True Oe devotees may find this thrill in Death by Water, but thrilling or not, it remains a thoughtful reprise of a lifetime of literary endeavor. It’s like the story of the emperor’s new clothes, only with the man in question gazing calmly at his audience and declaring yes, it’s true, he’s completely naked and he wouldn’t have it any other way. You have to admire his serene and total conviction, even if you flinch from the view.
Simply, it's best to be patient here. Oe may have made a trek of a novel, but he's made one that's worth the extra effort. Eventually, by the final pages, all those early difficulties give way to another challenge entirely: Just trying to let it go.
One hopes this is all deliberate, and, at length, so it turns out: Oe wants the reader to get lost, too, in a forest of stories and competing memories... At length what seemed oppressively solipsistic widens out, almost imperceptibly, into a book that is also about politics, war and the place of women in modern Japanese society.
Death by Water masterfully captures the vertigo of this old writer’s vivid inner world. That he accomplishes this while also looking outward — exploring the state of a nation and the passing of a generation, and what stands to be lost in the process — is nothing short of remarkable.