Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Murata Sayaka: Konbini ningen (2016)

Murata Sayaka 村田沙耶香.  Konbini ningen コンビニ人間.  Bungei Shunjū, 2016.

This won the 155th A-Prize, for early 2016. 

Murata (b. 1979) began writing in 2003 and has already won the Mishima Prize;  she’s another well-established writer, a bit late in her career for the A-Prize, at least as traditionally conceived.  It may not be that way anymore, really. 

The novel is told from the point of view of Keiko, a 36-year-old single woman who has been working at a convenience store – the same one – her entire adult life.  As a part-timer (i.e., no benefits or security, although she works full-time, it seems).  Early on she tried to get something more like a real job, but couldn’t make it through the interviews, and has settled into life as a convenience store person:  thus the title, which you could play around with if you wanted – “convenient person” – but which really seems to refer to the fact that Keiko’s personality is utterly adapted to the routine of convenience store work.

This makes the book sound like it’s another meditation on the insecure employment situation of the post-Bubble generation(s), and it might have started out like that, but Keiko’s issue is something else.  We’d probably say she’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, but, importantly, the book doesn’t use a medical discourse.  Keiko expresses it to herself as just having an impossible time figuring out what the world expects from her in terms of “normal” behavior, and understanding why.  She’s perfectly willing to comply, but she has to have it spelled out for her.  A childhood incident that’s related early on in the book is typical:  on the playground at school a couple of boys get into a fight, and Keiko hears everybody shouting for teachers and yelling, “Make them stop!” So, very logically, Keiko picks up a shovel and brains one of the boys.  It makes them stop, but of course then the school has to have a talk with Keiko and her parents – and Keiko never has quite figured out why. 

She likes the convenience store job because there’s a manual that spells out everything that needs to be done, when, and how.  She’s tremendously efficient if given this kind of program to follow, and as the story goes on it becomes clear that this is what she needs out of life.  She feels like she belongs to the store – is part of the store.  It’s where she feels needed and comfortable.  But it’s not just that:  the regimentation of the job provides order and structure for her life.  Late in the book when she quits (we’ll get to that) she just goes to pieces without that structure.  Can’t even crawl out of the closet in the morning (we’ll get to that too).

It’s not an emotional attachment to the job, though, at least in part because she doesn’t seem to have emotions.  Never gets angry, sad, whatever.  It’s that she needs this external input to know how to live her life.  This is stressed a lot in the area of language:  she is quite aware that she ends up talking like her co-workers, picking up phrases, intonations, and reactions from them.  She assumes that this is how everybody’s personality is formed:  by osmosis from the people around them.  She seems to assume that nobody has any agency – certainly she has spent her life actively trying to suppress hers. 

So this all makes the book sound like it’s an exploration of a psychological issue, and it may be that, but again:  the book doesn’t indulge in that kind of terminology, and doesn’t encourage us to think of Keiko as “ill.”  Instead, it frames things in a discourse of “normal” and “abnormal,” with Keiko failing to understand why the “normal” people consider her “abnormal” and why they care.  This discourse is primarily verbalized, however, not by Keiko but by a man who comes into her life.  This is Shiraha, another person in his 30s who has been unable to hold a “real” job.  He gets a job at Keiko’s convenience store, but his “abnormality” is much more malignant than Keiko’s, manifesting itself in stalking female customers, and just generally being a skeevy character.  He gets fired and ends up almost homeless before Keiko encounters him on the street a while later. 

She takes him in and they live together for a while.  It’s completely a relationship of convenience.  He wants somewhere to hide from the world – from his unpaid bills, but also from everybody who judges him for being a useless guy, unemployed in his 30s.  And Keiko wants her sister, her parents, and her old classmates to stop giving her the side-eye for being a part-timer, single, and a virgin at 36.  Shiraha gives her cover, and she gives him shelter.  But because Shiraha is so skeevy, he can’t accept this charity without incessantly reminding her of how gross he finds her, and how horribly unjust the world is for not accepting him.  He has to keep asserting his superiority over her, to keep his male pride.  The book is pretty explicity about this;  Shiraha sees human society as essentially unchanged from hunter-gatherer days, when men had to be productive hunters and women productive child-bearers and anybody who couldn’t do that was kicked out of the tribe.  He knows they’re on the verge of being kicked out of the tribe but still wants to assert his essential maleness. 

Keiko, on the other hands, is characteristically emotionless about it all.  She’s pleasantly surprised by how quickly her family and friends believe she’s successfully scored a man, and she’s happy that the deception is working.  The rub comes when Shiraha insists she start interviewing for “real” (higher-paying) jobs (because there’s no way she can support both of them on a part-timer’s wages – that’s why she sleeps in the closet;  and he sleeps in the bathtub), and quit the convenience store.  That’s when, without structure, she falls completely apart.  But then she steps into a convenience store and (spoiler alert) realizes where she belongs, and dumps Shiraha.  Possibly the first time she’s asserted herself ever, and that’s where the story ends.

So there’s a lot going on in this book.  A sincere and cage-rattling indictment of a society that can’t help but ostracize people who don’t conform, but an indictment that’s voiced by a thoroughly repulsive character.  And Keiko, too, is suspect – she’s not skeevy or exploitative like Shiraha, and in fact is the perfect employee, the perfect cog in the machine – but there’s that shovel incident in her childhood that hovers over the book, reminding you that her emotional emptiness makes her capable of unblinking violence.  And all of this in a tone that many readers will find humorous, as well as creepy.  It’s memorable, that’s for sure. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Motoya Yukiko: Irui kon'intan (2016)

Motoya Yukiko 本谷有希子.  Irui kon’intan 異類婚姻譚.  Kōdansha, 2016.

This won the 154th A-Prize, for late 2016.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Takiguchi Yūshō’s book.

