want something to be moving forward in her life, and Dotti's career seems like the most obvious and exciting possibility. And maybe it is -- but that doesn't mean it will happen, the way she wants or at all.

Solanin is a long book, but not a heavily plotted one: there are a few major events, some of them surprising or shocking, but they don't come closely together. It covers more than a year in the life of Meiko and her friends, plus a few flashbacks to those college days. But it does have a lot of texture; Asano is skilled at showing a number of real, mostly aimless lives, through the small details of their days and conversations. Maybe none of these people are ever going to set the world on fire, or be hugely famous -- but, then again, neither will you or me. And that's just fine.

Solanin isn't a book that's deliberately about anything, since it's more observational than that. But if it were about something particular, that would be it: that life just keeps flowing, through you or past you or with you. That there are things you have to say goodbye to: some because you want to, some just because they're gone. And that being a normal person in a normal life -- not being a rock star or marrying the CEO of a company -- is what you should be aiming for, and what you should hope to achieve.

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