Vibrator

Vibrator

Title: Vibrator
Japanese Title: ヴァイブレータ (Vaiburēta)
Author: Akasaka Mari (赤坂 真理)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2005 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 155

Vibrator is not an easy book to read.

In the first twenty pages, the 31-year-old bulimic narrator describes her strategies for throwing up after meals. Apparently, the trick is to not allow the food to digest. Soda water helps too, it seems. Alcohol complicates matters, but it’s difficult to give up entirely, because it makes the voices go away.

As you might imagine, the narrator of Vibrator has Issues. The first third of the novel is occupied by her nerve-wracking, stream-of-consciousness jabber. What’s perhaps most disturbing about the narrator’s ranting is not that it so accurately reflects narratives of self-hatred and self-doubt, but that the circumstances she describes make her anxieties and self-destructive behavior seem entirely justified. Being an independent woman in a man’s world is hard, and the narrator knows that her beauty will fade as she grows older, thus depriving her of her only advantage over her male colleagues. Moreover, as a female journalist, the narrator is placed in situations in which she must comment not as a professional but as a representative member of her gender, which she finds banal and insulting. To anyone – male or female – who’s ever resented her job or lamented her relative lack of professional success, the narrator’s complaints will be painfully familiar.

One snowy night, after buying a liquid dinner in a Family Mart on her way home, the narrator almost runs headlong into a tracker-trailer on the edge of the convenience store parking lot. The driver, a twenty-something named Okabe, invites her into the cab. The narrator wants to spend more time observing the white world generated by the snow flurry, and she feels as if she has nothing to lose, so she accepts his offer. They talk while drinking, and before long they’re on the road to the northern Tōhoku region. Sex is involved, but more interesting than the smut is the intimacy of Okabe’s story about dropping out of high school to become a low-ranking member of a yakuza clan.

Vibrator is not quite a love story. At the end of the book, there’s no indication that the sudden relationship between the narrator and Okabe will amount to anything beyond the single ride they share. Still, it’s lovely to witness the garbled voices in the narrator’s head slowly fade as she is calmed by vibrations of the truck’s engine (the “vibrator” of the title) and Okabe’s placid self-assurance. Even if the narrator is unable to achieve any deep or permanent connection with Okabe, her escape from her own head and engagement with the landscapes flashing past the truck’s windows is satisfying and meaningful.

Vibrator may not an easy book to read, but it’s certainly worth reading, if only to witness the skill with which the translator, Michael Emmerich, has rendered its narrator’s many voices.

If you live in the United States, Hiroki Ryūichi’s 2003 cinematic adaptation of Vibrator is streaming on Netflix. The film features gorgeous long shots of the Japanese countryside, and the director effectively removes the characters from the narrator’s incessant stream-of-consciousness commentary, which creates an entirely different atmosphere for the story. Tom Mes highly recommends this movie, and it’s a beautiful interpretation of the novel.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo

The Paradise Bird Tattoo

Title: The Paradise Bird Tattoo (or, Attempted Double-Suicide)
Japanese Title: 赤目四十八瀧心中未遂 (Akame Shijūyataki shinjū misui)
Author: Kurumatani Chōkitsu (車谷長吉)
Translator: Kenneth J. Bryson
Publication Year: 2010 (America), 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 225

I’m not going to lie – the first twenty pages of this book didn’t make me want to continue reading. The narrator of The Paradise Bird Tattoo, Ikushima Yoichi, is a graduate of an elite university who dropped out of society for reasons unknown, and he has all the charm of a thirty-three year old Holden Caulfield, which is to say not very much charm at all. Life sucks, he can’t get his shit together, he has no money, he goes from train station to train station with no rhyme or reason, people are disgusting, nobody likes him, he wants to assault salesgirls with scissors, and he might as well jump off a cliff.

On page twenty-one, Ikushima sits down for coffee with the woman who has agreed to temporarily employ and house him at the request of one of the narrator’s old friends. This woman, whom Ikushima refers to as “Seiko Nēsan,” owns a pub called Igaya in the Higashi-Naniwachō district of Amagasaki, an industrial suburb of Osaka located west of the Yodo River. As Seiko Nēsan tells Ikushima about how she used to be a pan-pan girl during the American occupation, the story begins to shift away from the narrator’s existential crisis and outwards to the other people who occupy the seedy little neighborhood where Ikushima now lives in a cheap backstreet apartment building.