Motoya was born in 1979.  She’s been writing since 2004, and has already won the Mishima Prize;  this is her fourth story to be a finalist for the A-Prize.  She’s a bit of an unusual choice, being so well established as a writer already…

The title story is the winner.  It’s a first-person narration in the voice of a young housewife we know as San-chan.  The primary relationship it deals with is that with her husband, unnamed;  we also meet her younger brother Senta and his girlfriend Hakone, and an older neighbor lady named Kitae. 

Let’s cut to the chase.  At the end of the story, San-chan’s husband turns into a peony.  To be specific, a yamashakuyaku 山芍薬, Paeonia japonica.  It turns out to be his fondest wish, and she takes him and plants him in the forest.  Some of the committee members compare her stuff (this is all I’ve read) to medieval setsuwa, the magical transformation here fitting into the same category as those you find in folktales.  And there certainly is something prodigiously symbolic about it.  The title nods in the direction of a traditional mode, too:  “Interspecies marriage story,” a semi-technical literary-history term for a particular category of setsuwa or other traditional tale.

The interspecies aspect of the marriage begins long before he turns into a flower, though.  We join them when they’ve been married for about four years, and she’s starting to notice that, when he’s at home and not thinking about it, his facial features disorganize themselves.  Droop, melt, go funny – as if he’s no longer human.  This is a story about marriage anxiety, and pretty clearly San-chan is anxious about who or what she’s married to.  It’s the “not thinking about it” part that really matters here.  From the outset, her husband had announced that he’s the type of guy who doesn’t want to think about anything when he’s at home.  His evening routine is to come home, sit on the sofa, drink a highball, and watch three hours of comedy on TV.  Later he gets addicted to an iPad game.  Still later, to making deep-fried foods, which he forces San-chan to eat.  The husband is, in a word, a total shlub, but while his behavior is kind of stereotypical, Motoya’s description of him isn’t.  Rather than rendering him as a kind of sitcom bad hubby, she has him speaking in strangely soft, feminine language, and interacting with her in an exaggeratedly nonconfrontational way.  He’s not an authoritarian, but rather a big, good-natured baby;  it’s creepy, intentionally so.  And so when his features start to drift, it’s just an outward confirmation of the deep strangeness at the heart of this guy.  We don’t expect him to turn into a flower, though;  an animal, maybe, but a flower is a surprise.  It’s appropriate, though, given that he’s kind of the ultimate expression of the herbivore male trope. 

What scares San-chan more than her husband’s transformation is the possibility that it’s happening to her, too.  Somebody comments to her that she and her husband are starting to look alike, and she becomes mildly obsessed with the possibility.  By the end she starts to feel her features rearranging, too.  But she doesn’t become a flower – instead, there’s a weird role-reversal passage at the end where she’s drinking a highball and watching TV, he’s cooking for her, and then the flower.  It’s marriage anxiety, as I say, and if part of that is the fear that you’ve married something fundamentally, inalterably, unknowably different from yourself, another part of it is the fear that you’re losing your individual identity, being subsumed into your partner’s being.  That’s here, too.

There’s an important subplot concerning cats.  The neighbor Kitae has a cat that has lost urinary control – it pees all over the house.  No treatment, no change of environment, no consultation does any good, so eventually she decides to abandon the cat in the woods.  San-chan drives her there;  later she goes back to leave her husband the peony in the same place.  Kitae’s angst over abandoning the cat stands in stark contrast to San-chan’s emotional distance – Kitae loves her cat more than it seems San-chan has ever loved her husband.  Her husband, in a rare communicative moment, suggests that she married him because she knew she could recede into the life of a homemaker, more than anything.

I was less plussed about this story than the above summary may suggest.  As an examination of marriage anxieties it’s pretty memorably horrifying.  And yet…  This particular constellation of gender relations seems pretty archaic, even for Japan.  Not that couples like this don’t exist, but the story’s concerns seem a bit old.  And if you’re going to invoke setsuwa, it might be a good idea to make sure your writing is as pithy and eloquent as setsuwa tend to be.  This isn’t.

There are three omake stories in the book.  The first, “ ‘Inutachi’ <犬たち>” (“ ‘Dogs’ “), has the unnamed narrator spending the winter in a cabin belonging to a friend, on a mountain above a village.  The narrator makes friends with some wild (?) white dogs that visit the cabin regularly, but when she visits the village she finds that everybody is afraid of dogs – they seem to blame dogs for local disappearances.  Later, during a blizzard, the narrator saves one of the dogs, which has fallen down her well.  As she does, she seems to hear the dogs saying, “She’s passed.”  In a few days, when she goes down to the village, she finds it empty, as if everybody just disappeared.  She’s not upset about this – always antisocial by nature, her childhood wish was for everybody to just disappear like this one morning.  She goes back up to the cabin and goes on like before.  Then she notices that she’s growing white fur. 

The second, “Tomoko no baumkuchen トモ子のバウムクーヘン” (Tomoko’s baumkuchen), is very short.  The titular housewife has a breakthrough or breakdown while making baumkuchen for her little kids.  In an instant, for no discernible reason, she flashes onto the essential absurdity of her life – it’s like she’s standing in a wasteland that used to be a game show, but the host and the audience are all gone, and the machine just keeps spitting out questions at her.  She wanders around her house recognizing nothing, as if it’s all been replaced by simulacra, or always has been.  She snaps out of it by going back to her baking as if nothing was wrong, but the feeling never quite leaves her.  The baumkuchen seems meant to suggest Tomoko’s own layers – as if this knowledge was always there, this anxiety over her life, but buried beneath other layers of consciousness.  It’s a simple story, but deep and intense.

