Review of The Sound of White Ants by Brian Howell

These sixteen stories were written between 1997 and 2004, giving a voice to the hidden endeavors of the modern Japanese, spying both the clogs in the machinery as well as their occasionally skewed family-life. The reader is often in the company of the iconic Japanese salaryman, or rather the middle-aged man in general, tempted by the shores of Hawaii and strange women alike. All of this is delivered with a surreal slant, a taste for satisfying the curiousity of readers wanting to sample what it all could be like.

ants‘The Sound of White Ants’ is a book marching to the drums of both zeitgeist and surrealism and to a great extent, it delivers. At his best, Mr Howell transports us to some hidden plane of the great warrior-race where economic expansion is replaced with massive sexual repression and robotic dogs get hacked to pieces with sacrificial daggers of death-cults. The reader is urged to swap the vast amounts of those usual preconceptions of orderly Japanese culture with something much more complex, multi-faceted and sinister.

The book reads like a tribute to a sadness and neediness which often gets neglected in speeding trains, sleeping-capsules and four-hour company meetings. 

Mr Howell questions the institutions of marriage and career-building as many of his characters struggle with their imposed authority. A steady stream of longing washes over them all, drowning out at least those most of imbecilic TV-adverts (unfamiliar to none) and taking in the reader's undivided attention.

 

The family is of great concern and source of ambivalence to the White Ants' population. To whom am I married to and why? Who am I and what are my true aspirations? These are some of the questions raised by the book, common in this world but presented here through Daliesque dialogue.There are occasional signs of prose falling asleep on its way to work on the rocketing train, drained by routine, but these are few and far between, and shocks and surprises are plenty. The protagonists seem dreamy, taken aback only when they discover a room full of bloody limbs and an axe in their grip. 

Some stereotypes retain their truth. Prior and after reading this book, the archetypal uniform-donning Japanese schoolgirl will keep saluting men like an eager scout, ready to change their entire world with the slightest of effort but never fully surrendering herself. True communication in the book is sparse, with its characters preferring to hold on to a facade of polite dignity. Strange names and places whiz past as the reader tries to complete the puzzles left by Mr Howell, riddles which need not be solved in order to be cherished. 

From the bruising sadomasochism of the welcoming story to the gentle sorrow of "The Space Between the Walls", the stories appear as preludes to a foreboding conclusion. Some of them act like torches, briefly illuminating present-day crises like the aftermath of 9/11.

Working on the dynamics of desire and sexually driven escapism, ‘The Sound of White Ants’ is a seamless effort of elegant surrealism that stirs a sense of the sublime in all of us.

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This review was first published on Laura Hird's website in 2004

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