Saturday, October 11, 2008

King Crimson: Trees

The first thing you notice is how absolutely lousy the recording is. You were warned: the web page where you ordered it carried a disclaimer from Fripp saying the sound quality was abysmal (that disclaimer isn't there anymore, but it should be).

But immediately you also notice how beautiful the piece is. Stunning three-part harmonies singing an arrangement that sounds like church music, or the Beatles' "Sun King." This gives way to a lovely mellotron treatment of the melody, with wistful guitar accents. Then the vocals come back in - it's all wordless, and it just might render you that way too.

That's as far as the youtube takes you: to hear minutes five through eighteen of "Trees" you have to acquire the album it's on, King Crimson Collector's Club 1: Live At The Marquee 1969. The bulk of this disc is a performance from the Marquee Club on, it's thought, July 6, 1969, which would make it the day after the famous Hyde Park concert at which King Crimson opened for the Stones, who were introducing Mick Taylor and eulogizing Brian Jones with dead butterflies. (KC's set from that show is also available from their website.) The Marquee set has pretty dismal sound quality as well, but not quite as bad as "Trees," which is a bonus track, recorded October 17, 1969. It's the only known recording of the band playing this early composition.

Minute five brings us out of Gregoria and back into a rock place: drums, bass, electric guitar. Although: the vamp in question wouldn't be too out of place in a jazz setting, a hotel dance band, say.

Then things change. If you know your live King Crimson '69, you may recognize what comes next. For about nine minutes we get a sequence of the instrumental themes that would later be organized into "A Man, A City" and still later formalized as "Pictures Of A City." This is also where the sound gets - well, what's worse than abysmal? Depending on how loud they're playing, you might hear some notes in here (enough to recognize the melody, sometimes), but often enough you just hear noise.

Luckily, it's just clear enough to be able to pick out what happens at about 14:12, which is that the "A Man, A City" theme gives way to a reprise of the initial melodic figure. This time it's instrumental, with a heavy treatment in keeping with the mood of what we've just been hearing. Michael Giles's determined drumming lends the music a tension that the beginning had lacked, and Fripp's guitar is wailing now, not singing (or is that Ian's saxophone? - the tape's so bad it's hard to tell them apart).

This dissolves into some Coltranesque honking and squealing - we may be heading into some "improv" here (what we among the unwashed might call "jamming," a word never mentioned in Crimson company). But the recording suddenly ends, so we'll never know.


You could make an argument, and I'd listen to it, that the only true King Crimson was the first one, consisting of Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Greg Lake, Michael Giles (and Peter Sinfield). The one that made one album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, and then disintegrated. A while ago I started to get into KC, chronologically, and I haven't yet gotten much farther than this lineup: it's so good, so deep, so majestic, that I can't bring myself to move on yet.

Partly because they really had a little more than just that one immortal album (and it's truly essential: if you haven't heard it, you must). Fripp, Giles, and his brother Peter Giles had one studio album out as Giles, Giles & Fripp - hardly King Crimson, but weirdly entertaining, as if Ray Davies had taken a gig writing for Monty Python, and then spent a whole summer reading Thomas Hardy novels in preparation for it. There's an archival disc out collecting demos from Giles, Giles & Fripp plus McDonald, as GGF were evolving into KC: surprisingly groovy. There's also the second "King Crimson" album, In The Wake Of Poseidon, which has Lake and both Giles brothers on it, and Lizard, which doesn't, but which has some of the players who filled in the gaps on Poseidon: both of these are stopgap albums, things Fripp did while trying to put together a stable KC to replace the One True KC. There's also the ineffable McDonald And Giles, a one-off project by Ian and Michael, with Peter.

But more than that there's a modicum of live archival releases by the One True KC, which testify to the One Trueness of that lineup. Besides crushingly heavy live renditions of the first album material, there's a couple of whole albums' worth of songs unrecorded by that lineup in there: some were tackled by later "King Crimsons," and some weren't.

But even that's not a whole lot to savor from one of the truly original bands of the rock era. That's why it's worth struggling through the sound issues to try and figure out what's going on in "Trees." (I can't stress enough how lousy the sound here is - and as a Dylan collector, I have a lot of patience with bad-sounding tapes - I've listened to the Karen Wallace tape all the way through at least a half dozen times.)

And what's going on seems to be this: a long composition, the longest known through-composed piece in the '69 Crim's repertoire, that breaks down into three parts. An initial (melodic, gentle, Benedictines on the beach at Brighton in the late spring) section, followed by a long (heavy, fast, Thelonious Monk dancing in steel-toed boots) middle section, concluding with a faster, harder reprise of the initial section (Thelonious lends the monks his boots). Fairly straightforward. The middle section would very shortly be detached and worked into a song in its own right. The first and last sections? Disappeared with the original King Crimson, it seems.

Glad we have the recording.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Buddy Guy on Letterman: Skin Deep

Here's Buddy Guy on David Letterman last night. Buddy - or, as Mick Jagger refers to him, Buddy Motherfucker Guy - is a living legend of the blues, and this is the title song from his new album, Skin Deep.

One of the Youtube commenters sez there's a little Sam Cooke in here - probably thinking of "A Change Is Gonna Come." And there is a little of Cooke's effortless smooth in Guy's vocal here - but there's also a lot of grit. And a little old San Francisco psychedelia - dig the sitar sound he's making with his guitar. But most of all this is just pure down deep spiritual wise song. It doesn't need classifying. Just listen.

This is the kind of music that can heal a nation. This is the kind of music that you can start a religion around.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tekkon kinkreet

This is a manga, and also an anime. I read the manga last year, in the original (it's been translated, but I haven't read that version), and saw the anime last week at this symposium, with the screenwriter in attendance. I'm not going to link to the Wikipedia entry, because it's got too much wrong info in it, but: there is one.