The third, “Wara no otto 藁の夫” (Straw husband) also deals with marriage anxiety.  Tomoko (written the same; no indication if it’s the same character) is married to a man made of straw.  No explanation of how such a thing is possible, but a little description of how it works.  No face, but he wears clothes (running gear, in the story), drives, and talks.  Tomoko’s family and friends warned her against marrying a straw man, but he was so kind…  The story breaks down into two halves.  In the first half they’re running in the park – he’s coaching her, as she’s just starting out.  It seems idyllic.  In the second half, she accidentally maybe nicks his new BMW, and he throws a tantrum.  As he sulks and scolds her, teeny-tiny musical instruments start spilling out from inside him, until he’s all empty.  Then he apologizes, she stuffs them back into him, and they go running again – but not before she has fantasized setting fire to his straw and watching him burn.

As often happens to me, I found the bonus stories to be a little more satisfying than the prize story;  in this case they persuaded me to lighten up a bit on Motoya’s choice of theme.  The pervasive sense of alienation and anxiety within interpersonal relationships, mainly marriage, is something she really does well.  As for the surrealist aspects – I can see what she’s getting at in most cases.  I'm not sure I felt that she was getting at things with surrealism that she couldn’t get at in other ways, or that the surrealism brought a power that realism couldn’t have brought.  I don’t know if I felt it was necessary or particularly delightful…

Friday, June 17, 2016

Takiguchi Yūshō: Shinde inai mono (2016)

Takiguchi Yūshō 滝口悠生.  Shinde inai mono 死んでいない者.  Bungei Shunjū, 2016.

This won the 154th A-Prize, for late 2016.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Motoya Yukiko’s book.

Takiguchi was born in 1982.  He was a finalist for the previous prize;  has been writing since 2011. 

I want to translate this title as “The Undead,” but since it’s not about zombies I’d better refrain;  I guess “Those Who Haven’t Died” is most exact;  maybe “The Not-Dead-Yet”?  Or “The Nondead”?  Anyway, it’s a book-length story (it takes up the whole volume, at about 140 pages) about a funeral.  To be precise, a wake – it all takes place during the night of the tsuya 通夜 of an old man who’s only ever called “the deceased” (kojin 故人).  As befits the title, though, it’s not about the deceased, but about the living who come to the wake.  Specifically, it’s about a large extended family – his five kids, their numerous kids and their kids’ kids, plus assorted spouses and a couple of friends of the family. 

What stands out about this book most is the narrative technique, specifically the point of view.  There isn’t one.  Or rather, there is and there isn’t.  The narration shifts focus from person to person frequently, moving freely up and down the generations and in and out of the characters’ heads, memories, imaginations.  And yet it’s not quite an omniscient narrator – sometimes characters’ actions are described in the speculative manner of someone who’s observing and drawing conclusions, and sometimes descriptions are given along with subjective judgment or sensation.  But if this is a first-person narration, there’s no hint of whose it might be, no indication of an actual subjectivity we’re inhabiting, and then of course there’s the way the narration slips into the past, and into the deep consciousness of many of the characters.  So is this the ghost of the deceased who’s narrating it?  Are we experiencing these people’s lives with the freedom of the newly dead, someone who is freed from the bounds of subjectivity but not entirely shorn of it?  Perhaps – there are the barest nods in that direction, including a memory late in the book that concerns nobody but the deceased and his wife (who died much earlier).  But that memory isn’t entirely untethered from the point of view of a friend of the deceased who is attending the wake…

The Prize Committee’s reactions to the book seemed largely bound up with this vagueness in the point of view.  If you have problems with it, you don’t like the book;  if you’re okay with it, you like the book.  I’m okay with it, but it does puzzle me.  It doesn’t seem like it’s an enigma wanting to be solved, but rather like an experiment. 

What it allows is interesting, and that’s the thorough exploration of this whole extended family, from multiple points of view.  Of course, this could also be accomplished through a traditional third-person omniscient narrator;  but then the reader might demand more careful explanation and development than we’re given.  The oddly floating semi-subjective nature of this narrator forestalls (for some readers, at any rate) objections when it randomly moves on to a different character.

There:  that’s what I felt was the flaw in the book.  I didn’t find any of the characters to be developed deeply enough to be satisfying.  By the end we do find that we’ve gotten to know some of them better than others (a 17-year-old girl and her 27-year-old shut-in brother;  an absent alcoholic father and his troubled kids), but not well enough for their stories to really stand out.  Just when we seem to be getting to the bottom of one, the narration will drift off to someone else, either a new character or someone we’ve met before, as if to remind us that the point is the group portrait, not the individual. 

As a group portrait, though, I found it curiously moving.  There are so many characters that even though they’re listed carefully a number of times, with their relations to each other spelled out, I found it next to impossible to keep track of who was related to who and how.  But I don’t think we’re really meant to;  the characters themselves have a hard time, as is typical in big extended families.  This is one of the aspects of the book that I really liked:  the texture of the family, some of whom are close, others of whom see each other only at occasions like funerals, all of whom are basically aware of each other, but each of whom has her or his own problems that do and don’t impinge on the others’ lives.  It all feels normal.  There are problems, such as the alcoholic and the shut-in I mentioned, but they don’t seem out of proportion.  This isn’t an exposé of the modern family.  But neither is it the heart-warming (read: cloying) thing it could have been, either.  It’s dry, in that sense, in a good way.  Carefully poised;  ambiguous, just like the position of the narrator. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fujino Chiya: Natsu no yakusoku (1999)

Fujino Chiya 藤野千夜.  Natsu no yakusoku 夏の約束.  Kōdansha, 2000.

This was the co-winner of the 122nd A-Prize, for late 1999.  The other co-winner was Gengetsu 玄月’s Kage no sumika 蔭の棲みか.

Fujino was born in 1962, making her 37 when she won the Prize.  She’d been writing for four or five years.  Also, she was born a man.  I believe she was the first transsexual to win the Akutagawa Prize.  This, of course, created quite a stir in 2000.  She’s still a well-known writer, and I’m a bit surprised she’s not better known in English.

