Kazufumi Shiraishi - Each and every one of us is something like a cancer cell.
Kazufumi Shiraishi, The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside, Trans. by Raj Mahtani, Dalkey Archive Press, 2017.
Naoto Matsubara works in a Tokyo publishing house, though the work doesn’t particularly interest him. What does interest him, we soon discover, is the purpose of life. Naoto ponders the powers of love, attachment, and mutual care by examining closely his own friends and lovers, searching out how exactly his connection to them confers meaning on his life. Along the way, Naoto also draws on the thought of many writers and philosophers, including Tolstoy, Fromm, and Mishima.
The title of this novel, The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside, certainly suggests a seriously damaged narrator, yet Naoto Matsubara comes across as fairly confident -- sure of himself, and not much prone to wobbly vacillating (though he does drink to considerable excess rather regularly). While his actions are often impulsive, there's a sureness to the way he barrels ahead. It's a combination that works well in this narrative, which is basically a year-in-the-life story of the narrator, more or less bookended by his twenty-ninth and thirtieth birthdays, a slow-boil novel that holds back on its explanation of what broke Naoto and shifts from seemingly almost aimlessly meandering to being more sharply, darkly focused in building up to its conclusions.
Naoto has a good job, working for a major publisher. He's now in the editorial department, and though he says he doesn't really care much which part of the business he's involved in, he seems fairly dedicated to and serious about his work. Still, his reason for applying for the job after university was only that the company reportedly offered the highest salaries (ah, Japan ...). He has a half-sister that he sends money to, because she's looking after their terminally ill mother; he's not at all close to his mother and avoids visiting her -- and his father abandoned the family when he was an infant.
When the novel opens he's celebrating his birthday with a trip with his girlfriend, Eriko. The relationship seems to be going well -- so of course as soon as he's back in Tokyo, "I decided it would be better to stop seeing Eriko for a while", the first indication that he maybe has some issues with closeness and being involved with someone. As it turns out, he's involved with several women, including Teruko Onishi, a married woman with whom he has a purely sexual relationship (and who slips him money, to help support his mother's care), and bar owner Tomomi, a single mother who has a young son, Takuya. Naoto has few real friends, but two people -- also damaged, in their own ways -- do occasionally spend time at his apartment, often sleeping over: Honoka, a student whom he tutored when she was a teenager, and Raita. Naoto has a truly open-door policy -- he doesn't lock his apartment door when he's not there (or when he's there alone).
The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside presents and circles around these relationships, and Naoto's interactions with these different people, slowly filling in more background or revealing more about them. The situations shift over the course of the year. Eriko gets closer to Naoto, even as he makes clear his discomfort:
I've never actually lived in a house where I've felt comfortable enough to invite friends.
(Honoka and Raita are in a different category, and Naoto's open-door policy for them is his way of providing a sense of support they can't find elsewhere, a not-quite-last resort that they can always turn to.)
Naoto's relationship with Tomomi is tested, too, as he moodily swings between considerable sacrifice and abandoning her. And Naoto's mother passes away -- something that obviously affects him, but which he only casually mentions to Eriko in the most awkward circumstances. He's not a sharer -- "You've never spoken so much about yourself", Eriko observes -- but then given his grim childhood and how it still weighs on him -- including some understandable issues with his mother, who was never really a mother figure -- it's not surprising.
There are other relationships and deaths as well, and Naoto even moves to a new apartment, an attempt at a larger relocation that's doomed until he deals with all his issues and demons.
You're a person with a hole in his heart. It's afflicted, and it can never find fulfillment. You may have tenderhearted feelings, but your mind is whimsical and cold, although not so cols as to drive a person into a corner.
And she also finds:
you're always trying to find radically unique answers regarding things about this world -- answers that are all your own. You hesitate to engage in everyman's joy, in everyman's contentment, or even in everyman's sorrow. Instead you're always complaining that there should be a brand new kind of happiness out there waiting just for you, or a sorrow that only you can suffer.
Naoto is a man of strong opinions, and he's built up a protective shell around himself of his philosophy. His hurt is deep, and his only hold is certainty about a few things -- including:
the question I continue to think about every day.
Why is it that I don't commit suicide ?