Some notes.

1. The title. Tekkon kinkuriito 鉄コン筋クリート, a/k/a Tekkon kinkreet. It's a play on the Japanese term for "reinforced concrete," which is tekkin konkuriito. A good translation for it, then, might be "reincon forcedcrete." But wait, there's more: the image of reinforced concrete conjures up, in a Japanese context, the idea of a soulless urban wasteland in a way it doesn't really in an American context. I think this is because so many of Japan's cities were so totally rebuilt after the war, quickly and cheaply, largely using reinforced concrete, so as a building material it's come to be synonymous with the urbanization. The term doesn't necessarily have these connotations in English, so translating the title as Reincon Forcedcrete still wouldn't quite capture what the original title is all about. My suggestion: how about AsJun phaltgle. Think about it.

2. The manga. Written/drawn by Matsumoto Taiyô 松本大洋, originally published 1993-1994. One of the great manga of the '90s (not that I've read them all, but...). Here was my impression of it then:

As fascinated as I am by the possibilities of serialized entertainment, I’ve already seen a number of examples of manga that succumb to the problems inherent in the form. This doesn’t: it has a tight story arc, and the author didn’t let himself get tempted to spin it out beyond what he could sustain.

It’s set in a sort of near-future or alternate-present Japanese big city, in a neighborhood called Takaramachi, more run-down and gang- and vice-infested than any Japanese neighborhood at present. In that it’s a typical mid-‘90s, post-bubble work, imagining a Japan that’s going down the tubes, that will soon end up looking like every Japanese person’s worst xenophobic nightmare of New York or Bangkok.

The main characters are a couple of brothers, Kuro and Shiro, adolescents who secretly rule the district. They’re homeless, sleeping in an abandoned car; no reason for their orphanhood is ever given, and they’re certainly not helpless. They can literally leap tall buildings at a single bound, and when they land they’re usually bashing somebody over the head with a lead pipe. When I say they rule the district, that’s how it’s put in the book, but it doesn’t mean they actually control the organized crime there—in fact, the local yakuza are a major part of the book. What it means is that Kuro and Shiro can and do beat the crap out of anybody they please, at any time. Wanton violence is the name of the game.

Except, of course, Kuro and Shiro really have hearts of gold. Kuro is a little bit older and wiser, and Shiro is kind of innocent to the point of suggested retardation; they’re extremely protective of each other, and much (though not all) of their violence is in self-defense: it’s a rough town.

The plot is fairly complex, but can be summarized simply. There’s a split in the yakuza faction, and the rebel kobun, Kimura, ends up teaming up with a mysterious, nameless figure from a neighboring district who’s here to take over. He’s kind of evil incarnate, and has three murderous Chinese (?) henchmen; their last task before they own the town is to take out Kuro and Shiro. Big showdown; of course our boys win. And when they do win, they actually decide to escape: head for the country, the beach, a healthy idyllic life.

It’s a good story, well told—I’ve left out too many details to really give the flavor of it here. Kuro and Shiro are sharply realized characters, but so are several of the minor characters, including Kimura and his boss-on-the-way-out, Suzuki. The fight scenes, self-consciously gratuitous violence, are extremely well handled—exciting, kinetic, bursting off the page with energy.

The art is fantastic. It’s in quite an original style—that’s what I’ve been looking for, manga that don’t look like everything else, and this is one of them. It’s in a quasi-graffiti style that makes the town look like a funhouse—like everything’s being seen through a distorting mirror of one sort or another. A deceptive primitiveness—everything works and is perfectly controlled when you examine it closely, but still the overall impression is of chaos. Wonderful art. (Note from the present: my copy is in a box on a boat somewhere in the Atlantic right now, or I'd scan some images to show you what I mean. Instead, take a look at this blog, which has some examples.)

And it’s quite sophisticated on a thematic level. Kuro and Shiro very quickly take on a mythic dimension—they’re constantly shown as being complimentary opposites—yin-yang imagery everywhere with them. And the big climax of the book involves this balance being thrown out of whack. Shiro is taken into protective custody by the cops (who are actually trying to protect him), and this allows Kuro to go wild. He’s fighting the mysterious Chinese (?) thugs, but at the same time the absence of the object of his protection frees up his innate violent nature, so that he reverts to a feral killer. He wins, but the real climax is his confrontation with this semilegendary character known as the Weasel, a kind of ultra version of Kuro and Shiro—the Weasel tries to tempt Kuro to surrendering to the dark side permanently, and since he’s so far into it he almost does. Of course in the end he doesn’t… It’s a very manga-y, very pop-culturey kind of conflict at the end, straight out of Star Wars, but it’s handled really, really well.

Like everything in this manga. I just can’t praise it enough. Very impressive. I can see myself assigning it to represent the ‘90s in an intro to modern lit class.

3. The anime. First of all, the interesting thing about it is that the director and screenwriter are Americans. The director, Michael Arias, is based in Japan and speaks and reads the language; the screenwriter, Anthony Weintraub, is based in New York, and doesn't. Both were involved with The Animatrix. The rest of the staff, the animators, were Japanese, and the thing was made in Japan, in Japanese. The press releases all point out that this is the first anime made by foreigners, which may or may not be true - probably depends on how you define anime, and who you consider fundamentally responsible for an anime...

What's interesting to me is that Arias would have been in an analagous situation to Paul Schrader directing Mishima, as an American director working in Japan with a Japanese cast and crew. I imagine Arias speaks more Japanese than Schrader did, but still I'd love to sit them down in a room together and hear them talk about their experiences. And both films raise the question of how you'd define a "Japanese film."

