Book Review: “Mr. Katō Plays Family” by Milena Michiko Flašar
Milena Michiko Flašar’s Mr. Katō Plays Family is being compared to Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. At least, it is so by the publicity department at the former novel’s publisher. The reason why is that both books share a “new lease on life” theme, but in the case of the book up for review here — and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the publicists who must have a tough job marketing this unconventional novel — I’m just not seeing it. The two books, in my view, have about as much in common as oil and water. In Backman’s book, Ove (or Otto in the Americanized movie version) is something of a curmudgeon. In Flašar’s novel, her main character is less so and is a bit of a daydreamer. The book’s genesis, though, is interesting in that its author is of Japanese-Austrian descent. The book was written in German (and translated into English) even though it is set in Japan and features Japanese characters. It’s also a relatively short book, the sort of thing you can read on a lazy Saturday morning. However, it does take a while to get into, because the main plot doesn’t kick in until a third of the way into the book. It also feels as though it is several novels mashed together as one.
Mr. Katō Plays Family is a book about the titular character, a recent retiree who likes to take long walks around his Japanese neighbourhood thinking about a dog he will never be allowed to own on account of his wife’s objections. Much of the novel (or the first part of it, at least) is a stream-of-consciousness-like internal monologue. Mr. Katō talks regularly with an area homeless person and sometimes, during his musings, wonders what his wife might be up to with her fitness instructor. One day, he gets caught dancing in a graveyard by a young woman named Mie. She works with an agency that hires actors to briefly “replace” family members by relatives who want to have an interaction with them that they wouldn’t dare to in reality. Well, Katō takes an offer for work and is pretty soon finding himself — without his wife or adult children knowing — being asked to be one of these stand-ins. Eventually, he gets a visit from his pregnant daughter, which may be in due time due to a heart defect Katō has that we’re told about by the author on the very first page of the novel. And if that all sounds a bit disjointed, it is.
Is Mr. Katō Plays Family worth recommending? The answer is both yes and no. The “no” part first: the first third of the novel feels like padding and filler to bring what would otherwise be a short story or a novella up to a full-fledged novel length. I found it to be tedious. I don’t want to be mean or churlish, but the fact remains that watching a man wander about and think to himself doesn’t offer very many meaningful opportunities for high drama. However, by the time the main protagonist is working as a stand-in, the book really picks up and becomes interesting as much as it seems to be implausible. After all, wouldn’t other people notice that an actor has been hired to replace a much-loathed (or much-loved) relative? Still, it’s the interactions that Katō has with people that are alternatively touching and mesmerising. (And that’s not to speak of Mie, who — in a rather poignant section — takes on the job of briefly replacing a couple’s deceased 14-year-old daughter.) However, and this is going to give a little bit away so stop reading now if you plan on reading this book (and come back to this review later), the stand-in jobs just end for Katō for seeming little reason. It’s as though Milena Michiko Flašar got into a corner and needed some way of painting herself back out of it. Again, I don’t mean to be cruel here in offering criticism, but as much as Mr. Katō Plays Family can be an interesting book, it is also a grossly flawed one.
Whether or not you should read this book is going to come down to how patient you are as a reader, even for shorter works. It really does take some time for this novel to get going somewhere, and once it does it also eventually loses its way somewhat. It’s like the book is shaped like a bell curve: it has an interesting middle, but its beginning and ends lag a little. It may also help if you’re a purveyor of Japanese fiction and like things to be weird. This novel has a little bit of a Haruki Murakami vibe to it, so if you like his books, you may be smitten with this one. And, of course, if you liked A Man Called Ove, you might want to try this one to see if you can spot any resemblance of similarities between the two books as an intellectual exercise. Despite what publicists want readers to think, I must give kudos to the author for writing a book that wasn’t a direct rehash of another work of fiction. The one clear similarity, at least to me, is that these two novels are actually from “international” authors who don’t originate in North America and whose native language is (seemingly) not English. Milena Michiko Flašar has also been feted with some prestigious awards, such as being long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award, so she’s a respected author and that might be enough to get some readers interested in this. But me, I’m of two minds. I wish one part of the book was extended and another part or two trimmed down. Still, Mr. Katō Plays Family is an experiment and like all good experimental fiction, may be something of an acquired taste for readers with a penchant for Japanese main characters. I’ve said it before and will do so again, but it comes down to your mileage varying on this one. Maybe make a trip to the library if you’re interested first. That’s about the only extent of a recommendation that I can, alas, give for Mr. Katō Plays Family in the end.
Milena Michiko Flašar’s Mr. Katō Plays Family will be published by Forge Books on June 20, 2023.
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