Both the hardback and paperback (I read the latter) printings of “Natsu no yakusoku” bear the French
translation of the title on the cover:  “Une promesse d’été.”  I guess we can translate it into English as “A summer promise,” although “The promise of summer” seems admissible and more evocative…  The promise in question is a vague plan that the main characters have made to go camping once summer comes;  the promise is mentioned by several of them in various scenes, and while neither the camping trip nor the preparations for it form any of the action of the book, still the idea that there’s this fun excursion awaiting them sometime in the near future is significant, thematically.  I’ll spoil it and say they never go, at least not in the summer that arrives in the story;  so this summer promise just hovers there as a vague hope for good times to come, good times that haven’t quite arrived but might yet, someday.

The story is a group portrait of several characters in their 20s living in Tokyo.  The focus shifts between and among them over the course of the novella.  At first it seems like we’ll be following the lives of Maruo and Hikaru, a gay male couple, and seeing them mainly through Maruo’s point of view.  But soon we meet their transgender friend Tamayo and her dog Apollon, and then we follow her to a gathering of her girlfriends, one of whom we later learn knew Hikaru growing up.  Then we meet Maruo’s downstairs neighbor Okano, and learn second-hand of her difficult love life…  There’s not much of a plot, really.  It’s more a series of vignettes as we see these characters and a few others in twos and threes, interacting, relating. 

In some ways the story is a meditation on relationships.  At first blush it seems the only real relationship we see is Maruo’s and Hikaru’s, but that’s almost enough.  It’s a finely drawn partnership, realized through two carefully rendered characters.  Hikaru works for a publisher, which we’re told allows him the freedom to be open about his sexuality, but Maruo is a salaryman, and has to stay closeted.  Most of his coworkers guess, though, and he’s subject to some hazing;  the difficulties of living LGBT in turn-of-the-millennium Tokyo are not foregrounded in the story, but they’re apparent on the edges.  Hikaru wants to move in with Maruo;  they already live near each other and are about as out as they can be in their neighborhood, walking around holding hands, and Hikaru wants to formalize their relationship as much as it can be in 1999.  Maruo is reluctant, and at first we suspect it might be due to the pressures of the closet;  later, though, we begin to wonder if he’s just reluctant to commit to Hikaru to that degree.  He doesn’t cheat, but there’s some interesting chemistry between him and Tamayo that’s barely hinted at. 

Maruo’s and Hikaru’s relationship is reflected/refracted in several other relationships that Fujino slips into the story.  Almost-relationships, I guess one could call them.  Tamayo’s emotional attachment to her dog Apollon is one.  This almost seems comical, or cliché, but it’s the occasion for Tamayo’s comment that to Apollon, Tamayo constitutes 8/10ths of the world.  That’s as close to a statement of the theme of the story as Fujino gets:  the idea that we are each other’s horizons, especially in relationships.  Human beings in relationships define each other’s universes. 

It’s a very pleasant read, the casual, light, uneventful surface disguising the careful craft that Fujino puts into delineating her characters and their situations.  In terms of significance, it’s surely an effort to emphasize the sheer normality of her characters:  Maruo’s easy-going good humor, his problems with his weight, his reluctance to commit, Tamayo’s understated longing for whatever the camping trip represents for her.  There’s a warmth and humanity to these characters that’s hard not to be charmed by.  Since Fujino’s not foregrounding the characters’ sufferings at the hands of straight society (but those sufferings are there!), the story might fall short for a reader who would like a more aggressive defense of these characters’ rights to live as they are.  It’s undeniably well crafted, though, and certainly drew enough attention in 2000.

I believe when this was published in hardback it was alone, but the paperback I read has an omake story in it:  Shufu to kōban 主婦と交番, “Housewife and Police Box.”  This has been translated.  It’s about a housewife named Natsumi and her little girl Mika.  Natsumi’s husband’s job has him living in another city, a common enough pattern in Japan;  he doesn’t appear in the story, so for all intents and purposes Natsumi and Mika are alone.  There’s an upstairs friend of Natsumi’s named Yoshiko, and that’s about it for characters.  The theme is the isolation of the housewife, so the small cast is key. 

This story, too, has a light, even humorous surface.  One day Mika asks why there are no lady cops in police boxes, those little neighborhood police ministations one finds everywhere in Japan.  Natsumi has never thought about it, and from then on becomes mildly obsessed with police boxes.  She scopes out all the ones within walking or bicycling distance of her home, gives the officers stationed at them little nicknames, almost turns into a stalker.  But her obsession is no worse than her daughter’s – the girl becomes so hung up on police boxes that one day she steals the stuffed Piipo mascot from one. 

Why does Natsumi go no farther than she can walk or bicycle?  Because she gets intense motion-sickness when she rides a train.  It’s suggested that this might be a phobia as much as a physical thing, and it’s easy to read it as a metaphor for housewifely desperation, almost agoraphobia.  The thing is, she almost forgets she has it, because her world as a mother has shrunk so much.  But when her daughter wants to tour the National Police Agency HQ, it causes problems.  She has an attack on the elevator at Police HQ.  The whole episode ends in trembling. 

Narrowed horizons, worlds defined by significant others, or perhaps by absence.  It’s a good pair to the title story. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Matayoshi Naoki: Hibana (2015)

Matayoshi Naoki 又吉直樹.  Hibana 火花.  Bungei Shunjū, 2015.

This won the 153rd A-Prize, for early 2015.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Hada’s book.

And so we come to it.  Every so often the awarding of the A-Prize becomes big news, spilling out beyond the rarefied precincts of literature and into the wrestling ring of popular culture.  It’s part of why it’s a big deal, why it’s the most famous of Japan’s literary prizes.  We’re in one of those moments right now.