Down the hallway is a room for by a prostitute for couplings that are oddly accompanied by what sounds like religious chanting. Across the hallway is a gruff tattoo artist named Horimayu who occasionally bursts into Ikushima’s apartment. An elementary school aged boy named Shimpei wanders around mostly unsupervised and alternately befriends and bullies Ikushima. A woman named Yi Mun-hyong, who goes by Ayako, lives in an apartment on the first floor and attracts Ikushima’s attention before entering into sexually charged yet emotionally complicated relationship with him.

As a an employee of Seiko Nēsan, Ikushima’s job is to sit in his apartment all day and skewer raw offal meat to be served later in her pub. Ikushima does so without complaining or seeking any sort of meaningful connection to the world around him, but he still ends up unwittingly getting pulled into the lives of the other people in the apartment complex and becomes trapped in relationships that he doesn’t fully understand. Seiko Nēsan asks him to retrieve a large amount of cash from the phone book in a public telephone booth, Horimayu pressures him into holding onto a mysterious sealed box, and Ayako enters his apartment one evening to have her way with him. By the second half of the book, Ikushima is way over his head into affairs about which he knows nothing.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo is a slow burning novel fueled mainly by the grungy atmosphere of the greater Osaka area of the late seventies. Ikushima’s narration contains details about his life in Amagasaki that make the book a pleasure to read. There’s a small sundries store in the same alley as Ikushima’s apartment that he doesn’t shop at because it’s too creepy for him, and the lady who runs it always gives him the evil eye from inside the store when she sees him. A group of cab drivers who spend most of the day gambling park their cars in an alley, but a woman whose house fronts the alley calls the police and has them tow all of the cars. Shimpei finds a toad and keeps it as a pet in one of the apartment drainage pipes until it dies. Seiko Nēsan comes over on a rainy day to have a beer, and she sings old Osaka folk songs rife with double entendre.

Kenneth Bryson’s tone and word choice captures the grittiness of the narrator’s style and attitude:

All I did day after day was cut up beef and pork organs and stick them on skewers. Sooner or later they would wind up in someone’s mouth, be digested inside his organs, and vanish into the toilet as excrement. I wasn’t sure what happened after that, but I assumed the reside would eventually be washed out into the ocean. It was just the same with the glamorous goods lining the shelves in the department stores and supermarkets; someday they would all become rubbish or shit. This was the essence of all human activity; this was why I could tell Seiko Nēsan in all honesty that I had no need for pleasurable pursuits.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo is a walk through the lives of people who live on the margins of society in a neighborhood that is as dangerous and desperate as those who inhabit it. Although the narrator can be a bit of a bore sometimes, the mindset that has led to his decision to abandon a middle class life is fascinating, as are the experiences he describes to the reader in full dirty detail.

Gold Rush

Title: Gold Rush
Japanese Title: ゴールドラッシュ (Gōrudo Rasshu)
Author: Yū Miri (柳 美里)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2002 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Welcome Rain Publishers
Pages: 286

I recently stumbled across an article titled Reading List: Books to Help You Understand Japan, which is a transcript of a conversation between NPR’s Neal Conan, the Brooklyn-based poet Kimiko Hahn, and Donald Keene, who recently retired from Columbia University in order to live in Japan. When Hahn and Keene were asked to list their top five works for understanding Japan in the wake of the recent disasters that have beset the country, they fired off titles like The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Essays in Idleness. This bothers me for three reasons.

The first reason is the blatant cultural essentialism, or the idea that one can understand everything about contemporary Japan by reading texts written in the Heian period, as if nothing has changed in the past thousand years. It’s like saying that one can understand everything about contemporary America by reading Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Japanese people live (and have always lived) in harmony with nature and posses (and have always possessed) an innate understanding of the beauty of impermanence – and Americans are all God-fearing Puritans who stifle their artistic creativity and capitalistic interests in order to serve their small agricultural communities.

