Surprising New Fiction: Diary of a Void

The Fiction Addiction
Diary of a VoidPhoto by(German edition cover art from publisher)

Diary of a Void, by Emi Yagi and translated into English by David Boyd and Lucy North, tells a bizarre but oddly relatable story.

Shibata is the only woman at her office, and so all the invisible tasks fall to her. She works long hours because she has her assigned job, as well as answering the phones, tidying the break room, washing the dishes and making coffee for everyone else. One day, when her manager tells her to tidy up after a meeting, she impulsively says she’s pregnant and the smell of the men’s cigarettes and coffee is making her feel sick.

It’s relatable, because who hasn’t considered inventing an allergy or illness to get out of something unpleasant? And fascinating, because how is she ever going to pull this off? I found myself wanting to read faster and faster, because I both cared for Shibata and couldn’t imagine how this lie would unfold. (I could tell from the writing style that this wasn’t leading to a cringey, comical removal of a fake belly, but besides that, I had no idea how this would possibly end.)

Shibata hasn’t planned a careful deception, but her impulsive lie takes on a life of its own. She begins to treat herself as pregnant woman. Leaving work early, getting to the supermarket before everything is wilted or sold out, cooking a healthy dinner, resting, and as the ruse goes on, taking gentle exercise and even joining a fitness class for pregnant women. She does basically everything that a typical self-care app would suggest, only she logs her activities in a pregnancy app instead. These are weirdly compelling scenes, as Shibata imagines her baby growing to the size of different fruits and vegetables, and chooses a name for her imaginary child.

The “void” in the title connects to a lot of things in this book, but most to Shibata’s job. Her company makes empty rolls for other companies to use for their products, so in the ultimate bullshit job, she’s selling nothing. A tiny, empty part in a massive machine of consumerism. Except, she can’t even get to her actual work of selling emptiness, because she’s washing coffee cups and organizing snacks and cleaning the microwave.

I sort of hate to compare this, because it’s very annoying when an American reader reads two international books and is convinced they’re alike. But I thought this had a similar sense of isolation as Convenience Store Women. Both of our protags find themselves surrounded by social and work expectations, and kind of subvert them in weird, solitary ways. And I had the same feeling as I wanted Keiko to find her own strange pleasure at her convenience store counter, as I had wanting Shibata would find her own strange pleasure in her fake-pregnancy app.

I don’t want to reveal the ending, because seeing how this unfolds is so fascinating. I liked seeing how other people saw her once they thought she was pregnant, whether she was getting her maternity pass for a seat on the train or hearing about good names for her future baby. Diary of a Void is a pageturner, because I just could not wait to see how her impulsive fake pregnancy story would turn out, but also thoughtful because of the commentary on women’s work and women’s roles.

Fan of this one should also read Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 for another story about the invisible work of women with “equal” opportunities or Everybody Rise for a protag lying to succeed in a punishing society.

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