Matayoshi hardly needs introducing to Japanese readers.  Born in 1980, he’s a well-known TV personality: specifically, he’s a manzai comedian.  He’s dabbled in books before – some essays, some poetry, a couple of short stories.  This is his first full-length work (and it’s longish:  150 pages in hardback).  It was published in Bungakkai early this year, which of course marks it as literary, from an institutional perspective.  And that issue of Bungakkai was the first in the journal’s 80-year history to require an immediate reprint – i.e., it sold a boatload of copies.  When the book was published it immediately became a best-seller, and when it got the A-Prize in the summer it was the best-selling recipient in history, surpassing Murakami Ryū’s 1976 Almost Transparent Blue.  It’s going to be a Netflix Original Series next spring.  In short, it’s a full-on mass-media (media-mix, to use the Japanese buzzword) phenomenon – print, internet, TV.  No surprise, since Matayoshi belongs to the Yoshimoto agency, who run all the big manzai stars. 

All of which inevitably raises suspicions about the work’s literary quality.  There’s not much of an old guard left to natter on about the blurring of the lines between serious and popular fiction, but you don’t have to be a pure-lit elitist to feel a twinge of regret at the possibility that the Prize has totally capitulated to mass-market forces.  That it has allowed itself to become just another cog in the Yoshimoto publicity gears.  Of course, such worries have been around with the prize for 60 years, since Ishihara Shintarō and Taiyō no kisetsu 

In this essay, of course, I’m not trying to take the measure of the whole Matayoshi phenomenon;  I just want to account for the story itself.  So in a sense all of that is irrelevant.  But of course it’s not;  it’s one of those books that even someone relatively insulated from the owarai boom like myself (living in the States, only visiting Japan once a year, mostly ignoring TV when I’m there) is going to be unable to read in isolation.  Everybody’s going to have an opinion on it, and that opinion is going to be at least half-formed before reading a single word of the book.  It’s going to be impossible to judge it completely on its own merits.  So if the A-Prize committee couldn’t, I can hardly blame them.  I’m going to try, of course (like I’m sure they tried), but I might as well lay out my biases here, although they’re probably pretty apparent already.

I like popular fiction, I like literary fiction, and I like fiction that (like my fave rave Murakami Haruki) blurs the lines.  I’m not opposed to that sort of thing.  That means that I’m not the kind of elitist who would reject a work simply because it’s popular – simply because it’s written by a comedian.  I wouldn’t dream of doing that.  But at the same time, I would hate to see literary fiction disappear.  I’m not so much a pop-culture triumphalist that I am comfortable with the idea of the islands of pure-lit disappearing beneath a tsunami of cash.  I don’t want market logic to be the only logic available to a writer, or to a reader.  All that suggests that I’m going to be torn about this book.

Surprise:  I’m torn about this book. 

Here’s the story.  It’s narrated by a young aspiring manzai comedian named Tokunaga, and it traces the ten-year arc of his career.  It begins when he’s scuffling at the entry level, performing at neighborhood festivals.  He meets a slightly older comedian named Kamiya and is so impressed that he adopts Kamiya as a mentor.  Most of the book is scenes from their relationship as it matures.  Some of these scenes are Kamiya instructing Tokunaga, or expounding on what’s truly funny, and how the manzaishi should live.  Other scenes explore the complicated emotions that Tokunaga experiences as he watches his mentor live and perform with much more dedication than Tokunaga himself can muster, but then enjoy less success than Tokunaga.  Tokunaga gradually rises through the ranks until he achieves a certain level of fame, but Kamiya never finds much of an audience.  At the end of the book Tokunaga retires, but he’s been estranged from Kamiya for a while by that time – the latter disappears in order to flee debt collectors, than reappears but in such a way as to alienate Tokunaga almost completely (more on that later). 

No doubt much of the book is drawn from Matayoshi’s own experiences as a manzaishi, but the arc is plainly not autobiographical, since Matayoshi is still performing.  Instead he’s giving us two kinds of manzai failure to compare.  Tokunaga retires primarily because his partner Yamashita decides to retire:  Yamashita is getting married and wants to start a family, and it’s clear he’s not going to be able to support them on his earnings as a manzaishi.  Tokunaga can’t imagine performing without Yamashita, since they’ve been together since middle school, so he retires too.  But of course what they’re both realizing is that they’re not going to truly succeed at this:  they’ve risen about as far as they can hope to, and it’s not far enough.  It’s a kind of failure, but then so is the decision to quit and do something else.  This is suggested by the way Kamiya fails, which is quite different.  He’s been even less financially successful than Tokunaga, and as noted, he’s in debt to loan sharks;  what’s more, for most of the book he’s letting a quasi-girlfriend support him, but then he lets her get away.  Kamiya is a stereotypical dysfunctional artist, brilliant (in Tokunaga’s eyes) at his art but a complete screw-up at life.  But he never gives up, and never compromises his sense of what’s truly funny to please a crowd.  And this is what finally alienates Tokunaga.  When Kamiya resurfaces after a year on the lam, he has breast implants – F-cups.  He says he got them on a lark, thinking it would be funny.  But it’s a bridge too far for Tokunaga, who lectures Tokunaga on how audiences aren’t going to get this, are going to think he’s being cruel to transgender people, and how it’s not wrong to think of your audience once in a while.  But by this point Tokunaga is already retired, and Kamiya, though abashed, plainly isn’t going to change.  So who’s the better manzaishi?

The title refers to two things.  The name of Tokunaga’s manzai duo is Sparks (スパークス), so Hibana 火花 (“sparks” in Japanese) is clearly a reference to that.  But the first and last scenes in the book are set in Atami during fireworks displays, and Matayoshi lingers on the poetic beauty and resonance of fireworks sparks in his descriptions of those scenes.  This last point is worth noting.  In style, this is literary fiction.  That is, Matayoshi’s descriptions are polished enough and beautiful enough to satisfy those who define literariness as beautiful writing.  His narrative strategies, too, are more literary than popular in the Japanese context.  The story he’s telling ends up having a tight narrative arc (it’s gonna be a natural TV series), but that kind of takes you by surprise because for most of the book he’s giving us vignettes, impressionistic descriptions of moments in Tokunaga’s relatinship with Kamiya.  It feels fragmentary in the way that much serious J-lit does, even if in the end it’s not.