The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside is, in fact a deeply and overtly philosophical novel -- but Shiraishi strikes an excellent balance between his narrator's existentialist theorizing and the supporting activity in the book. It helps that the others don't indulge Naoto too much -- Eriko complains: "There you go again with your weird nonsense. You're so full of it", and Honoka teases him: "Actually you're quite clueless about a lot of things, aren't you ! Such a shame". Better yet, Shiraishi's carefully layered narrative ultimately reveals a foundation supporting both philosophy and character fully -- impressively done. As importantly, he doesn't force a simple, rounded-off happy-end conclusion to the story.
With a late, secondary twist, focused on one of the other characters, an act of violence ending in a death, Shiraishi arguably reaches too far, but in its (relatively, given its proportions) limited effect on Naoto it doesn't undo what else he's built up. But it has the feel of Shiraishi trying too hard, in a novel that otherwise works very well on its smaller, everyday scale.
When Naoto finally opens up about his mother, and an important substitute figure in his life, his character comes into focus, Shiraishi artfully building up to those points with a narrative that until then seemed much looser and vaguer, Naoto seeming to act out yet actually flailing. His treatment of those in his life -- especially Eriko -- can seem harsh and occasionally cruel, and Eriko seems almost too understanding, but it does fit with the character and his history - and the way he sees the world in his philosophy. Details such as his inability to forget anything, in particular, impress -- and are worked well into a variety of aspects of the novel.
The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside is exceptionally well done, a novel that seems to meander almost aimlessly along with its self-indulgent narrator yet is a tight and profound exploration of human hurt and intimate relationships. An impressive work. - M.A.Orthofer
Kazufumi Shiraishi, Me Against the World, Translated by Raj Mahtani, Dalkey Archive Press, 2016.
I have a son and daughter, and a wife, but I have no love for them. Humankind is a cancer; people are cancer cells. We have abandoned Mother Earth and are destroying it with our unrestrained propagation.
This is the nihilistic opening line of a manuscript by a 53-year-old family man, which can be taken as the voice of the author. Where do we come from? And where are we headed? These are the questions he goes on to examine. More than the former, though, it is the latter he is concerned with?in other words, the question of death. Our awareness of where we come from is problematic, given that all we have to go on are hazy memories of infancy. But we have many examples we can turn to when it comes to where we are headed. One of them might be possession by the dead, and psychic mediums may provide insight into such occasions. Ultimately, though, death is something we cannot escape. No one is immortal.
But even if we could attain immortality, it would be at the expense of a spiritual life. All our exclusive relationships?parent-child, brother-sister, friends, lovers?along with our virtuous feelings of love and succor, and even our very sense of individual identity, would become unnecessary. Eventually we would probably end up yearning for death rather than trying to avoid it.
In other words, ours is an existence in which we must die. There are numerous people who preach (whether in a religious, spiritual, or simply humanistic context) that love is the only way of escaping the fear of death, that love is something absolute that transcends death, but it is these people we should beware of. The "true love" that the author is at pains to convey is fellow-feeling and compassion. Such a love is powerless against death, which is why it is so universal and all-encompassing. It is only once you stop praying for the happiness of the special people in your life, he declares, that you can set your sights on neutralizing evils such as poverty, violence, war, discrimination, persecution, and fanaticism. - www.booksfromjapan.jp/publications/item/1142-me-against-the-world
When my grandparents were not dead, I would go alone to see them, usually for lunch. Not often because I lived far away, but when I visited my parents I liked the midday, midweek drive to my grandparents’ Orange County subdivision while the world was at work. Having only the three of us felt novel partly because we had no recourse to the set roles and scripts that otherwise constitute family drama. We could speak freely. My grandfather could speak freely. For example, the time he looked intently at me over an egg salad sandwich: “They say you can make a difference, that everything is filled with meaning. They are lying. Life means nothing.” Hearing that, it was like relief. The pronouncement was surprising, even for him. He was more or less known for being a curmudgeon, partly why we got along so well. Also, we both liked poetry and egg salad sandwiches, both of which go largely underappreciated in my family.
Kazufumi Shiraishi’s misanthropic Me Against the World begins there, in the subdivision, at the condo’s beige kitchen table, or wherever you associate the most predictable interactions with the most predictable people in your life. The character Mr. K (Mr. Kazufumi? Mr. Kashyap? Does it matter?) whose journal we are supposedly reading, after a staid life filled with un-objectionably fulfilling his obligations, then begins to articulate something other.