4. Weintraub is a different story. He did a Q&A at this symposium I attended, and it sounded like he did his screenplay from the translated manga. The English subtitles on the international release of the film are from his screenplay, not the Japanese dialogue - there are some significant divergences. The biggest one is Weintraub's decision (I confirmed it was his decision) to call the Weasel - Itachi in the original - the Minotaur. I can see why he did it, both because of how the character looks and the role it plays in the story, but precisely because of the role it plays in the story, I'd like to debate him on the wisdom of calling it the Minotaur. It kind of predetermines how we're going to look at this character - too much foreshadowing, I think. But it's a creative translation choice, and I applaud that.

5. The anime. Parts of it are really effective - the last half hour or so especially. The visual rendering of the confrontation between Kuro and the Weasel is really mind-blowing. And the animation throughout is unconventional, which I salute.

But I don't think it's a good version of the manga. That quasi-graffiti, controlled chaos, funhouse-mirror style that I loved so much in the manga is gone in the anime. Especially for the backgrounds, the cityscape, they move away from cartooniness toward 3D effects, and away from the starkness of black and white toward a busy, almost cheerful color scheme. It's beautiful to look at, but inappropriate for the story. (Here's the trailer: judge for yourself.)

The city ends up looking like a nostalgic vision of Osaka or Tokyo in the '50s, a period that's coming in for a lot of good-old-days treatment in Japan right now (check out this trailer for a recent hit movie that encapsulates the trend, Always). And there is a little nostalgia built into the story, but when the characters are all running around talking about how the city is hell, and it's killing their souls, it shouldn't look quite so golden and homey.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Hitori biyori

Aoyama Nanae 青山七恵. Hitori biyori ひとり日和. 2006.

This won the 136th Akutagawa Prize, for the second half of 2006. The title might be translated as "Solitude weather," maybe.

It’s the story of a twentyish girl and a seventyish old lady living together, and it’s organized in four chapters, called “spring,” “summer,” “fall,” “winter.” That alone was enough to make me roll my eyes, expecting all sorts of clichés. I thought I knew what I was in for: the young girl learns life lessons from the old woman, about valuing the simple things, like the changing seasons, and then the book ends with intimations of the old woman’s mortality and the young woman’s newfound maturity.

And actually that’s sort of what happens. At least, that’s how it ends. But how gets there is surprisingly unsentimental - bracing, in fact. The girl, Mita Chizu, is the child of divorced parents who’s been living with her mother in the far reaches of Saitama. As the novel starts she’s left home to come to Tokyo, and is moving in with Ogino Ginko, a distant great-aunt or something (the protagonist isn’t quite sure) who lives alone in a house on the Setagaya-Chôfu border, on the Keio line (Tokyo, but just barely). Chizu is what’s called these days a freeter, a free-timer, a young person who gets by on assorted part-time jobs and has a lot of free time but basically does nothing with it. She’s a slacker, in American parlance: doesn’t want to go to college, doesn’t think about getting a full-time job for most of the book. Just drifts.

And she has an appropriately tough attitude, which is what saves the book from sentimentality. It’s told in Chizu’s voice. At first her tough tone struck me as bravado - she denies any ill effects from the divorce, as if we’re supposed to believe that her disaffectedness is just a normal attitude toward life. After a while it becomes clear that the author intends us to view Chizu's bravado with ironic distance - she’s a sometime kleptomaniac, gets used by boys, and has an abysmal relationship with her mother. She’s generally pretty miserable, although it takes her most of the novel to admit it.

There’s a key scene near the end, after she has admitted it to herself, where she kind of asks Ginko for advice. She’s pretty much scorned the old lady throughout the whole novel, expressing horror at the indignities of age, ridiculing her behind her back and almost to her face, but Ginko takes it all with equanimity, and of course Chizu gradually learns to accept living there, and comes to have a grudging, inarticulate affection for the old lady. This is where it could become sentimental, but it doesn’t, because Chizu’s too damaged to really be affectionate, and Ginko has no advice for her. I can’t decide if the portrait of Ginko is very realistic or not - her speech is maybe a little simplified for what a real seventy-year-old would say - but it’s a nice change that she’s so blunt about not having any advice to give Chizu. She speaks in a mix of platitudes and silence usually, and the occasional ironic laugh.

The novel thus focuses on the two extremes of society, in terms of age strata—the youngest of adults and the oldest. The middle, represented here only by Chizu’s mother, is absent. The mother is a secondary-school teacher, and in the beginning of the novel she takes an exchange-teacher position in China. She comes back to visit twice over the course of the novel, but she’s really pretty absent from Chizu’s life. The implication is that she’s been that way all along. Chizu takes a pretty dim view of her attempts at being motherly (thinking with scorn of the way her mother must have stayed up hand-drawing a map to Ginko’s house for her). Chizu’s mother wouldn’t be quite baby-boom generation, but close, and this novel could be read as a criticism of that generation from the perspective of their kids, and possibly their parents.

I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. It’s well crafted, well written, and really quite affecting in its portrayal of Chizu’s misery: she gets near suicidal, before finally finding a way out - she stumbles into a full-time job, and some friends, and ends up moving out of Ginko’s house; the idea is that she’s finally embracing a direction in life, taking her place in society - which may be a very utilitarian, collectivist ending, but sort of rings true for Chizu.

Aoyama's one to keep an eye on.

Hachigatsu no rojô ni suteru

Itô Takami 伊藤たかみ. Hachigatsu no rojô ni suteru 八月の路上に捨てる. 2006.

This won the 135th Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2006. The book contains two stories. The title story won the prize; the second story is called "Kai kara miru fûkei 貝からみる風景 (The world as seen from inside a shell)."