This is a problem, I feel.  The book’s ending, with the two powerful dramatic moments of Tokunaga’s retirement and Kamiya’s body-modification revelation coming one after the other, is seriously jarring after the reflective mood of the rest of the book.  Matayoshi hasn’t prepared the reader for either one of these moments.  This is actually more of a problem with the retirement than with the implants scene.  This is because when it comes time to retire, Matayoshi lets Tokunaga go on for about ten pages about how much his partner Yamashita has meant to him through his life and career.  It gets really, really sentimental in here, which might have been fitting and expected if it wasn’t for the fact that Tokunaga has barely mentioned Yamashita up to this point.  Reflections on the manzaishi partner are conspicuously minimized for most of the story, in order to play up the mentor-pupil relationship.  So I at least was not prepared to believe any of this sentimentality about Yamashita at the end.

The implants scene is problematic for a different reason.  We’ve realized for a while that Kamiya’s career isn’t going to go anywhere, that this story is following the pupil-surpassing-the-master pattern, subcategory but-pupil-knows-he-can-never-really-surpass-the-master.  So we can understand on one level that we’re meant to see Kamiya’s implants as what Tokunaga interprets them as:  a sign that this guy will sacrifice anything and everything for his art, but that this is precisely what’s going to keep most people from getting him.  But Tokunaga is not wrong when he explains to Kamiya that this is not a funny joke these days:  we know enough about gender and sexuality issues now to see the cruelty in this.  The problem is that Matayoshi’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, right?  Because the end of the book depends on us still admiring Kamiya on some level for being willing to take it that far – meaning Matayoshi expects us to be able to see this as a joke.  We’re supposed (I think) to feel that Tokunaga has a good point, but that Kamiya is still cool.

This is why I’m torn about the book.  When it’s good, it’s really good.  The descriptions of place and time are vivid, and the evocation of Kamiya’s and Tokunaga’s relationship is really fine.  Not so much the reflections on What’s Funny – those I could take or leave – but the nuanced depiction of how tiring and downright annoying a funny person can be, balanced with Tokunaga’s self-doubt.  This is fine stuff.  But the ending feels like it was written with a TV series in mind, frankly.  It rings false on many levels, and undercuts much of what came before. 

But then, would I feel that way if I didn’t already know it was going to be a TV series?  I don’t know.   

Hada Keisuke: Scrap and build (2015)

Hada Keisuke 羽田圭介.  Sukurappu ando birudo スクラップ・アンド・ビルド.  Bungei Shunjū, 2015.

This won the 153rd A-Prize, for early 2015.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Matayoshi’s book.

Hada was born in 1985, making him 29 when he won the prize.  So:  young.  But he’s been writing since he was 17, and had been an A-Prize finalist several times since 2008.  So he’s moving out of new-writer territory and into the mid-career zone, which traditionally would make him less likely to win it.  But there are no rules, and they’ve given the prize to a number of mid-career writers recently. 

The story is told from point of view of Kento, a 28-year-old out of work man living with his mother and grandfather.  The mother is working, and the grandfather is slowly dying.  He’s 88 and in need of serious care;  not quite immobile but close to it, not quite lost to dementia but getting there.  It has fallen to Kento’s mother to take care of the old man, but since Kento is out of work it mostly becomes his job. 

The old man hates what’s happening to him, and frequently mutters, “I should just die.”  Kento decides to help him out.  It’s difficult to tell exactly why.  Kento feels the burden of caregiving, but also feels sorry for the old man in the various pains, fears, and indignities of his condition.  The story is in the third person and goes into less detail about Kento’s thoughts than one might expect, so we’re kind of left to guess:  on the surface, Kento’s telling himself that it’s about giving the old man death with dignity.  But he’s also horrified by what’s happening to his grandfather, and so revulsion and fatigue may be driving his actions as much as love.

In any case, he chooses the gentlest possible way of providing death with dignity.  Kento’s mother helps her father as little as possible – forcing him to do as much as possible for himself, on the theory that every little bit of activity the old man carries out will stave off the inevitable that much longer.  Kento buys this tough-love theory of caregiving, and so concludes that the best way to hasten his grandfather’s death is to pamper him as much as possible.  When his mother’s around, Kento lets her make the old man carry his dishes to the kitchen after meals, sort his own clothes, that sort of thing, but when his mother’s at work, Kento accedes to the old man’s every request, fully expecting that as a result his grandfather will hurry into that good night.

At the same time Kento’s revulsion at the decay of his grandfather’s mental and physical faculties leads him to adopt an intense regimen of body-building and study.  The study is an effort to obtain new qualifications that will help him in his job search (he’s constantly going for interviews), but the body-building simply seems to be about keeping himself from declining.  Kento is presented as a fairly mediocre average-guy type:  graduate of a third-rate college, former car salesman, not too smart, not too handsome, average-looking girlfriend.  Seriously in danger of slipping through life’s cracks, if he doesn’t do something about it.  Thus the body (and mind) building. 

The book has a happy ending.  While giving his grandfather a bath, Kento leaves the room for a little while.  When he comes back his grandfather is struggling, nearly drowning;  as he saves the old man, Kento realizes that in spite of his frequent statements to the contrary, his grandfather really does want to live.  So he gives up on trying to care him to death.  Cut to the last scene, where we learn that Kento has actually landed a job. 

The prize committee commented on the humor in this story.  I take this to mean that the idea of killing the grandfather with kindness is a comic conceit.  It doesn’t elicit laughs, but it is kind of absurd, and therefore gestures toward a satire of the current state of elder care.  It’s certainly topical, focusing both on the graying of Japanese society and the failure of the economy to come through for young people.  Of course, Mobu Norio addressed the same two topics ten years ago in Kaigo nyūmon, but it’s not like the problems have gone away.