You see I don’t love my children, nor do I love my wife.
Their existence is meaningless to me.
An existential thrill sets in, one I don’t remember feeling since, say, The Stranger or Nausea, both guiding lights during my late teens. The book then proceeds with a homespun philosophical interrogation of/tirade against death and the idea of it for about a hundred pages. The philosopher will say, that’s it? What can you get done in a hundred pages chasing after such a perennial? The fiction reader: Do I have to wade through all one hundred? I’ll say it outright. You can get a lot done and you should wade through all of them.
There is real pleasure in the way Mr. K makes his way through his line of reasoning, in the shape of his thoughts. The explanatory tropes he uses and the weirdly curated thought exercises and facts culled from popular media, funneled through the curious divagations of his thinking, these give depth to the character and energy to the prose. We get paranormal reality TV and Enola Gay. We get the “enormous drawing paper measuring ten meters in height and twenty meters in width” on which the self is but an ink stain. Even though not longer after the drawing paper gets scrapped — actually “We are like the paper patterns tailors use.” Or how, in another extended metaphor, those who advocate for “a great force for good” are merely God’s spies on the battlefield, no different from any spies deployed by any imperial power.
And if we are to follow his train of thought, where does Mr. K lead us? While not particularly rigorous in approach (that is not the point) nor particularly new in scope, there are little gems that feel fresh, excavated by the process. Cancer is suicidal, we learn. Ghosts are only capable of uninteresting platitudes. That by “carrying out mutual destruction . . . we are made to perceive and appreciate the true pleasures of life.” Not the least of these surprises is the volta towards the end. The reader having been drawn through the wringer of a peculiar kind of negative theology, arrives at a stance of equanimity and compassion, but a skeptic’s stance, one highly specific and personal.
“I saw myself in Camus’ The Stranger,” quotes translator Raj Mahtani from an interview with Kazufumi in his postscript. The little novel was apparently an early and magnetic influence during the author’s charmingly literary childhood cloistered on account of chronic respiratory issues. No surprise given the clear if superficial congruencies between Existentialism and certain strains of Japanese lit. For a certain set, what’s better? You get moral permission to inhabit the voice of a first-person asshole poised to wipe the bourgeois smirk off the reader’s face by way of the unvarnished truth, the really real. Even if that voice must be a male’s and of a certain privilege.
But this is not that exactly. Kazufumi is working against the backdrop of another terrible global political morass, equally all-consuming and equally likely to debilitate with apathy, but with a different texture. The current toxic media environment and rainbow hues of terror alerts are pervasive and pernicious in ways unlike the specter of out and out world wars. Second, the method is hybrid. While Mr. K is more or less doing atheistic philosophy, he doesn’t give up on the Buddhism of contemporary Japanese culture in which he is steeped. Lastly, he let’s himself get somewhere. There might be some shortcutting, but that doesn’t entirely undermine the moment of arrival.
In the introduction, the fictional journalist responsible for getting Mr. K’s notes published justifies his decision: “I thought it would be a good idea to personally hand over this collection of notes to those around twenty years old.” And it’s true; of the multiple ways to take this work, it’s hard to shake the reading in which there’s an unwritten subtitle, something like Letters to a Young Curmudgeon. The younger me would have been enthralled. He would not have noticed so much the spots where the terrain felt well trod or where the path skirted solipsistic onanism. But there’s more than enough thrill in the premise and delight in the execution to find you the whole way through. You walk away with a hard won sliver of compassion for Mr. K and continued gratitude to Dalkey for making acclaimed contemporary voices like Kazufumi available to a broader audience before they’re totally dead. - Nabil Kashyap
“Is this book a novel trying to do philosophy or is it philosophy masquerading as a novel?” This was the question I found myself asking over and over again as I made my way through Kazufumi Shiraishi’s Me Against the World. Right from the opening page, Shiraishi’s work seems to deliberately confuse genres. “The Publisher’s Forward” is actually a fictional introduction to “K,” the recently deceased salaryman whose philosophical musings make up the bulk of Me Against the World’s one hundred or so pages.
