“4,000 lonely deaths a week,” estimated the cover of a popular weekly magazine this summer, capturing the national alarm.
To many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex, the deaths were the natural and frightening conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births. The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found.
One reason for the tabletop-gaming boom is simply that the products have improved. The best modern games are sociable, engaging and easy to learn, but also cerebral, intriguing and difficult to master. The slow triumph of what used to be called “nerd culture” – think smartphone gaming and “Game of Thrones” on television – has given adults permission to engage openly in pastimes that were previously looked down on as juvenile. And the increasing ubiquity of screens has, paradoxically, fuelled a demand for in-person socialising. Board gaming is another example of an old-style, analogue pastime that, far from being killed by technology, has been reinvigorated by it.
Wen is of the Taromak tribe, a mountainous group whose entire history has been on the Kindoor (Kendu Ershan 肯杜爾山 in Chinese) mountains on the east coast of Taiwan in modern-day Taitung County. The Taromak tribe used to live up in the mountains until 1923, when Japanese colonists came and forced them down from their ancestral village. In 1949, the Chinese arrived and mandated all indigenous peoples in Taiwan learn Chinese and stop speaking their mother languages. Christian missionaries simultaneously came in en masse. Today, Christianity is the main religion in Taromak, with five churches for a population of roughly 1,000. (Taromak refers to both the tribe and the place they live.)
“Colonization almost destroyed my culture,” Wen says. “Food is our last line of connection.”
Planes are practical, buses are cheap and cars grant freedom. But trains are for romance. A century after America’s railway heyday, the country’s ageing trains still enjoy an anachronistic glamour. Few people are immune to the charms of a sluggish, traffic-free chug across states, with the countryside unfurling panoramically. At a dark or uncertain time for the country, a long rail journey from one coast to the other may even inspire some patriotism.
Such thoughts helped spur Gabriel Kahane, a 36-year-old singer-songwriter, to take to the rails the morning after the presidential election last November. Feeling “increasingly imprisoned by my own digitally curated liberal silo”, he was eager to leave behind his mobile phone and spend time with the kinds of Americans he never meets while shopping for quinoa in his Brooklyn enclave. Mr Kahane ultimately spoke with between 80 and 90 people over the course of his two-week, 8,980-mile trip , during which he slept and ate on the train. The effect, he says, was therapeutic, “a kind of salve”. It also made possible a kind of cross-cultural engagement that he is sure he will never have again.
When I was in high school I worked as a Christmas gift wrapper at the Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs. I can remember everything about the job except how I got it. I don’t remember an interview or even an application. All I remember is that every girl—and it was only girls—who wrapped books at the Chinook simply knew she was the sort of girl who wrapped books at the Chinook, and I was one of those girls. So on a weekday afternoon in early November of my junior year, I walked from William J. Palmer High School across Acacia Park to the Chinook, opened its heavy wooden door, and presented myself in the way that, just a few miles away at the Broadmoor hotel, a different sort of girl of the same age in the same season would present herself as a debutante in a white dress and a jeweled tiara. (At the Chinook I presented myself in a messy ponytail and button-fly Levis and a down jacket.)
At first I thought you were simply taking a break, as writers sometimes do, to meet a deadline or clear your head. That was before the election. Later, during the election and its aftermath, I thought maybe you left because you couldn’t stand the climate. Maybe you’d been harassed, maybe you hated the polarization, the sense that there was no language outside the logic of rival clubs, or maybe you were just tired, maybe you felt you had nothing to add. Perhaps you were suffering a kind of political depression.
This is a novel of richness and wisdom and huge pleasure. Silber knows, and reveals, how close we live to the abyss, but she also revels in joy, particularly the joy that comes from intimate relationships.