Sunday, October 5, 2008

Grand finale

Abe Kazushige 阿部和重. Gurando finâre グランド・フィナーレ. 2005. Kôdansha Bunko, 2007.

The title story was the winner of the 132nd Akutagawa Prize, for the second half of 2004. The volume also includes three other stories.

Abe has been around for a while - about ten years, I think, when he won the Prize - I had heard of him, and one or two of his books had been on my get-around-to-reading list since I first heard of him in ’98 or so. I don’t know what made the A-Prize committee decide to recognize him when they did. Certainly he wasn’t a new writer anymore. Maybe it was guilt?

The title story, the Prize-winner, is weird. I don’t know what to think of it. In its outlines, it concerns a middle-aged father of a grade-school girl. He was caught taking nude pictures of her and other girls and selling them to a magazine. His wife divorced him and got a restraining order against him. When the story starts (junbungaku stories seldom at the beginning—extensive use of flashbacks is pretty much de rigeur—the prototypical junbungaku story is a guy drinking alone in his room remembering, and this isn’t far off from that at points), it’s about a year after the divorce, and he’s back in Tokyo trying to get in touch with his daughter to give her a birthday present. He can’t get near her without getting arrested (why he was never prosecuted for kiddie porn is never stated—the story is from his point of view, and he’s very cagey), so he has an old friend deliver a present to her, with a note to come out and meet him and he’ll take her away. The friend delivers the present, but not the note—he reads it first, realizes the scheme would amount to kidnapping, and discards it. In a disco later, the friend tells the narrator off in front of other friends, and then another mutual friend expresses her disgust at what he’s done, and says that a friend of hers killed herself because of childhood abuse.

The second half of the story is after the narrator (Sawami) has gone back to his hometown, Jinmachi, in some unnamed northern prefecture. He’s just kind of slacking, living with his parents and trying to figure out what to do next. An old school chum corners him into helping some sixth-graders do a school play - he used to work directing children’s educational films - and in the process he meets two cute little girls. We think he’s going to molest them, but instead he really tries to help them with the play. They’re taking it very seriously, and he eventually realizes it’s because their families are moving apart, and they have a suicide pact - the play is their last statement to the world of their friendship. The story ends with him determined to intervene and somehow prevent them from killing themselves.

So do we believe this redemption? The narrator has been in denial about his crimes all along - it’s a first-person narration (of course) and he’s your classic unreliable narrator, not telling us why exactly his wife left him, or about his plans for running away with his daughter, or anything really, until it comes out in conversation with others, or is otherwise elicited from him. He really doesn’t seem to think he’s done anything wrong. So why should he suddenly care about saving these girls? Maybe he doesn’t - maybe he just wants to abuse them. Don’t know.

The story has this odd 9/11 overlay, too. The final breach with his wife happens on, would you believe it, 9/11, and they divorce just after Christmas that year. The story is narrated about a year later. During the long conversation in the disco, his friends are talking about various terrorist events that have happened in the meantime - the Russian theater thing, war in the Congo, et cetera - none of which the narrator has heard about, because he’s completely wrapped up in his own problems.

So is this an allegory? Is America a child abuser getting punished for its insensitivity to others? Is Japan a child abuser who doesn’t care what’s happening in the rest of the world? I don’t think it’s that simple, but I don’t really know what else he’s doing putting the 9/11 references in there. The possibility of an American allegory is compounded by the story's obvious parallels with Lolita, which is often read as a gloss on America corrupting Europe or vice-versa.

Overall, I have to say the story just doesn’t quite click for me, but on the other hand it's intriguing as hell. Plus, Abe’s a fine writer: clearly a post-Murakamis stylist, closer to Ryû than Haruki, certainly in subject matter but also in terms of prose, too, I think.

The other stories show this more clearly. “Umagoya no otome 馬小屋の乙女” was also published in 2004, and concerns a nisei, Thomas Iguchi, going to Jinmachi, or a town nearby, to make a particular purchase - he gets to the store and is put off by the owner when a yakuza type arrives and starts an argument; while waiting, Iguchi gets into a conversation with another customer, a guy looking after an old lady who’s not his mother. At the end everybody turns to Iguchi and tells him they’re now going to initiate him into their circle. This is a great little story. Iguchi is a finicky, smooth character, and when we finally realize what he’s here to buy - it’s only revealed late in the story - it’s good for a real laugh. He’s a collector of these things, it turns out. And we don’t know what kind of circle these people are going to initiate him into, and we’re not sure we want to know. But the whole thing has this perfect timing and use of language. Kind of like a weird-sex Twilight Zone or something. I have no idea what the title signifies - "the virgin in the stable." Yeah, but what does Mary have to do with anything?

The third story, “Shinjuku Yodobashi Kamera 新宿 ヨドバシカメラ,” doesn’t have a date (Japanese publishers can be surprisingly sloppy about things like that), but was written to accompany a magazine spread of some photographer’s work. It’s not really a story so much as an essay, in which the narrator is describing the geography and ecology of Shinjuku using his pubic area as a metaphor - City Hall is his erect penis, his intestines are the subways and underground arcades, and Yodobashi Camera, the pioneer of big-box electronics discounters, is this mole he has…

The final story, “20 seiki 20世紀,” was published on Sony’s website in five installments in 2000 to plug five designs of CDR that Sony was debuting (it's not on the website anymore, and I think they've changed CDR designs, too). Each section of the story is given the title of one of the designs (they’re given in English: Future, Traditional, Form, Arrangement, and Feminine); they actually sort of work as subtitles to the story, too. The story has the narrator going to Jinmachi (written God Town 神町) because for ten years he’s been obsessed with the metaphorical possibilities of this place. Over the course of the story, talking to a young woman shopkeeper there, he learns the history of why it’s named what it is (originally Shinmachi 新町, New Town, and the dialect just shifted), etc. He’s disappointed, but still keeps trying to find ways to keep believing the town might be something special. He gets his/the world’s fortune told (vague); learns that the prefecture is shaped like a face and Jinmachi is the ear; falls in love with the woman shopkeeper. Entertaining, and an interesting example of postmodern literary output - is it literature or ad copy? You be the judge.

All in all, a mixed bag of stories, very entertaining. Abe's one to watch.

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