Tanaka Shin'ya 田中慎弥 has been writing, and winning prizes, since 2005, and he'd been a finalist for the A-Prize four times before this, meaning he's already pretty well established as a writer; thus his witty quip in his press conference about Shirley MacLaine.
If this book is evidence, he's right. It's a solid, deserving book.
The book consists of two stories: Tomogui (Eating Each Other) and the bonus track, Daisan kisō no sakana 第三紀層の魚 (A Fish of the Tertiary Layer). Both are set in the small-town Yamaguchi-ken of the author's youth, but turn off those alarms, they don't seem to be autobiographical in any meaningful way. One's set, for example, in 1988 and deals with a high-school boy, and the other is set seemingly in the present and deals with an elementary-school boy; and neither protagonist seems to have all that much to do with Tanaka's own bio. So.
Tomogui is the one set in 1988. It's about a kid named Shinogaki Tōma who lives in a poor part of his town called "the riverbed," a slum neighborhood originally settled by displaced people after the war that never quite got reconstructed (they're the last in town to hook up to the sewer system, for example: and the survival of neighborhoods like this in non-metropolitan Japan even at the height of the Bubble is one of the neatly-observed/remembered things that makes Tanaka's work satisfying). His neighborhood is squalid, and so is his family life. He lives with his father and his father's girlfriend; his mother lives across the river, where she runs a fish shop. His father is semi-employed in various unspecified shady trades, and has a habit of beating up and half-strangling the women in his life - he's a sexual sadist. That's why Tōma's mother left, although she's close enough that she's still in her son's life. Tōma sees the same thing happening to his father's present girlfriend.
The novella hinges on Tōma's fear that he'll turn out the same way. He has a girlfriend, Chigusa, with whom he's sexually active, and very early in the story he expresses to her his fear that he'll beat her like his father beats his women; Tōma doesn't want to do this, but he's feeling pressured by heredity. And in fact, it isn't long before he is doing this. He knocks Chigusa around a bit, and then sleeps with the same corner prostitute that his father does, and knocks her around just like his father does, and while he's bothered by his own behavior, he's also discovering that he does indeed have the same sadistic tendencies that his father has: he enjoys it.
He's a fucked-up kid in a fucked-up world, is the gist of it. Tōma's moral degeneration is overlaid with vivid, repetitive, really-rubbing-it-in descriptions of the river that runs through the neighborhood, a fetid thing filled with raw sewage, oversized garbage, weeds, herons, and eels - in an effectively disgusting detail, Tōma's father loves to eat the eels that swim in this shit, and it's Tōma's job to catch them and his mother's job to skin them. His father, in other words, is like the Minotaur at the heart of this maze of degradation.
His father compares the river to a woman's "crack" (wareme 割れ目). It's a perfect touch, allowing the psychosexual evil of the man to exist on a diegetic as well as a subtextual level, a verbal as well as a physical: his entire worldview is one of exploitation and objectification. When he learns that his son is developing a taste for sadism, he cheers him on.
Laid out like this, the story sounds like cheap sensationalism, the lurid side of gritty realism (I keep meaning to blog about Winter's Bone, which I did feel was poverty porn). And it does have a suitably melodramatic ending. Tōma's father rapes Chigusa, and to prevent Tōma from taking revenge his mother takes out his father with her eel-cleaver.
But the tone of it isn't like that. It remains stubbornly literary throughout, with such careful, dense writing that it convinced me (your mileage may vary) that Tanaka wasn't just trying to give us cheap thrills in the slums. It is lurid, and I was wary that his stylistic polish might have been just a cover, but in the end I don't think it was. The luridness contributes to a weirdly specific portrait of a particular kind of late-postwar malaise, wrestled with in an earnestly literary way. I can't get away from that word: Tanaka is about the project of literature in a high-modernist way, self-consciously so. It comes as no surprise to learn that he's never held a job, and has spent his whole adult life locked away in a room with the Canon. For example, there's a lot of Nakagami Kenji in this story.
The omake story is different. Impressively different. The only connections with the first story are the Yamaguchi setting and the fact that the protagonist is an avid fisherman. Young Nobumichi is also the product of a broken home; in his case his father died young, and his grandfather committed suicide. Who's left is Nobumichi's mother, her mother-in-law (Nobumichi's grandmother), and her mother-in-law's father-in-law (Nobumichi's great-grandfather). The kid lives with his mother, while the grandmother takes care of the bedridden great-grandfather, but since his mother works, really the kid shuttles back and forth between the two houses. On the surface it seems like a close family, if one marked by too much death, but the fact that Nobumichi's the only one related to any of them by blood is significant: the rest are only kept together by duty.
Or love. Because instead of the raging dysfunction of the family in the first story, what we get is a portrait of women doing what they need to do to hold a family together. Not saints. Self-sacrificing, but more in a this-is-what-grown-ups-do way than a madonna way.
The heart of the story is in how Nobumichi, who's enough of a man to catch fish for everybody to eat, is not quite old enough to fully understand all the nuances of the love and obligation that hold the adults in the family together. There are barely-glimpsed layers of guilt over the grandfather's suicide, the father's premature death, of awkwardness over the great-grandfather's war service and the grandfather's career as a cop, of tension over the mother's working, and Tanaka perfectly captures how Nobumichi can sense all this but not understand it. And Tanaka gives this tension a great material symbol in the ominous knot of grown men who fish down the waterfront from Nobumichi - with their rough language and vending-machine liquor, and their territoriality, they represent for Nobumichi the forbidding mysteries of adult life.
Very well-constructed, very thoughtful. And again, very self-consciously literary. There's some business about the grandfather having lost his great-grandfather's medal from the war that is explicitly compared to General Nogi's suicide, which in turn begs (and pleads with) the reader to connect this story to Kokoro. Well, Tanaka's not Sōseki, or even Nakagami, but, yes, like Shirley said, he deserves this.