Friday, December 2, 2011

Nishimura Kenta: Kueki ressha (2010)

Nishimura Kenta 西村賢太 shared the 144th Akutagawa Prize (for the 2nd half of 2010), with his Kueki ressha 苦役列車 (Train of hard labor). 

It serves me right.

All along in my reviews of these things I've been throwing around the term "I-novel" loosely, far too loosely for my own good.  What I was trying to say with it was that A-Prize novels tend to fall into a first-person, confessional mode that is one of the hallowed literary conventions of modern Japan.  This mode is sometimes associated with something called the "I-novel" or shishōsetsu 私小説 (or watakushishōsetsu).  But, strictly speaking, the shishōsetsu was a much more limited and strictly definable phenomenon of the naturalists of the early 20th century - and the odd thing is that many of them didn't write in the first person.  They went through the pretense of putting their navel-gazing in the third person, leaving it to the readers (and the journalists) to piece together the I-ness of the thing through matching thinly-disguised details in the text with the documented life of the author.  I mean, they weren't fooling anybody, but this is what they did, and it shouldn't be conflated with the larger phenomenon of first-person confessional slice-of-life novels in modern J-lit, which owes a lot to but isn't completely identical with the shishōsetsu properly speaking.  I conflated it.  My bad.

This kind of clarification (okay, confession) becomes necessary at this point because Nishimura Kenta is self-consciously trying to bring the shishōsetsu idiom, narrowly defined, into the 21st century.  In fact he's so open about his devotion to this idiom that he was instrumental in getting one of its more obscure practitioners, Fujisawa Seizō 藤沢清造, back into print. 

His story is confessional - oh boy is it confessional - but it's written in the third person.  More than that it's written in a prose style that's instantly recognizable as belonging to the naturalists of the early 20th century. 

The story is about a teenager named Kanta (not Kenta) in the mid-1980s who has dropped out of school after junior high to live hand-to-mouth as a day laborer.  He's estranged from his mother, and his father is in prison for sex crimes.  Becoming known as the family of a rapist ruined Kanta and his mother, and is largely responsible for Kanta's miserable existence, or at least that's how Kanta sees it.

If you know anything about the tradition that this story is an homage to, you'll expect the story to detail a miserable personality and its obsessions with sex, violence, and unreasonable grudges that doom the protagonist to failing at life, and that by rubbing the reader's face in the sheer squalidness of life the writer is hoping to arrive at some sort of ultimate truth, if only by forcing us to confront certain existential tragedies.

That's exactly what Nishimura does here.  Over a hundred and forty pages we follow, in minute detail, Kanta's days working as a seafood unpacker, missing his rent, sleeping with prostitutes whenever he gets enough cash, skipping work whenever he gets enough money to eat for two days in a row, seemingly never showering, and creeping out more normal people who try to befriend him.  And he can't figure out why he's all alone.  Must be his father's fault...  (Needless to say, the details of Kanta's life match up quite well with Kenta's.  Notoriously, in his post-A-Prize interview, when asked what he was doing when he got the call saying he'd won, he said, "I was just about to hit a sex club."  Coming from Murakami Ryū this might have been edgy or cute, but Nishimura made it sound just kind of matter-of-fact, like the old sexual harasser in the office who can't figure out why pubes on a Coke can don't make the ladies swoon...)

At first I thought this was going to be a parody.  His emulation of the old prose style is pitch-perfect, and there is a mildly interesting disconnect in reading it applied to '80s things - imagine Sōseki describing vending machines and you'll get an inkling.  But by the end it was clear that Nishimura wasn't up to anything new at all.  In short, he's just trying to bum you out, just like his idols. 

The o-make story here, Ochiburete sode ni namida no furikakaru 落ちぶれて袖に涙ふりかかる (Broken down, with tears falling on his sleeve), is if anything even more unpleasant.  It joins Kanta two decades later, in something close to the present day, when he's scraping by as a writer of shishōsetsu.  We spend the first half of the story getting detailed, vivid, and yet somehow dull descriptions of how he has to piss into a plastic oolong-tea bottle because he's thrown his back out and can't get out of bed.  Halfway through we realize he's waiting for the announcement of a literary prize that he's up for.  We then get a prodigious outpouring of bile on how he knows that it's unbecoming of him to want the prize so desperately, but he wants it anyway.  (Okay, so that's kind of interesting to someone who's interested in the idea of literary prizes.)