The title story (title translates to "discarded on the road in August") is about a guy named Atsushi who is going through a divorce. The story takes place during the course of a single day, but involves a lot of flashbacks. He works for a vending-machine company, driving a truck and stocking machines in the Shinjuku area with his partner, a divorced woman named Minashiro-san. It’s her last day in the truck before she transfers into the office section of the company; meanwhile it’s his last day as a married man, as he’s going to turn in his divorce certificate the next day.
They’re confidantes, and as we go through the day we learn about the course of Atsushi’s marriage and the lead-up to the divorce. Here’s where it comes through that the theme of the story is employment as much as anything. Atsushi originally wanted to be a screenwriter, and when he and his wife married not long out of college they were scraping by on little income, then she got a real job while he plugged away at the screenwriting. This of course made him feel a bit threatened, but then she got fired and he got a part-time job (or rather, a full-time job but without benefits—however you translate baito) stocking the machines. This makes her feel threatened, and eventually they can’t stand each other anymore.

This makes two A-Prizes in a row, then, where the protagonist is either unemployed or fringe-employed for most of the story—a friitaa, a paato (part-timer), or a shitsugyôsha (unemployed). Add the omake story in Oki de matsu and you have a mini-trend. The economy has supposedly recovered but you wouldn’t know it by the literature. Anyway, it’s an interesting trend.

The other theme is ennui, for lack of a better word. Atsushi and his wife seem to have been attracted to one another at least as much by a shared negative outlook on life as by anything else - they both had dreams of an ideal, creative career, and both kind of slack around looking for it, and their hobby is judging people they know, on a point system, by how cool they are. It’s not presented as hipsterism, which what it sounds like to me, but they’re definitely kind of societal dropouts. And when work starts to get in the way - both the having of it and the needing of it - they find they really don’t have much in common. They don’t communicate well (a common trick in junbungaku, of course - confused, meaningful silences where a real person might actually try to explain what he or she is feeling - believe it or not, Japanese people do that too), and don’t seem to know what it would mean to try.

So it’s about a society in which marginal employment is becoming the norm, and in which divorce is becoming the norm. Atsushi isn’t a terribly likable character, and I think this is intentional - he’s kind of deluding himself, even with the divorce. He had been having an affair with a hairdresser, but when she finds out he’s getting a divorce she breaks up with him- so he’s alone - and at the end of the story he finds out that Minashiro-san, whose acerbic attitude toward life and romance seems to have had him romanticizing divorce, or at least thinking that in her he had a companion in it, is transferring because she’s getting remarried. He’s really alone at the end - like he’s joined a club to be with someone who just quit it. There’s no hint of a romance between Atsushi and Minashiro, but there’s some sort of connection that leaves him feeling, inarticulately, betrayed at the end.

That aspect was, I thought, really well done, and in Minashiro-san we have a type of female character that I think wouldn’t have been possible a couple of decades ago: tough, employed, independent, and sympathetic for it. I don’t know that the story as a whole cuts quite as deep as it could, but it’s good.

The other story I actually liked a little better. It’s about another marginally-employed type, but younger (Atsushi was about thirty). Jun’ichi does free-lance writing for a small editorial office (not a publisher, but an office that hooks up free-lancers and publications). For most of the story it’s just kind of about him and his girlfriend floating through life; they meet at the local supermarket every evening to plan dinner together, and as he’s waiting Jun’ichi reads the customer-comment cards on the bulletin board and fantasizes about other people’s problems. Then halfway through the story his editorial office goes bankrupt without paying him his last four weeks’ fees. He doesn’t really panic, though. We only follow him through the first few hours after he finds out, his first night with his girlfriend after he finds out, and it’s a curious thing. The story basically just ends on this poetic note where they’re lying on their bed beneath the open window and the curtain blows inward and lands on their faces in such a way that it kind of puts their heads in this curtain-world that he says makes him feel like a shellfish. Kind of a weird image, but it seems to be suggesting how sort of isolated and coccooned he feels in their present life. I guess it’s the upside to the marginally employed life. It makes a good pair with the title story, in that way.

Oki de matsu

Itoyama Akiko 絲山秋子. Oki de matsu 沖で待つ. 2005.

This won the Akutagawa Prize for the second half of 2005.

The book contains two stories. The second, the title story, won the prize; the first is called "Kinrô Kansha no Hi 勤労感謝の日." According to the bio in the book, Itoyama (b. 1966) worked in a home-appliances firm for a while before becoming a writer; judging from the stories, if they’re at all autobiographical (and chances are, they are, this being J-lit), she was a career-track employee, part of the first generation of women to be hired as such. In the stories, she seems to be setting herself up as the literary spokesperson for those women.

"Kinrô Kansha no Hi" covers the negative aspects. The narrator is an unemployed woman in her late 30s. Unemployed because she ran up against a particularly nasty case of sexual harrassment and quit, but without reporting it, so she gets nothing but a bad reputation and a rapidly-disappearing meager unemployment allowance from the government. Over the course of the story she goes on a miai arranged by her neighbor; the guy turns out to be a total dweeb, and quite full of himself as a Company Man. This sets up the story’s central tension, between the Company Man who’s constantly boasting about how wonderful it is to be part of a company, and how thankful everybody should be for what companies do for the nation, and the protagonist, who is completely soured on the company life, both from her own experience and from her view that it’s Company Men who have put Japan in the mess it’s in today, economically and socially. It so happens that the day of the miai is Kinrô Kansha no Hi, Labor Thanksgiving Day, an irony the narrator comments on. In the end, she goes to a rundown local bar that she can always depend on to match her mood, and finds herself grateful that the proprietor keeps it open in spite of little business; so maybe there’s something to be grateful to workers for after all, she thinks.

I liked this story. It really represents a fresh voice, I think, and an important one. The critiques of Japanese company life and society aren’t necessarily new, but they’re well done, and voiced by a character who seems new. Great. But this isn’t the one that won the prize.

