Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Benjamin Constable’s Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa (2013)

Imagine the Griffin and Sabine stories.

Gallery Books - Simon & Schuster, 2013

Gallery Books – Simon & Schuster, 2013

But take away the artwork.

And substitute notebooks for postcards.

Now, combine that with the bizarre otherworldliness of Banana Yoshimoto’s novels.

Take their spirited heroines, and the matter-of-fact acceptance of a thin veil between the worlds.

Finally, consider the strange cats that populate Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 with its under-layers of citites.

All together, mash them up.

Serve them with a cream-soaked Parisian sauce.

And you would have something like Benjamin Constable’s Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa.

In Tomomi’s words “…there is a story here. These are pieces of a puzzle, and a quest. This is your call to adventure!”

She is writing this in an email which she has sent to herself, which Benjamin Constable is reading in the pages of a novel by Benjamin Constable.

You can see how this might get confusing.

(Benjamin Constable is not the first author to write a book about a main character with the same name as the author. Paul Auster writes about Paul Auster in City of Glass. Miguel Syjuco writes about Miguel Syjuco in Illustrado. Dave Eggers writes about Dave Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.)

Then, Tomomi warns: “The adventure is, unfortunately, not brilliantly worked out, so you may have to add your own details, pinches of salt to render more palatable the inconsistencies in my ill-conceived plot.”

So, not only a puzzle, but an imperfect puzzle.

Some of the terrain is recognizable. “Tomomi Ishikawa saw Paris as a series of facts, dates and architects. She had obviously spent much of her spare time researching.”

(This makes Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa a wonderful choice for Paris in July, hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea and Karen of BookBath.)

Some is nearly so.

“Additionally, the area was heavily mined, leaving a maze of tunnels, although, unlike the networks beneath the streets of the Left Bank, those of Belleville have been rendered virtually inaccessible through a program of structural reinforcement.”

Some is intentionally provocative.

This “museum of knowledge on Paris, unexpected histories and hiding places, the colours and smells, the way the light came down in the afternoon. Was this a guidebook? Or was this to be an education for me, who admittedly knows nothing of the city where I live and walks with eyes closed, observing little more than the thoughts in my own head.”

Some is purposefully out-of-reach.

“She wanted me to go into the tunnel and down into some unknown subterranean world. I couldn’t go into the tunnel. I would get into trouble. It seemed like a poor reason not to do something slightly adventurous, but it was true. I just couldn’t imagine actually doing it. It was undoable. It was pointless to take so much risk to find something left for me by a dead person.”

Dead people leaving clues? Is it possible?

There are literary precedents.

“It’s in the style of a book called Invisible Cities by the Italian author Italo Calvino, said the woman matter-of-factly.”

A dialogue with Marco Polo from Italo Calvino’s work might offer a clue.

             Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.

            “But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

            “The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

            Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

            Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

Much of Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa takes place in Paris, but the middle segment of the narrative takes place in New York City, and it’s easy to imagine such a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan taking place near the Brooklyn Bridge (which does feature in Benjamin Constable’s novel/narrative.

(If it’s not easy to imagine this, quite likely this is not the book for you. Books with chapters numbered with halves, like 2 ½ and 25 ½, and stories with dead characters who move and breathe and leave clues? Not a fit for every reader.)

“Frustrating as it was, the story was already over.”

But, actually, the story is not already over. The third and final segment has just begun.

“Stories don’t normally continue on until everyone is dead, which would be nice and clearly defined. We arrive at a moment and then we just say ‘the end’, but that doesn’t mean that nothing else interesting happened; it just means we stopped telling the story. Maybe this one should finish now.”

But it does not.

It’s true of the Left Bank and it’s true of some narratives:

“There’s almost as much tunneling as there are streets.”

As Italo Calvino poses: “If you choose to believe me, good.”

As Benjamin Constable states: “They were a way of expressing something else. That’s how stories work.”

Is this debut on your summer reading list?

6 comments to Benjamin Constable’s Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa (2013)

  • It is not, but I’ll be putting it on my list of books to check out. Sounds fascinating and challenging in all the right ways. Excellent review.

    • There are aspects of this which would recommend it for RIP reading as well; you don’t have to emphasize these aspects (readers can focus on the puzzle-solving and the oddness), but they are there. (Vague, sorry. But I hate spoilers and give their genesis a wide berth!)

  • Oh I loved Griffin & Sabine and Banana Yoshimoto so this is a book I must put on my radar. I don’t know that I like books that are too convoluted like this but I think I could like this one.

    • There are times when Benjamin gets annoyed, himself, with some of the machinations, so that gives the reader permission to get a little irritated/confused as well, but it’s not like a constant carrot dangling in reach of the reader either, and there is just enough to keep interest sustained, IMO, even at those times when he is reaching his limit with the situation. I think you’d enjoy this one, also because I know you enjoy a good mystery.

  • Wow, I am confused just by reading your review! It sounds like the book is quite “meta,” though I’m glad that it’s not just trendy and actually seems to be well-delivered.

    • That’s one way of describing it, but the story is rooted in the characters and their emotions are drawn fully, so that the “meta-ness” unfolds in a context which makes it seem less confusing when you are immersed in it (but, still, a puzzle, for sure).

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