So, obviously I didn't enjoy these stories.  So what?  I'm not sure so what.  I don't have to enjoy them to see literary value in them.  So do I?  See literary value in them?  Usually I'm game for that question, but I feel like to try to answer it with regard to Nishimura would just send me off into the night looking for an oolong-tea bottle to piss in and muttering about the impossibility of defining literary value.  If you're really, really in need of having your face rubbed in the misery of existence, then Nishimura's probably doing something valuable.  But otherwise this book is a just a wallow in a particularly grotesque kind of self-pity, unrelieved by any humor, couched in a prose that's trying really really hard to be as ugly as it is.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Flappers and Philosophers (1920)

The best thing about Fitzgerald's first short-story collection is its title.  Seeing it, and knowing of Fitzgerald's reputation as poet laureate of the Jazz Age, and maybe being familiar with his later knowing, sympathetic portraits of wild women and enchanted men, you're probably going to expect a completely unbridled, unsobered-up collection of hot jazz fantasias.  Specifically the title seems to suggest that the collection will present a contrast between the body-centered concrete liberation represented the flapper and the mind-bound abstract repression represented by the philosopher, and that this contrast will redound (scandalously) to the Flapper's benefit by suggesting that she is the true Philosopher (in the sense of having the most persuasive access to Truth and Understanding).  The title does all this (for me, anyway), and what's even more exciting is that it does it all with such perfect music in the language - the three words of the title.  I mean, think of the orthography and how it relates to the sounds.  In the word "flapper" an "f" sound like an "f" and a "p" sounds like a "p":  straightforward, honest, no nonsense, intuitive.  In "philosopher" a "p" is denatured, abstracted by an "h" until it stands in for a displaced "f":  letters are one or two steps removed from their reflexive, direct sounds.  They're processed through the brain, rather than proceeding naturally from the lips.  The words work, in this instance, like the readings they're meant to evoke.  "Philosopher" is fake nonsense:  "flapper" is real.

I wanted to read that book.  Unfortunately, Fitzgerald's book only has a couple of stories worthy of that title.  "The Offshore Pirate" and "Head and Shoulders."  The latter really does translate the ancient mind/body split into contemporary (Jazz Age) terms, with its pairing of a Broadway ingenue and a Yale prodigy who in the end switch places.  The former presents a really indelible sketch of a flapper, Ardita, "slender and supple, with a spoiled alluring mouth and quick gray eyes full of a radiant curiosity," who is seduced by, or maybe seduces, a modern-day pirate.  Despite the condescending O. Henry twists at the end, these stories display the kind of louche brassiness that one might expect from the title of the book.

But the rest of the stories are not that.  At their best they're deft character studies (like "The Ice Palace" or "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"), and at their worst they're alarmingly conventional ("Benediction," "The Cut-Glass Bowl").  Either way, they're much more mundane than I've come to expect from Fitzgerald.  Middle-brow magazine fodder, which is I guess what they were.

David Fincher's The Social Network (2010)

Just got around to seeing this, right on time.  Don't have much to say except that, despite all the acclaim it got, I guess I was still doubtful that much could be made of the story, and that I was wrong.  It's a serious movie - if only because it lays bare, in an artful way, the obvious metaphors inherent in the whole thing.  I mean, what we all realized, in that three or four year period in which we all joined Facebook, was that the site was not at all redefining the way we interacted, but rather was codifying and making explicit what was already happening in our lives.  The movie brings that out nicely.

It reminded me of one of my college roommates, a history major who used to tutor freshmen.  I'd lie on my bed half-reading and half-listening to him, and one day he told a freshman, what you have to realize is, everybody who ever lived is basically driven by a desire to get laid, and that includes famous historical figures.  It all comes down to sex, and sometimes food.  Later I realized it was hardly an original argument, but it was the first time I'd heard it, and it made a big impact on me.  This movie gets that.

My other reaction to the film was one of total wonder.  I was at Harvard during the years when this all happened, but I was totally oblivious to it.  I was a grad student, and at least in my department that seems to have meant being almost totally estranged from the undergraduates.  I'd teach them, but I never really understood their world.  I have no idea, therefore, if this movie gets that right.  Hell, I didn't even join Facebook until it was opened to everyone, and then only because I heard about it from family members, not fellow Harwardians.