Mobu’s book had a lot more literary flair.  This one, despite the successful ironic conceit at its center, ends up as a rather mediocre read.  The style is kind of flat, the story drags (it’s 120 pages, and could have made its point in about half that length;  it’s the only story in the book, by the way), and Kento is just narcissistic enough that he’s hard to really sympathize with.  The book doesn’t have much to offer beyond its theme, it seems to me.

Ono Masatsugu: Kyūnen mae no inori (2014)

Ono Masatsugu 小野正.  Kyūnen mae no inori 九年前の祈り.  Kōdansha, 2014.

This won the 152nd A-Prize, for late 2014.  I’m a little late in reading and discussing it.

The title story is the winner, a hundred-plus page novella.  It’s about a woman named Sanae living in a small fishing town in Kyūshū, a fictionalized version (presumably) of the author’s home area of Ōita.  Sanae is in her early 30s and is a single mother;  her little boy, Kebin (希敏 – presumably a kanji-ization of the Japanese pronunciation of Kevin), is the product of a relationship she had in Tokyo with a Canadian named Frederic, who left her and Kebin.  Sanae subsequently moved back in with her parents in Kyūshū.

Kebin has unspecified problems.  He never seems to talk, and he breaks into uncontrollable crying at unpredictable moments.  The reader most likely concludes that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, but neither Ono nor Sanae phrases it like that, and it seems Sanae has never had him diagnosed;  we learn that she avoided his three-year-old checkup, and the Tokyo social worker’s reminders, by moving back home.  To herself (the narration is in the third person, but the narrator’s perspective is Sanae’s) she phrases Kebin’s condition almost as a form of possession – every once in a while he turns into a shredded worm
(hikichigirareta mimizu). 

Sanae’s relationship with Kebin is one of the things this story is concerned with.  She’s unable to cope, and has avoided getting any professional help.  She’s constantly at the end of the rope, we sense (it’s seldom spelled out), and there are hints that she might have abused him.  It’s not quite clear if she actually pinches or shakes him, or just wants to or fantasizes about it.  Clearly she’s under a great deal of pressure.

Her relationship with her parents is another theme.  Her father, a schoolteacher, is a distant presence who appears mainly as a vaguely sympathetic caretaker of Kebin who is, still, not quite able to deal with him.  Her mother is a dominating presence, judgmental at every turn – we get the sense that Sanae’s inability to get help for Kebin is in large part due to her own feelings of guilt, instilled by her mother, at having done something as unconventional as having a relationship with a foreigner in the first place.  The mother predicted it wouldn’t end well, and seems to accept Kebin’s problems as an inevitable consequence of Sanae’s scandalous life choices.  Sanae seems to more or less accept her mother’s verdict.

The action of the story, such as it is, mostly concerns Sanae taking Kebin to a nearby island to collect shells that local superstition holds have a healing effect.  Sanae’s mother was born on said island.  The idea is not to collect them to help Kebin (because, again, everybody’s in denial about him), but rather to help the son of an old family friend, Mitchan;  Mitchan’s grown son has cancer.  Sanae and her family are planning to visit them in the hospital that afternoon, but the story doesn’t get that far.  Instead we have a long description of the boat trip to the island, Sanae wandering around the island, and the boat trip back.  This journey is something mystical;  while on the island, looking for the right beach, Sanae seems to slip into a dream state in which Mitchan herself is there, and Kebin is gone, or is being held by Mitchan, and then she has a weird experience at a shrine on the beach.  Then when they arrive back on the mainland Kebin almost falls off the boat ramp, and drops the precious shells in the process.

This storyline is intercut with a parallel one from nine years previous, concerning a trip Sanae and some local women made to Montreal.  The village had a JET teacher from Canada who organized a trip to his hometown;  Sanae and a group of older women went.  While on the trip Sanae becomes close to Mitchan (decades older than her), but also meets the JET teacher’s friend Frederic.  It’s through these flashbacks that we learn about Sanae’s past life, but of course it’s not a love story.  The main storyline of the flashback is how, on a subway trip in Montreal, two of their number became separated and while the JET went looking for them the rest, including Sanae and Mitchan, ducked into a church and prayed for them, despite not being Christian.  This storyline too culminates in something vaguely mystical, with the prayer, and both at the end seem to contribute to a sense that Sanae is able to separate herself from her misery – like it’s standing behind her, rather than inhabiting her.  The A-Prize committee also notes this, that the story ends on a hopeful note.

To slip into critical mode, I’m not sure it’s justified.  The story is told in an even more elliptical fashion than is normal for A-Prize type fiction, and this means that both Sanae’s experience on the island in the presence and her experience in the church in the past are left almost entirely unexplained, but more than that they’re left uncogitated-upon.  Sanae is an utterly passive character who seems to stumble into marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, and single motherhood, without trying to understand any of it, and so her experience of mystical comfort is also left un-understood. 

The idea seems to be, as with so many writers, to use a passive main character as a way of getting at the environment that creates and conditions (in this case) her.  If that’s the aim, it’s effective, because we get a strong, almost overwhelming sense of the Kyushu village culture that Sanae was raised in.  This comes in the present from her mother and in the past from the village older women who go on the trip to Montreal.  If the mother is an almost villainous figure, the other women seem to be meant as something like comical relief, as we watch their utter inability to deal with their encounter with a foreign culture.  It’s not even about Japan vs. the West – they’re so closed to any culture beyond their own village that it’s clear they’d have the same reactions in Tokyo. 

One last point:  Ono’s style.  I found it frustrating that he didn’t want to give us more external-type details about what’s really going on in certain moments.  But his facility with words is impressive.  His “normal” sentences are fairly straightforward but at key moments he’ll reel off a really baroque piece of description or metaphor.  The shredded worm is a typical example.  Really memorable, striking stuff. 

