In one scene from Intimacies, Katie Kitamura’s latest novel, the unnamed narrator wanders uninterrupted through an empty room housing the Mauritshuis art museum’s permanent collection. Taking in the portraits of the Dutch Golden Age, she is struck by the physical intimacy required to produce each piece: the “impossibly personal” act of a subject posing for a painter and how “such a sustained human gaze [is] outside the realm of experience today.” For the narrator the result is a “temporal blurring, or simultaneity,” where each instance of the painter observing the sitter becomes visible in the canvas itself, her painted expression containing each of these instances like layers. This ability of the narrator to lose herself completely in the act of observation is both her driver and her downfall.
Intimacies is at its core a novel about observation — about presentation versus perception, about watching versus being watched — and the point at which our sense of self becomes vulnerable, or lost completely. This hyper-awareness of others, the resulting dissociation and the loss of self that ensues follows the narrator through her interactions. We know relatively little about her, and what we do know is personal but factual, like a résumé. After the death of her father, she moved from New York to The Hague to work as a court interpreter, dealing with “crimes of historical significance.” Her life in the Dutch city is extremely thin; she isn’t fluent in the language, she has few social contacts outside of work, her lover Adriaan is emotionally and literally distant as he deals with a divorce, and she is unable to escape the feeling that there is no one place she can call “home.”
The narrator’s ability to give herself over entirely to the act of observation is what allows her to excel as an interpreter. “In the Court, what was at stake was nothing less than the suffering of thousands of people,” and in becoming attuned to not only the words being spoken, but the nuances in tone, inflection, context and body language — and making all of this immediately understandable for the person reliant on her interpretation — she makes an anonymity of herself. This twin process of observation and dissociation that becomes the narrator’s trademark way of operating peaks when she is assigned to the high profile case of the former president of an unspecified African country facing genocide charges. The deeper she throws herself into the case, the more she is confronted with the reality of having to be a neutral and unemotional, yet incredibly precise, communicator of the horrifying acts the victims describe.Thus the more her own place in the world and sense of self become compromised. Kitamura’s examination of this internal cost of external equanimity that comes as a result of being the conduit for language is meticulous. This psychic friction the narrator experiences due to her position as the fulcrum between two imperfect symbolic orders threads a slow-burning sense of unease through the text.
Outside of work, the narrator’s tendency towards relentless examination leads her to obsess over the few interpersonal relationships she has, or more often, bears witness to. Whether it is Adriaan’s fraught relationship with his wife Gaby and their teenage children, the mysterious assault of an acquaintance named Anton, or the disorienting advances of a defense lawyer named Kees, the narrator almost ends up surrendering her own agency through her analysis of a given situation.
Kitamura’s style is remarkable. Her combination of rigorously pared-back prose and a lack of delineating punctuation creates a creeping tension, even in scenes as habitual as taking the tram to work. A link can be made to Joanna Walsh’s short story collection, Vertigo, not just in the lean elegance of the writing, but in how both writers create slight but disconcerting shifts in time and place, with moments spinning out until suspended, held aloft for examination. The narrator’s ability to lose herself in her environment without ever really connecting with it means the familiarity she gains with the city is impersonal, as though she is moving through it without leaving a trace. Though presented with multiple opportunities to create a meaningful life in The Hague, to create the “home” she feels so estranged from, the narrator is ultimately unable to act on it. Instead, she hovers slightly out of frame, watching time pass.
Intimacies is an essential piece of contemporary fiction in how it depicts the current strain of overwhelming powerlessness that accompanies being an individual in a world run by vast and untouchable systems of power. Rather than tackle these forces directly, they loom over the narrator’s life like a sort of ever-present anxiety, which feels like the most accurate way of depicting being alive at this moment in time. The fallout is a character in a state of fragmentation and disconnect, operating on autopilot around an existential crisis. The timeliness of Kitamura’s novel is in how everything, even living in this way, “grows normal after a time.”