Sunday, 2 January 2011
I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, by Justin Isis
“If I know one person who is the future of writing, it is Justin Isis”, writes Quentin S. Crisp, in his introduction to this debut collection of ten short stories set in contemporary Japan. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a good thing for editors to be genuinely enthusiastic about the authors they publish. Indeed, one could make a pretty good case that many substandard books on the bestsellers list are the result of cynical, risk-averse publishers. Editors should love books and writers more than they love making money from the aforesaid, but this kind of puff piece does neither Justin Isis nor Chômu Press any favours. For one thing, it gives the impression that the writing can’t stand on its own merits (which it can), and for another it makes the publisher look desperate and amateurish, which is a shame when the rest of the book is so professionally produced.
The kind of praise that Quentin S. Crisp lavishes on the work he has himself selected and edited is usually reserved for the introductions to 25th anniversary editions, or Penguin Modern Classics. Justin Isis, we are told is “as playful as Borges, but not as intellectually mechanical (I mean that with no disrespect to Borges)”. Crisp is confident that in a hundred years’ time, readers will still be lauding the acuteness of Justin Isis’s prose. The introduction ends with some impressionistic images generated by reading Justin Isis: “an iridescent boot in the heart of the brain, kicking the pineal gland”, “a question mark fashioned out of razor blades”, “aesthetics as a form of WMD”. I imagined Nathan Barley rapping these toe-curling epithets over some squelching Warp Records beats.
After such an introduction, I was ready to despise these stories. It’s as good a testament as any to the author’s talent that I found myself unable to. The best of them are among the most memorable short stories I’ve read in the last year. All the stories here are set in modern-day Japan, but the location seems arbitrary. Refreshingly, Justin Isis isn't much interested in trying to explain Japan to us, to make it seem either fascinatingly alien, or to prove to us that we’re all the same under the skin. In fact, what the stories show if anything is that everyone, Japanese or otherwise, is fascinatingly alien. Most of the protagonists are unrepentant obsessives who, far from wanting to escape their obsessions, are bent on following them into the heart of madness, whether their appetites are for J-Pop idols or, as the collection’s title suggests, for the taste of human flesh. Those who are not willingly infatuated are glacially indifferent to everything that goes on around them.
In the best of these stories, Justin Isis has achieved an understated elegance of style that draws the reader effortlessly along without having to raise its voice. Occasionally there are shock-tactics that seem out of place. “It was the first time he’d cut a woman’s face” observes the narrative casually as the protagonist prepares to mutilate a giant woman’s face that has blotted out the sky. The implication is that this won’t be the last time (although we never find out) – clever, but perhaps a little attention-seeking. “Nanako’s tears, thick and inelegant, stained her cheeks like dribbles of semen” – ho hum.
In an interview (with Quentin S. Crisp again), the author said, “All that really interests me is texture … I'm only really interested in writing that is like jewelry”, and at their best (“The Garden of Sleep”, “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Etc.” and “A Thread from Heaven”) the stories have a deceptively smooth, polished patina that many more experienced writers fail to manage. But when the author says, “definite verbal meaning, symbolism (of the one-to-one correspondence kind), cliches, ‘redemption,’ ‘epiphanies,’ character development, social commentary etc. seem to destroy the "jewelry" effect that the writing I enjoy has” I have to disagree. The stories where Isis has abandoned “definite verbal meaning” and the rest of what might be called the traditional virtues of fiction, are the ones succeed least. The first story in the collection is a mere stringing together of alternately provocative and banal statements leading nowhere particularly interesting. In “Nanako”, one of Isis’s atomised protagonists becomes obsessed with the face of an old schoolfriend, but the tension of their jangly reunion dissipates into hallucinations and unreal violence. As I read “Manami’s Hair” I began to wonder whether any of Isis’s protagonists were enmeshed in the world, or would they all be like Miyabi – simply drifting through life in exquisite ennui?
I needn’t have worried: despite what Isis himself claims about his lack of interest in character development, his better stories are all about character. Indeed, without character, what kind of “texture” is possible in writing? They’re mutually supporting: texture is a function of characters interacting. Perhaps he is right that there are no “epiphanies” here (apart from the mock-epiphany in the rather silly “Quest for Chinese People”), but even at their most grotesque, the stories are about human motivations, the extremes that people will go to in order to find satiety. Isis mentions Yukio Mishima as an influence, and while I’m no expert on Japanese literature, the writer who seems to have left his mark most strongly on Isis’s work is for my money Junichiro Tanizaki. “The Garden of Sleep”, the story of a crapulous and unexceptional middle-aged man who finds his life’s work in the adoration of a teenage transvestite, brought back to mind Tanizaki’s “A Portrait of Shunkin”.
There are three stories here with variants of “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like” as titles. The one suffixed “etc.” is by far the best, and does what it says on the tin: an unattractive, unpopular teenage girl, raised in a strict vegetarian family, makes it her mission to try all the available varieties of meat, and follows this passion to its logical conclusion. The prose is wonderfully controlled throughout, right up until the efficiently appalling last line.
The story “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like” (tout court) is more obvious in its grotesquery: an adolescent boy of uncertain age meets a female nihilist on a park bench, and they have various repellant and inconclusive adventures. There’s a very dry, black sense of humour: while the woman is drowning a stray dog in a public toilet for reasons unstated, the boy “worried about how present he was. He felt the need to assert himself, but the light pressure of Hidemi’s hand on his wrist, her fingers barely long enough to encircle it, restrained him”. Later, “He felt he had to say something, but nothing came to mind. Finally he said: –When we were watching it die, I think we really shared something. We were alive, I mean.” I did laugh out loud at that point; again the joke depends on the author’s ironic understanding of character.
“A Design For Life” and “A Thread from Heaven” stand out from the collection for their unfixated, detached protagonists. In the first a Singaporean Chinese student at a Japanese university pursues a Japanese girl through various drunken parties and meetings, until he finally loses her to a much older, rather shambolic friend. The story captures nicely the fuggy, half-drunk rhythm of student life, and in that respect makes for the most part rather tedious reading, but it’s redeemed by the last paragraph. Endings are something that Isis seems to particularly excel at, even in his weaker stories.
Far more compelling is “A Thread from Heaven”, the longest in the book, in which a frighteningly self-contained Korean schoolboy navigates his way through the pitfalls of Japanese adolescence, weaving his own private philosophical (or perhaps religious) system along the way. My main criticism of it, which goes for several of the other stories, is a predilection for the idea of suicide as an act with an aesthetic appeal. No amount of “jewel-like” writing that will convince me that suicide is anything more glamorous or philosophically defensible than a tenant who does a runner from their flat, leaving unwashed plates in the sink and unpaid bills on the doormat. Having said that, this is a complex story, certainly the most thematically ambitious in the collection, and the one that whets the reader’s appetite for what Justin Isis will do next.
Quentin S. Crisp writes, “Justin’s ideas never need to be disguised and inflated by pompous verbiage”. I entirely agree, and only wish that he had followed his own advice a little more. You can understand the editor’s zeal, even if its expression is misplaced, because Justin Isis is the real deal, a talented writer with an assured style and original ideas. He may not yet be up there in what Crisp calls the firmament of the imagination along with Borges, Burroughs, Lovecraft, Mishima and the other influences Crisp names, but he’s just got started. I will certainly be watching his trajectory with interest.
I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, Justin Isis, Chômu Press, pb, 335pp, published 12/01/2011.