The one that won is kind of the flipside of the modern career woman’s experience. It concerns one Oikawa, who also comes into a company as a career-track woman, and her friend Futocchan, a guy who came in the same year. They were immediately transferred together to Fukuoka, and later back to the Kantô area. The story traces their travails as new employees, as coworkers, growing older. No romance between - actually he marries someone from the Fukuoka office - but friendship. Then he dies in an accident, and she’s forced to carry out a promise he once extracted from her to destroy the hard drive on his computer. There are things he doesn’t want anybody to see after he dies - it’s not clear what, but it’s suggested that it’s embarrassingly bad love poetry to his wife (at least that’s what Oikawa ends up thinking). The story begins and ends on a note of magical realism, is I guess what you’d call it, as Oikawa confronts Futocchan’s ghost. But there’s no real epiphany, except for friendship, how much she’ll miss him.

It’s a rather generic and rah-rah look at company life. You join, you go where the firm tells you, you learn from your senpai who seem harsh at first but then wise, you gradually learn to take responsibility yourself and feel endless gratitude toward the company and senpai who helped you grow, and the dôki who helped you survive it. Kind of like one of those photocollages in a high school yearbook - “these are the best years of our lives.” I can hardly believe the same person wrote this and the first story, but that’s why I think she’s trying to set herself up as the Career Woman Writer - covering both extremes of the career woman’s experience. To me the only novelty about this is that it seems to be trying to show male readers that women can feel just as dedicated to their employers and coworkers as men can. In a society that still doesn't fully accept career women, that's probably a valuable message. But coming after the first story, you have to wonder where this enthusiasm for being transformed into a corporate drone comes from.

Oh, right. Maybe it's fiction.

Asatte no hito

Suwa Tetsushi 諏訪哲史. Asatte no hito アサッテの人. 2007.

Winner of the 137th Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2007.

The story has two strands. The first is a sort of character sketch of the author’s unnamed uncle, the titular character. Asatte, in this context, means odd, unexpected, out of left field (literally, it's "the day after tomorrow"), and the uncle is that. He means to be that. As a child he’s a stutterer, and then when this suddenly heals he finds that he misses the stuttering because it gave him a safe abstracted remove from the world. He’s convinced that the world is controlled by a will that’s not his (a Schopenhauerian idea, the narrator posits - Suwa studied philosophy in college), and he’s obsessed with doing things that make him feel he’s escaped this inevitability. To this end he starts adopting little nonsense words that he interjects occasionally. It disconcerts people around him, but helps him feel like he’s putting one over on the intentionality of life. They’re purposeless, so they’re liberating. But his wife starts to think he’s going nuts, and then when she dies in an accident and leaves him alone, he does start to go nuts, feeling that the nonsense words stop functioning as well as they should. He clings to them more and more, until he really can’t interact normally with the world anymore. This strand of the story seems really Murakami Haruki-ish.

The other strand of the story is the narrator, who’s struggling to find the best way to tell his uncle’s story. This is the framing device, as he frets on paper over what to write, and then gives us a fragment of an “earlier draft” of this novel, or of his uncle’s “journals.” This part of the story seems a little Mori Ôgai-ish (as when he makes Shibue Chûsai as much about the process of evaluating his documentary sources as about the guy) - and his language is even faintly reminiscent of Meiji-era writing, as well.

The overall effect, though, is most like Laurence Sterne, but without as much humor. He keeps telling us he’s going to get to his uncle’s story, but always seems to be deferring it. For example, in the narrator’s present, the uncle has disappeared—he discovers the journals while crating up the uncle’s effects—but the story he tells never explains the disappearance. Throughout he calls what he’s writing a shôsetsu, fiction, and he includes some passages from the wife’s point of view that he, the narrator himself, wrote (rather implausible, too - she’s puzzled enough by the words to go through her husband’s books to try to find what they mean, but she never just comes out and asks him) - he’s not averse to making things up - but then at the end he says it would be too artificial to make up an ending, so things just peter out, along with the uncle’s sanity.

In short, it’s a very self-conscious novel. Self-conscious about the process of writing, about fictionality, about its themes - several passages of philosophical speculation (and name-dropping) make it fairly clear the exact sort of alienation that’s being discussed here.

It was rather engrossing, but I’m not sure how successful I’d judge it. Laurence Sterne without the laughs would be pretty dreary stuff, after all. This is a bit tendentious, and a bit precious. Still, it’s quite imaginative, and nothing like the last few A-Prize winners.

Tsuchi no naka no kodomo

Nakamura Fuminori 中村文則. Tsuchi no naka no kodomo 土の中の子供. 2005.

The title story was the winner of the 133rd Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2005. The volume also includes a shorter, earlier story called "Kumo no koe 蜘蛛の声."

The title story is what I would call a social-issue story, the social issue being what is called in Japanese adaruto chirudoren, or adult children of abuse. The main character was abandoned by his real parents, and raised by abusive relatives who ultimately dropped him from a building and then buried him alive, thinking he was dead. He escaped the grave and was then raised in an orphanage. The story tells us this in flashbacks, while showing us him as an adult dealing with the scars of this childhood.

In structure, it’s a good example of what I’m finally coming to understand (after years of denying the Keenes of the field’s words to this effect) as a typically, perhaps stereotypically, Japanese narrative style. How I would characterize it is as the junbungaku house style: jumping back and forth between inconclusive, suggestive, atmospheric, fragmentary, not-quite-linear present scenes and inconclusive, suggestive, atmospheric, fragmentary, not-quite-linear memory scenes, to create a narrative sequence that is quite intricate while not really letting anything much happen.

We begin with a scene where the narrator picks a fight with some motorcycle punks on purpose, just to get the shit kicked out of himself. We don’t know exactly why, but as we later learn more about his past we come to suppose it’s because he became so accustomed to abuse as a child that he doesn’t quite know how to exist without it.