This foreword gives the impression that Shiraishi has literary ambitions for the book we are going to read. A book based on the words of a man who is already dead seems to be a reference to Kokoro, a novel by Japanese literary giant Natsume Soseki, whose face once graced the surface of the one thousand yen note. The final section of Kokoro takes the form of a suicide note from an older man, known only as Sensei, to our younger narrator. And if this similarity wasn’t enough for the reader, Shiraishi heavy-handedly hammers it home by having his deceased character, “K,” bear the same name as Sensei’s rival in love. Yet despite its literary pretensions and perhaps a preoccupation with death, Me Against the World bears very little resemblance to Soseki’s masterpiece.
First and foremost, Kokoro is a novel with a plot. It follows a series of characters through various parts of their lives. And while it certainly raises philosophical questions through doing so, I would never really call it a work of philosophy. Me Against the World on the other hand is a book without a plot. Beyond the “Publisher’s Forward” which briefly details the events of K’s life, nothing really happens. K is the only character who is ever named (well, except for his cat Hachi). And the only events that K describes to us are a series of hypothetical situations which he uses to illustrate his philosophical viewpoint, including a particularly graphic one involving a father taking his revenge on the man who raped and murdered his daughter.
And while there is nothing wrong with mixing genres, these hypothetical situations and a series of powerful metaphors—which Raj Mahtani does a good job of translating, such as one that compares humanity to uncontrollably multiplying cancer cells—still don’t constitute a story. Instead they are being used by K to espouse his philosophical argument. And the philosophy of Me Against the World leaves something to be desired.
K’s ramblings often lack a certain degree of philosophical rigor, and I found myself constantly disagreeing with his claims. Early on in the book he talks about the existence of the soul. He says that it would be ridiculous to doubt the existence of the soul, but that even if we do it shouldn’t change anything. Elsewhere, much of K’s discussion revolves around the idea of death: What does it mean to die? What happens to us after death? What would happen if people lived forever? Yet his discussions about death are all based on the assumption that we have a soul. K never addresses the counter-argument, in this case whether or not we even have a soul, and this failure to anticipate an objection is not the mark of a strong argument.
These moments in the book infuriated me. This was no Socratic dialogue; K had no interlocutor to push back against his often totally left-field claims. Furthermore, in the foreword our editor has already asked us for forgiveness over the often shocking things that K has chosen to write about. This feels like a weak excuse to allow the author to get away with bad arguments by saying, “Well, it’s not really me saying this.” Shiraishi uses the form of the novel to allow him to get away with some rather weak philosophizing, with K as his mouthpiece.
Yet, as it turns out this isn’t an entirely fair characterization of what Me Against the World is doing. By the end of the book I began to see how it was more like a novel than I had given it credit for. The book didn’t suddenly shift into meaningful plot but Part II of K’s writing served as a sort of climax to the work. There is a sudden shift in topic, moving from a discussion about death to one that is focused on love. Without revealing too much the move helps bring together some of the more absurd things that K has written. I’m still not sure whether to call Me Against the World a novel or a work of philosophy, but I would recommend it to someone who is willing persevere through its frustrations.
- Stephen McHugh
Kazufumi Shiraishi’s Me Against the World is, according to its subtitle, a novel, but would be more accurately described as a work of philosophy with a fictional framing device. The “publisher’s foreword” fictionalizes the main text by presenting it as the work of a Mr. K, an old friend of the “publisher.” Their friendship was not what one would describe as intimate, but it was marked by deeply meaningful exchanges through correspondence and in person. Over the course of this lifelong friendship, the two meet at least once a year until Mr. K dies suddenly of a heart attack at fifty-three and entrusts a manuscript he was working to his friend, in whom he had never confided about his writing.
After the publisher has piqued the reader’s curiosity by sharing his compulsion to have this manuscript published and by seeking to soften or justify the manuscript’s abrasiveness, the foreword ends and we are plunged into the main text, a rabid stream of consciousness reminiscent of Journey to the End of the Night, full of contempt for humans and anger at having to live among them. Mr. K asserts at one point that human beings are to the planet what cancer is to human beings–an endlessly multiplying, malignant organism:
Each and every one of us is something like a cancer cell. While cancer cells can metastasize anywhere and are able to adapt and grow in any environment, there really isn’t a single thing that can be considered significant in their existence or in their nature to carry out unlimited proliferation.
