encounter

The Interpreter

Katie Kitamura’s hypnotic new novel asks, What happens when your main character is a passive witness to her own life?

Photo: Scott Semler/B) Scott Semler
Photo: Scott Semler/B) Scott Semler

The novelist and art critic Katie Kitamura suggested we meet at David Zwirner gallery on 19th Street. She wanted to catch a show by Rose Wylie, an 86-year-old British artist who creates massive paintings inspired by pilgrims, Quentin Tarantino films, chocolate cookies, World War II, and other phenomena. A festively colored Baggu tote dangling from her wrist, Kitamura stood before a canvas that showed a giant crablike figure in a green sea. Wylie was anointed an art star late in life, decades after she’d had children. “A lot of artists, their work changes when they get picked up by galleries and attain a level of commercial success,” Kitamura observed. Not this one, who still paints whatever she wants on unprimed canvases with blobs and strings trailing at the edges; 11 out of the 11 paintings at Zwirner had cat hairs stuck to the surface. “I love that she’s unfazed,” Kitamura said.

The same thing could be said about Kitamura. She writes about inertia, insecurity, equivocation, and alienation—topics not known to send novels flying off shelves. Four years ago, she published A Separation, a novel of prickly existential suspense written in taut, austere prose about a woman who goes searching for her estranged husband in rural Greece. Soon, the book was spotted everywhere — not just on yearly “Best Of” lists but on beaches and trains and in book clubs. On July 20, Riverhead will publish her next novel, Intimacies, about a court interpreter living temporarily in the Hague. By day, the unnamed narrator attends the trials of war criminals, translating their accounts (often through multiple chains of interpreters). By night, she wonders whether her boyfriend is ghosting her and why her friend is acting weird. She is porous, muddling, directionless, and spends a lot of time fretting about the human condition while maintaining awareness that fretting about the human condition is not a unique response to the modern world. I’d put Intimacies, and all of Kitamura’s novels, in the realm of the novels of Rachel Cusk or Jenny Offill — works crammed with ideas and deliberately devoid of catharsis, though not without momentum.

Kitamura grew up in Northern California and after college moved to London, which she calls “the first place where I was a grown-up. First job. First apartment. First serious friendships. I miss it.” Although she now lives in Brooklyn, her last two novels have been set in Europe. To write Intimacies, Kitamura installed herself at the International Criminal Court for the trial of Laurent Gbagbo, a former president of Côte d’Ivoire who had been charged with crimes against humanity. (He was acquitted. Fictionalized versions of both the court and Gbagbo feature in the text.) “You can sit in on almost everything,” Kitamura said. During her visit, the mezzanine was filled with student groups and journalists and members of the public along with supporters of Gbagbo. The interpreters — her primary point of interest — were located above the courtroom in glass booths.

“Before I got there, I had an image of the interpreter as a self-effacing presence,” Kitamura said. Instead, “they were confident, garrulous people who operated well under pressure.” They were, in other words, performers. “I’m interested in exploring arenas where people are behaving in a certain way — not necessarily acting, but operating inside a gap between who they believe they are and who they are enacting for the benefit of somebody else.” One of the characters in A Separation is conducting a study of professional mourners in Greece: women hired to grieve loudly at village burials. “A professional mourner only works if you believe it’s real,” Kitamura said. “But you know it’s fake because you’re paying them to do it. That suspension of disbelief is interesting to me.” Even in a relationship, she said, you’re performing a version of yourself.

Kitamura’s husband is the novelist Hari Kunzru, and the couple live in Brooklyn with their two children. Over time, she and Kunzru have developed a vocational symbiosis: When one is close to finishing a book, they’ll hand it over to the other for feedback, which is delivered with “as cold an eye as possible.” They do this largely to prevent each other from “putting something ridiculous into the world” — an important function in a spouse — but also because it offers opportunities for reverence. “Every time I read one of his books, I’m like, ‘You’re so smart!’ ” Kitamura said. “It’s not as though I’d forgotten. But I mostly thought about him as the nice person who unloads the dishwasher. You get to experience them as other people experience them.”

We wandered up to the High Line, where we sat on a bench. Neither of us had been there in nearly a decade and couldn’t believe the altered landscape. Had it always been surrounded by luxury ­residence versions of Star Trek spacecraft? There were so many 70-degree angles, so many cantilevered observation decks, so many pentadecagonal windows and telescoping outer shells. We watched a teenager glued to an iPhone zombie-walk behind her parents.

“To be in the world right now is to have your mind occupied by four or five different things at once, three of which will not be resolved, and which will intersect but not perfectly,” Kitamura said. With Intimacies, she wanted to write a novel that mirrored contemporary life’s anxieties and ambiguities without simply replicating those qualities and, in so doing, voided the whole point of novel-writing. For Kitamura, it came down to the first-person voice. “I resisted first person for a long time because I dislike the authority of it.” The trick, she found, was to fashion her narrators into deconstruction machines. “My narrators are figuring it out; they haven’t arrived at a point where they have a tidy story to tell,” she said. Instead, they undergo a puzzling interaction and try to take it apart; then they move on to the next mysterious situation and take it apart, and in this way the story is propelled forward. There are events and reversals and other devices known to fiction, but nothing that could be preceded by “and then,” “all of a sudden,” “little did she know,” or “but everything was about to change.” No cliffhangers, but plenty of steep hills to climb down.

The Untidy Tales of Katie Kitamura