He’s a taxi driver now, in his early 20s, living with an ex- bar hostess who was raised by an alcoholic mother and who was abandoned, pregnant, by her lover before miscarrying. She’s got issues of her own, in other words, and they don’t love each other, but rather just sort of coexist.
At one point, she gets drunk and falls down some stairs; she’s uninsured, and the narrator vows to raise the money to pay her hospital bills. Then he’s robbed at knifepoint in his taxi; he’s almost killed, but in the climactic moment of the story he stabs the would-be killer and gets away, only to run his taxi off a small cliff. Now he’s hospitalized.

The story ends after he gets out of the hospital, in a scene where he meets his sorta mentor, the head of the orphanage. The head of the orphanage says the narrator’s true father wants to meet him; the narrator says, no thanks, and walks away. End of story.

Again, narratively it’s quintessentially junbungaku. A good example of the form. Stylistically, his writing is just okay. Which leaves us with the subject matter, which is what I presume got the story the prize. It’s hard to feel much about this, since tales of abuse have been so prominent in American culture for a couple of decades now, but I think they’re just hitting Japan. Meh.

The second story is similar, vaguely. A young salaryman who’s just earned a promotion wakes up and has a breakdown. He ditches his apartment, his job, his ID cards, and goes to live under a bridge. At the end of the story a spider speaking to him almost convinces him that he never had a job, an apartment, or anything, that he’s in fact always lived under this bridge, ever since he was a kid and attacked a drunk homeless guy and then hid from him. There’s also something about a woman leading him angrily into the woods as a child (echoes of the abusive childhood in Tsuchi, I think), and a cop who thinks the narrator (of course it’s in the first person) is the person who’s been attacking women in this area. In the end, the narrator’s identity is totally fragmented, as he’s not sure if he is the criminal, if he’s who the spider says he is, if he’s maybe a soldier gone AWOL from a war zone, or what.

This one may be a little better than the prize-winner actually. A-Prize stories tend to be novellas - almost never are they either truly short stories, or full-length novels (although they're often published alone between two covers, so you pay full price for a hundred and twenty pages of text, with wide margins and large print). And maybe this writer is better in more concentrated doses. Anyway, the spider story has a little more impact; maybe also because it doesn’t feel so much like a formula - take social issue of the day, apply junbungaku formula, and you get an A-Prize story. (To be fair, in his brief afterword, Nakamura hints that he may have had an abusive childhood himself, so I shouldn’t be cynical about what he’s written. But that’s another issue: it’s hard to judge this kind of story objectively when you learn it’s drawn from the author’s life.)

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.

Chichi to ran

Kawakami Mieko 川上未映子. Chichi to ran 乳と卵. 2007.

Winner of the 138th Akutagawa Prize, for the second half of 2007.

The story concerns the unnamed narrator, an adult Osaka woman living in Tokyo; her 39-year-older sister Makiko, visiting Tokyo; and Makiko’s almost-pubescent daughter Midoriko. Makiko is a single mom, works as a bar hostess, and is thinking about getting breast enlargement surgery; Midoriko is a moody child, in the middle of a vow of silence. The two of them go to visit Makiko’s sister, the narrator, in Tokyo, and the story takes place over the course of the three or so days of their visit. The narration is interspersed with excerpts from Midoriko’s diary.

It’s kind of like The Vagina Monologues with an Osaka accent. That is, the theme of the book is (very obviously) women and how they feel about their bodies. We never get to the bottom of why Makiko wants her breasts enlarged, but the debate is certainly aired over whether she’s doing it for herself or for men. Meanwhile, Midoriko, who hasn’t started her period yet, is terrified of it, and is obsessed with ovulation, and what a curse it is for women- she hates the thought of it, hates that it dooms her to having to fear reproduction, hates the thought of reproducing. Hates/pities her mother, and wishes her mother had never had her. Meanwhile the narrator almost never tells us what she’s thinking - we learn very little about her - but in the course of the story her period surprises her and we watch her washing her underwear and the futon and musing about how she’s been irregular lately, and how this is another lost opportunity to get pregnant.

Not much happens. Basically it’s tensions between Makiko and Midoriko, and these finally erupt (predictably) with Midoriko breaking her silence and yelling at her (remind you of this moment?); they break down and both start smashing eggs into their faces—their own faces...symbolic, a little? Kind of a typical junbungaku scenario, in which people refuse to even try to communicate, all the better to create significant and resonant scenes impressing us with the complexity or hopelessness of whatever issue is being discussed, and/or life in general. In real life, if someone wanted to know why her sister was getting a boob job, wouldn’t she just ask? If she wanted to know why her sister and niece weren’t speaking, wouldn’t she ask one of them? If her sister came home eight hours late, drunk, and said she’d gone to see her daughter’s daddy, and you wanted to know if she succeeded in seeing him, and why she’d gone to see him in the first place, wouldn’t you just ask? Sure we can imagine families so alienated from each other that they could never broach such subjects—but in junbungaku, they’re all so alienated that they can’t even imagine what it would be like to actually communicate. So in that sense, the story is clichéd, I thought.

On the other hand, even at this late date the story’s frank look at women’s bodies and how they feel about them, and its unapologetic, completely open adoption of a female point of view on these issues, still seems fresh and daring, at least in a Japanese context. These parts of the novel worked - and Midoriko’s journal excerpts really worked - by which I mean they felt authentic, and powerful, and necessary. For these reasons, I could well imagine using the novel in a class someday.

So why did it get the prize? I can never answer that question. The committee comments on the obi talk about the assuredness and vividness of the Osaka dialect in which the story is narrated; but right now all comedy on Japanese TV has a Kansai accent - the Yoshimoto clique has taken over - so in the culture at large using Osaka-ben seems to be the norm now rather than an exception, and kind of a shorthand signifier for authenticity (to be fair, it's been used like that in literature for a long time).