The second reason is the academic elitism. The Tale of Genji is indeed a great monument of Japanese literature. It is also more than a thousand pages long, written in a style that is frustratingly elliptical, and set in a time period and society that are fairly alien to anything a contemporary American (or Japanese) reader would be familiar with. Reading The Tale of Genji is hard, and reading it without guidance is even harder. To assume that even a highly educated and intelligent reader could just pick it up and understand the unadulterated beauty of every word is somewhat presumptuous. Hahn’s recommendation of two literary anthologies is even more baffling. It’s like saying, hey, if you can’t crack open a 421-page anthology of medieval literature and read it in one sitting, there must be something wrong with you.

The final reason is the utterly bizarre assumption that, in order to understand the contemporary Japanese imagination of disaster, one need not read anything either written or set later than 1945. This is doubly strange to me, as Donald Keene recently published an excellent translation of Oda Makoto’s 1998 novel The Breaking Jewel (Gyokusai), which depicts a Japanese soldier’s harrowing experiences during the last few weeks of the Pacific War. Moreover, even if tales of firebombings and severe food shortages and suicide attacks and two atomic bombs and total defeat and occupation by a foreign power wouldn’t give us any insight into postwar and post-earthquake Japanese society, perhaps something like Murakami Haruki’s After the Quake, written in the wake of the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, presumably would. To suggest that we can best understand Japanese anxieties regarding nuclear power by reading the poetic travel diaries of Bashō is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

I think Yū Miri’s novel Gold Rush is a perfect antidote to the sort of essentialist thinking demonstrated in the conversation on NPR. Gold Rush is set in Yokohama’s Kogane-chō neighborhood, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks sort of neighborhood filled with small bars, cheap restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love hotels. When most people think of Yokohama, they probably picture the swanky and high-tech Minato Mirai waterfront area or the upscale Motomachi shopping and residential district that serves as the setting of several Tanizaki and Mishima novels. Kogane-chō, however, is a grungy, run-down pleasure quarter that has seen better days, as is the neighboring Isezaki-chō. The streets are dirty, the Ōoka River is dirty, the karaoke bars are dirty, the train station is dirty, the cheap hotels under the railway bridge are dirty, and I imagine that even the many soaplands that dot the area are dirty. Gold Rush begins when four middle school boys pick up a high school girl in this neighborhood. They get her drunk, have her come with them to one of their houses, and then rape her. To be more precise, three of them rape her, and one of them watches.

The one who watches is the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Kazuki, and abetting a rape is just the beginning for him. If trigger warnings were applied to mainstream fiction, Gold Rush would be slapped with all of the big ones. Rape, violence, child abuse, murder, more rape, more child abuse, substance abuse, abandonment, sexism, self-harming behavior, eating disorders, more child abuse, and then more rape. There is also a particularly nasty scene in which Kazuki kills a dog with a golf club. One might question the existence of a plot buried under all of these triggers, but the plot isn’t really the point of the novel. The reader is instead engrossed in following Kazuki’s slow psychological deterioration from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator. Kazuki is like Holden Caulfield on crack, and the reader can’t help but identify with his adolescent frustration at the realization that his life and his destiny are not entirely his own, even if he continually takes his rage one step too far. The people who surround Kazuki aren’t much better than he is in terms of acting like decent human beings, and the world they all live in is a bitter, nasty place. In a way, though, Gold Rush is also a twisted sort of love letter to Kogane-chō and the low city charm that permeates it.

Reading Gold Rush is like reading a full-length Ionesco play like Rhinocéros (or a Bret Easton Ellis novel like American Psycho) in that it’s trenchant and biting and brilliantly absurd, but difficult to actually read for the very same reasons. It doesn’t help that Gold Rush is two hundred and fifty pages of ultraviolence unmitigated by chapter breaks. If there’s a reason the novel won the Akutagawa Prize, however, it’s because the writing is excellent. Perhaps it’s also because the physical and psychological spaces written by Yū Miri are more than a little familiar to Japanese readers. So yes, classics like The Tale of Genji are very Japanese, but so is Gold Rush, which is written by a zainichi Korean telling a story about juvenile delinquency in a decaying neighborhood of a seedy commuter city. Yū is a good writer, she tells a good story, and Gold Rush is good Japanese literature. It might even give the reader some small insight into contemporary Japan as well.