This likening of human beings to cancer is the first of many analogies Mr. K uses to describe the human condition. To anyone who’s read epistemological philosophy (willingly or unwillingly), reliance on analogies recalls the work of thinkers who firmly believe in the universe’s explainability. But it soon becomes clear that—as the “foreword” preemptively pointed out—many of these analogies are faulty, either because they compare two things that are not analogous or because the analogy is used to support a conclusion that does not follow from it. What appear to be analogies are really more like free associations, just as what appears to be reasoning is more like a string of loosely connected musings assembled in such a way that it looks like a work of philosophical argumentation as long as you skim over what the words are saying. This, and the way Mr. K criticizes anything and everything humans do to make their lives a little bit bearable, makes for tough reading and the occasional eye roll.
Mr K. has little patience for widespread beliefs and for the ways that people reassure themselves or organize their lives. Of physics and scientist alike he says:
In effect, what they’re doing is picking up random stones littered on the ground, then coloring them and showing them off before us as if they were something precious and rare. They commercialize “death”—which is in fact the most ordinary and commonplace phenomenon you can find in the world—by decorating it in various ways . . . I believe the psychic medium resembles the career scientist very much. Of course, priests of existing and new religions are also similar in this regard.
Mr. K’s mistrust of rationality, of the scientists who he believes deify it, and of religion and superstition—as well as his passionate and oracular voice—bring to mind Nietzsche, specifically The Gay Science. Like Nietzsche, Mr. K pinpoints the foolishness of the beliefs we hold on to as balm (or opium, Marx might say) for our creeping awareness of our pointless existences and our inevitable deaths. But even to a reader who agrees with this vision of the world, the narrator is at his most abrasive in these passages, particularly where he criticizes care for one’s family and friends as a feel-good farce. In emulating Nietzsche, Mr. K sometimes veers into the tone of those who have read Nietzsche hastily and without depth and want to provoke and to seem superior by proclaiming the majority of humanity weak and stupid.
Just as irritating are the meditations on revenge, justice, and responsibility that make up the midsection of this slim but slow-moving book. We are introduced to extreme and off-putting scenarios—rapes, murders, accidental deaths—and called upon to imagine what kind of punishment is appropriate. If someone kills a child, would the father of that child be justified in killing the murderer? Or would justice or revenge be better served by killing the murderer’s family so that he might experience the same grief that he inflicted? If your girlfriend dies in an accident on her way to meet you, to what extent did your actions cause her death? And so on. Given the casual, detached tone of these passages, their point might be to drive home the horror of the human condition, that the world is so disgustingly cruel that horrible acts of violence do not warrant dramatics or outrage because they’re commonplace enough to merit nothing more than a shrug.
But Me Against the World hinges on explaining a much smaller-scale, less visible tragedy: “Dying has never been our true suffering. All of our sufferings, in fact, have been born . . . from having to live in this mutable world.” Just as happiness is only perfect in anticipation, death is most fearsome when we’re alive and constantly aware of it, every change in the world a reminder of the passage of time. What we fear about death, Mr. K contends, is forever losing consciousness, our relationship with our incomprehensible self:
When physical death is imminent, what is horrifying to you above all else is not the prospect of parting from your beloved wife or your young children. It’s the prospect of parting from yourself.
Eventually, the combative tone subsides, as though the narrator has accepted death and now just wants to reason through its implications. It becomes clear that what he seeks to do is to defy the indignity and inevitability of death by writing toward some discovery, some purpose for his life. It’s rare for a philosophical work to have character development, but this progression seems to qualify: Mr. K, for all of his off-putting or unfounded judgments, for all his bitterness and misanthropy, is shown to be one of us. He has spent his life hoping, if not quite effectually, to accomplish something exceptional that might justify his existence. He has cast aside the consolations and reassurances of science and religion and other beliefs, and he has also tried the give up on finding meaning, and yet peace of mind still evades him.