[edited 11/17/09 to add the rest of the review, which somehow escaped my original cut and paste job]

The book also includes an o-make story, “Anatatachi no ren’ai wa hinshi あなたたちの恋愛は瀕死” ("Your love is on its last legs") about an unnamed woman who wanders the department stores of Shinjuku one Saturday afternoon, lonely, and eventually tries to pick up a guy handing out tissues on a street corner, only to run into his frustration over his dead-end job; he punches her out without thinking about it. Kind of a nonplussing story, but at least it’s not in Osaka-ben.

Kaigo nyûmon

Mobu Norio モブ・ノリオ. Kaigo nyûmon 介護入門. 2004.

Winner of the 131st Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2004.

A hip-hop dude ends up taking care of his invalid grandmother, and narrates it as a shishôsetsu. That tells you everything. It’s classic A-Prize bait: a rambling, stream-of-consciousness non-narrative focusing on a Previously Unrecognized Voice (in this case, hip-hop boys), discussing a Pressing Social Issue (in this case, elder care).

And that’s basically all it is.

You can tell I didn’t think too much of it. Partly that’s because, I admit, I had a hard time with the language - lots of hip-hop affectations. These are only marginally effective: I don’t really dig hip-hop as music, but I can appreciate the complex verbal play, and Japanese hip-hop has been really creative in bringing that wordplay into Japanese. This does some of that, but not on nearly the level of complexity of some of the actual artists (I once translated these lyrics by Rhymester and Scha Dara Parr for a class I was involved with, and they were massively impressive - the lyrics that is, not the translations). This guy’s a wannabe - maybe that’s intentional, or maybe he’s a literary boy slumming or posing (he puts his photo in the book to convince us he’s authentic - he must be: he bleaches his hair!) - and his hip-hop affectations go about as far as calling the reader hôbai (comrade, fellow) and glossing it “nigga,” or throwing an occasional romaji YO.

The elder-care part is very predictable: he’s in his early 20s, has dropped out of the company life, and ends up taking the night shift on caring for his invalid grandmother. He’s rambling on about how he changes her diapers, feeds her, and puts up with his relatives’ lack of understanding of how much work this is. He only gets a couple of hours of sleep at a time, and is always tired and stressed. His mother takes the day shift and understands, but everybody else sees him living at home jobless and thinks he’s just a slob. Meanwhile he had dreams of being a musician, and about all that’s left of them is a dependence on marijuana. Grass is big in this book, but certain things he attributes to it make you wonder if the author’s ever really smoked any…

It’s okay. I’d be happy to read a student paper someday comparing this to Ariyoshi Sawako’s Kokkei na hito (translated as The Twilight Years). But I didn’t think it was a great novel.

Hebi ni piasu

Kanehara Hitomi 金原ひとみ. Hebi ni piasu 蛇にピアス. 2003.

Co-winner of the 130th Akutagawa Prize, for the second half of 2003.

A nineteen-year-old clubgoing girl, Rui (or Lui), meets a clubgoing punk guy, Ama, and falls in love with his split tongue. She’s really into ear-piercing, and right away decides she has to do a split tongue. It starts with a piercing, and one thread of the plot is following the progress of this piercing as she widens it until she’s ready to split what remains of the end of her tongue. Through Ama she meets Shiba, the piercer and tattooer, and she falls in love with his kirin tattoo; she ends up getting a tattoo on her back of a dragon (like Ama’s) intertwined with a kirin. This mirrors her love life: she’s kind of stumbled into living with Ama, although she can’t decide if she really loves him; meanwhile, she’s having sadomasochistic sex with Shiba, whose S complements her M, and who’s a contrast to Ama’s surprisingly conventional ways. The third plot thread is murder: one day a yakuza type starts to grope Rui in the street, and Ama beats him to death. The cops are looking for Ama, but in the end somebody else gets to him first: he’s found dead in the harbor. At the end of the book, though, the cops conclude that he’d been raped and abused, and some of the clues they found make it seem to Rui highly likely that it was Shiba who did it, either accidentally (maybe Shiba and Ama had been secret lovers) or out of jealousy. This sort of shocks her - in her depression she’s moved in with Shiba by this time - but it snaps her out of her depression, and the story ends ambiguously. She has Shiba paint the eyes in on her tattoo, something she’d asked him not to do earlier, and this sort of symbolizes how she snaps out of her funk and determines to go on living. No signs of leaving Shiba.

Obviously, it has some of the flaws of junbungaku ("pure" or high literature: one of the functions of the A-Prize is to define what is and isn't this) - leaving it unresolved is just as much of a trick as resolving it in some way, and in junbungaku it’s a cliché (sez the Tanuki). On the other hand, it’s well-written - first person (that goes without saying in junbungaku, doesn’t it?), and not as dedicated to reproducing a subculture’s speech patterns as, say, Mobu Norio, but more so than Wataya Risa, and still you get a good sense of this girl’s personality. Which is, she’s kind of in a daze - when Ama is gone she realizes they had been living together for months but never even knew each other’s full names. She’s a borderline alcoholic. She says she has a reasonably good relationship with her parents, but is only fairly sure she knows where they live.

The tattooing and piercing are the key here. She reflects at one point that they’re like a shelter, a cover - they seem like incredibly attention-drawing and public acts, but since people immediately judge her and reject her for them, they create space for her to think and be herself without society’s interference. A way to live outside the law, as Dylan would say. So in a sense we’re back in subculture territory here.

It’s a feminist self-realization quest, too: she’s consciously making over her body how she wants it, she’s constantly being called a gyaru by others and insisting that she’s not, she’s torn between love for these two guys and resistance to their urge to possess her. The unresolved ending is, of course, a resolution of this: by choosing to live, she’s finding her self, finishing her tattoo, taking charge of her life.