The book contains three omake stories (good value for the money!).  The first is called “Umigame no yoru ウミガメの夜” (Night of the sea turtle).  It’s set in the same region as the first:  the Saeki region of Ōita.  It concerns three male friends, college classmates in Tokyo, who have come down for a visit.  The story is told in three sections, each of which takes one of their points of view.  The first is Ippeita, whose father is from Saeki;  his parents are divorced and he hasn’t seen his father since he was a child, but he has vague memories of a summer spent with his grandparents in Saeki.  And now his mother is dying.  As the three friends drive around Ippeita is looking for familiar places and maybe even relatives;  he’s also the only one who understands the local dialect.  The second friend is Tōru, who seems to mostly be comic relief, or at most a bridge between the other two;  he’s from Tokyo, so a total outsider, and spends most of the story drunk and/or asleep.  The third friend is Yūma, who is from Sendai – his family home was devastated by the tsunami.  Yūma has a stutter, and so mostly observes quietely.  It’s mostly unstated, but the Saeki coastline clearly reminds him of the Sendai coastline, and he finds himself thinking about death.  The unifying scene and image is that of a sea turtle that the three friends find on the beach at night.  She has just laid her eggs, and they flip her over and watch her helplessly paddling the air.  It’s cruel, but also a good metaphor for rootlessness, for futile striving, and for slowly approaching death. 

The second omake story is called “Omimai お見舞い” (Visiting the sick).  It’s told from the point of view of a middle-aged man named Shudō Toshiya – Toshi, for short.  It’s sort of an afternoon-in-the-life-of story, although as one might expect there are enough flashbacks and ruminations to complicate the narrative line considerably.  Basically all that happens in the present is that he gives rides to a some people in need and visits other people in trouble.  Toshi is the younger son of a wealthy fishing family – they own a bunch of boats and employ a bunch of people.  He works for his brother and considers himself something of a screw-up, not particularly good at anything.  But over the course of the story he proves himself something of a saint.  He’s taking care of a childhood friend and mentor who in adulthood has become a hopeless alcoholic.  He’s looking in on another childhood friend who’s in the hospital with a brain tumor.  On the way back from visiting the friend in the hospital he gives a ride to a pregnant woman who is the foreign wife of a local unemployed man.  At the end of the story he encounters three college kids from Tokyo who desperately need to get back, and drops everything and gives them a ride to the airport.  Of course this is all set in Saeki again, and when he meets the kids we suddenly realize that these stories are connected.  Not only is Ono exploring this single region in depth, he’s telling the story of a single sprawling community by focusing in turn on various of its members.  We realize (although it’s not really confirmed) that the friend in the hospital is the son of Mitchan from the title story, and of course the three college kids are the ones from the second story;  and we get the strong suspicion that the alcoholic friend is the father that one of the college kids has come to find.  There’s even a minor character in the first story that shares Toshi’s surname.  This of course lends all of the stories a richness that they wouldn’t necessarily have individually:  they become parts of a group portrait of small-town Ōita.  Very satisfying.

The fourth story, “Aku no hana 悪の花” (Flowers of evil) is also connected.  It consists almost entirely of a stream of consciousness belonging to (but not narrated by) an old woman named Chiyoko.  There are vestiges of a present-moment narrative, but it’s not easy to figure out what that is, so insistent and undifferentiated are the reminiscences.  Chiyoko is distraught over the illness of Mitchan’s son, who lived next door to her and helped her out in her growing infirmity;  specifically he visited the cemetery daily on her behalf.  We realize that we’ve met Chiyoko before:  the three college kids knocked on her neighbor’s door while looking for Ippeita’s father, and she told them whose house it really was.  Death and mourning rule Chiyoko’s life.  Her brother died in the war.  Her parents died when she was young.  She married a local man, older, whose mother had sent away his first wife for being unable to bear children;  the wife later killed herself.  Chiyoko was blamed by the old-fashioned locals for breaking up the marriage and causing the woman’s suicide, but then Chiyoko herself is sent away when she fails to bear a child (the idea that it could be the man’s fault very pointedly is never mentioned);  Chiyoko outlives her ex-husband and mother-in-law, but in old age comes to see the mother-in-law’s reflection in the mirror, and feel she’s becoming her.  Thoughts of these incidents are interspersed with memories of Mitchan’s son and anxieties over what Chiyoko will do if he doesn’t return, and guilt over what she fantasizes is her responsibility for his illness.  The “flowers of evil” of the title are a different species every time Chiyoko sees them, but when she sees them she always recognizes them as signs of her own guilt and inadequacy.  The last day Mitchan’s son went to the graveyard on her behalf, Chiyoko thinks flowers of evil must have been growing on the grave, and that he must have tried to clear them away and been cursed by them. 

This story is closest to the title story in its theme, as it once again explores the consciousness of women in rural Ōita, particularly women who have internalized a misogynistic tradition that oppresses them.  As such it brings the volume to a satisfying close.  But it’s also the story that has most to say about the man whose hospitalization is a key plot point in the first, third, and fourth stories:  Mitchan’s son Taikō.  In interviews ( the author has mentioned that his older brother was dying at the time he was writing these stories, and it seems to be the common assumption that Ono was writing about that.  Which means that in a sense, Taikō is the main character.  And he’s absent from all of the stories except as an occasional memory, and he’s only intermittently described.  We feel his impact on all these lives, though, because Ono has done such a complete job of evoking the interconnectedness of the community. 

It’s a very satisfying book;  much more satisfying in toto than the title story is on its own.  In terms of its place in the literary landscape it’s obviously akin to Tanaka Shinya from a few years back in its patient and uncompromising evocation of a particular locale on the margins of modern Japan.  But Ono’s book is less sensationalistic, and more sociological – more attuned to the way economics and geography shape this community.  One of the strongest A-Prize recipients in years.