If you can say immediately what you think a novel is ‘about’, then the chances are that it may not be a very good novel. Fiction as a genre gives writers and readers imaginative room to move, to work on a vertical axis of layers of meaning as well as along the horizontal forward movement of narrative development.
But when hesitating over the question ‘what is this novel about?’, one good way to cut through the hesitation is to think what, if you were a designer, you would put on the cover, disregarding issues of marketability and thinking, for the moment, strictly about meaning. For me, the ideal cover of Dreams of Speaking would show a photograph or drawing of a traditional raked Japanese garden. When Mr Sakamoto, one of this book’s two main characters, is explaining to Alice, the other, about the way that a telephone works, he remarks: ‘It’s about ripples in the air, patterns of ripples, as in a Japanese raked garden … [which] always looks to me like an image of sound waves. Gardens, ocean, the beauty of energy transmission.’
One of the many things going on in this image, in this conversation, and indeed throughout the whole novel, is the reconciliation between a number of pairs more usually thought of as oppositional or dichotomous: machines and aesthetics, science and magic, modernity and timelessness, west and east, and, as Mr Sakamoto puts it, ‘nuance and eternity … the two dimensions of haiku’.