The specifics of the subculture are interesting. The S&M stuff isn’t shocking, as it’s been appearing in J-lit for at least a couple of decades now, although Yamada Eimi never won the A-Prize (I wrote a paper in grad school on S&M in the works of Murakami Ryû and Yamada Eimi; maybe I'll summarize it here someday: interesting topic, at least). The piercing might be new to A-Prize level lit, I’m not sure. The tattoo is interesting because of Tanizaki’s old tattoo story; Kanehara seems to be consciously echoing it.

A real good one. By the way, this one's been translated; I haven't read the translation, so I can't comment on it.

Keritai senaka

Wataya Risa 綿矢りさ. Keritai senaka 蹴りたい背中. 2003.

Co-winner of the 130th Akutagawa Prize, for the second half of 2003.

A tenth-grade girl, Hasegawa Hatsu, narrates her difficult first year of high school. In junior high she had friends, was best friends with Kinuyo, but now she’s mostly estranged from Kinuyo and has no friends. We don’t really get any reason why: just a lot of high school alienation and hatred of the cool kids. Hatsu bonds, kind of accidentally, with this boy named Ninagawa, who’s also unpopular. Ninagawa is obsessed with this model named Ori-chan (or Oli-chan - from "Olivia" - she’s half-foreign), and when he finds out that Hatsu happened to actually meet her one day in a Mujirushi Ryôhin in town, they find they have something to talk about. “Bond” might be too strong a word, as Ninagawa never evinces interest in anything but Ori-chan, but still he’s somebody for Hatsu to talk to, and so they hang out a number of times. She’s not sure if she likes Ninagawa or hates him. One time she kisses him, another time she kicks him in the back (thus the title). She’s kind of got sadistic tendencies, or she’s taking out her unpopularity on him; he's even more of a geek than she is. He’s good-natured, a bit scared of her. The climax, such as there is, comes when they and Kinuyo go to see Ori-chan in concert. All the way through we’ve been wondering just how obsessed Ninagawa is, if he’ll end up doing something psycho, and in fact he does try to crash to the front of the crowd waiting for her behind the club, and has to be chased away by security, but that’s the extent of it, and in the last scene he’s kind of dazedly lamenting that he thought the closer he got to her the better he’d feel, but he felt just as distant from her as ever.

High-school loneliness. The author herself was only nineteen when this got the Prize - youngest ever A-Prize-winner, wunderkind, big bestseller, social phenomenon, etc. Unlike some of the other A-Prize winners in this decade, though, it’s not trying to particularly capture a new mode of language - nothing in Hatsu’s language or the dialogue is at all difficult for an older person to understand. It's not a kogyaru novel, in other words. The whole story feels kind of recognizable and universal, really, although probably the isolation and alienation were supposed, by the Prize committee if not the author, to feel new. (They'll only feel new if you were popular in high school, or if you have allowed yourself to forget how awful high school was, and how awful it was to be that age. In Japan as in the States, an astonishing percentage of adults seem to fall into this trap.)

All that said, it’s a good book. Well-written, first-person but without the worst clichés of the shishôsetsu (a term, I should note, that I use pretty loosely), a sure narrative voice, good depiction of the two main characters. It does what it does really well.


Yoshimura Man’ichi 吉村萬壱. Hariganemushi ハリガネムシ. Bungei Shunjû, 2003.

Co-winner of the 129th Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2003.

A high-school teacher gets involved with a prostitute from a soapland, and their unhealthy codependency ends with him almost beating her to death, and then, later, her almost killing him.

It’s a really puzzling book, and I don’t feel like going much more into the details of the plot than that. A hariganemushi (a nematomorph?) by the way, is a kind of worm that’s a parasite in bugs; he finds one in a praying mantis he kills. The metaphor is probably that either the girl’s a parasite on him or the other way around; combine that with the fact that the worm supposedly screws up the insect’s reproductive system, and you get a sexual element to the parasitism, which is certainly there in the book. Beating her up turns him on, something that becomes more and more clear to him as the book goes on.

There are elements of class involved: she’s from a really trashy background, poor, and there’s an implication, either in the narrator’s mind or the author’s, can’t tell, that she’ll never change, she gets involved with dangerous people like the narrator because at root that’s who she is, and she can't (or doesn't believe she can) do any better. From the point of view of the narrator, she's a disposable person. And it's this, precisely, that gets the narrator off—he’s aroused by the fact that he can beat her and she’ll come back.

So I guess you could say the book is trying to depict a dangerously codependent relationship. It has pieces that don’t fit, however, like why it’s so insistently set in 1987, and why we hardly learn anything at all about the narrator’s mental state that would explain the things he does. Half the book is a road trip to her hometown in Shikoku, and along the way he proposes to her, and we think it might be because she has kids in an institution and he feels sorry for her, but then he beats her up—in short the narrator usually just describes, doesn’t comment, even though it’s his own life. Maybe that’s the point—he’s an inveterate journal writer, although what we’re reading isn’t that—maybe we’re supposed to notice his passivity in his own life? Maybe it's an anti-shishôsetsu, a first-person narrative that refuses to get inside the narrator's head? And yet it's not exactly like he's an unreliable narrator. Just a detached one.

Mostly it’s the tone that’s disturbing. There’s a moral ambiguity in the author’s refusal to make the narrator’s voice more unsympathetic—the book made me really uncomfortable, and not in a “this is challenging my preconceptions—it’s Art” kind of way. Just made me feel gross.

Well written. But I don't know why it got the Prize (which, of course, could have been due to factors having nothing to do with what I've written here).

Note: all of the above I wrote right after I read the book, back in July. Now, posting this, I find that the book is still there in my head, pretty vividly. That says something; not sure what. Probably that what I said at the end about it being well written is true: a really vividly expressed, cunningly constructed book. It stays with you, and not necessarily just the lurid parts. As a portrait of an unhealthy relationship, it's brilliant. I still don't know what to do with the tone, though.