But some kind of clarity and resolution does come at last. Unlike some of Nietzsche’s corny imitators, the narrator ends up proving, in the end, that he had a reason for hacking away at religion, superstition, family, and every other value widely embraced as solution to the problem of death. The narrator’s conclusion, and his recommendation to all of humankind, is to cast off affection for individuals in our lives in favor of developing real compassion for all members of the human race—a change that will, for Mr. K, lead us to a more just world. In a shift of mood and tone reminiscent of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, the last pages suddenly turn from clipped pessimism to lyricism and evoke a sense of hope and vindication. Mr. K comes to the Camusian conclusion that although we must die without ever knowing why we exist on this earth:
Real love is a small encouragement for all of us who must die. Which is why every kind of human being, every kind of living thing, deserves to be loved equally. You could be a good person or a bad person, but your inevitable fate of death will remain unchanged. The true nature of love is in fact an infinite sadness for every presence, every being that must die. The true character of love is in fact a never-ending flow of sympathy for us beings who remain in the dark about why we were ever born, what we love for, and what we die for. Love can never overthrow death. But that’s why love can come close to us . . . Just by bringing to life the compassion within you, you can neutralize the abominable, diabolical program that has been built into the world—the program running the algorithms of poverty, violence, war, discrimination, persecution, fanaticism, and other true sins.
Even upon finishing the book, this reader remained at a loss as to how Mr. K arrived at his conclusion of universal love through his series of convoluted and often unpleasant digressions. But when one thinks about it for a while, one realizes that these kinds of thoughts about the human condition, or anything else, are never linear—and they don’t even have to be logical or consistent to lead us to an epiphany that is greater than the sum of the thoughts that preceded it. Still, it is a strange and maybe even triumphant accomplishment to start from utter misanthropy and disgust at the world—hurling insults at it, showing it the truth of its own ugliness—and end with a stunning display of hope. - Emily Lever
Me Against the World begins with a (fictional) 'Publisher's Foreword', a fifty-year-old writer describing the origins of the text that makes up the bulk of the novel. This writer met the author of the text, a Mr.K, quarter of a century or so earlier, and they had remained friends -- albeit of the long-distance sort, meeting: "only about once a year, if we met at all" but staying in touch through correspondence, with the writer always sending his work to Mr.K, who would respond with comments. At the age of fifty-three, Mr.K passed away, and recently, a few years later, his widow passed on to the writer a manuscript of: "Mr.K's private musings, which is the book you hold".
This Foreword gives a brief overview of Mr.K's life, as perceived at some distance by the writer -- useful insofar as Mr.K.'s two-part text is a sort of 'I-novel', and gives only a limited, inside perspective in Mr.K's own voice. The writer also notes that he felt compelled to publish Mr.K's work -- "I passionately believed that" -- and does so without revising it, despite the fact that:
I couldn't but help find various details objectionable and have also spotted a considerable number of inconsistencies from the outset.
Similarly, even though he finds: "the title is slightly too provocative for comfort" he left that too unchanged.
The writer also claims: "I've decided to refrain from expressing my personal opinions here", but over the mere seven pages of the Foreword does, in fact, express quite a lot, directly and indirectly. He both makes some excuses for Mr.K and states, emphatically:
But let me just say that every young person should read Mr.K's writings. I would very much like that.
Meanwhile, he acknowledges that:
I have also been suffering from a sudden attack of depression again after ten-odd years, and at present I find myself incapable of holding my pen for long
It's no stretch to imagine that Mr.K's text, and what he expresses there -- all that material the writer believes young folk might benefit from ... -- weighs heavily on the writer ..... Because heavy it indeed is .....
The Foreword feels like the most 'fictional' part of the novel, the closest to offering story. Mr.K's text does offer a few stories too, but even these tend to be thought-experiments more than an attempt to recount from life or imagination. So the Foreword is central to the novel, shaping it, and the reading of the rest of it -- including by the writer subtly undermining aspects of Mr.K's text and arguments.
The two-part text itself then reads more like an essay -- or, indeed, philosophical text -- than anything else. It is a personal argument -- its opening entirely personal, for example: "I am married with one son and one daughter" -- but more concerned with theory. Mr.K offers his life-vision -- but that is one that insists our day-to-day lives are of essentially no significance, and that we focus on entirely the wrong matters, and are missing the point.
As already hinted at in the Foreword, Mr.K quickly gets to one of his points: "I don't love my children, nor do I love my wife". In fact, he pretty much has no feelings for or interest in pretty much anyone -- an attitude he thinks is easy to explain:
The reason I am unable to sustain any interest not only in other people, including my family, but also in myself is because I myself -- the very person who should be the subject of my interest -- will eventually expire.
Oh, yes, Mr.K's 'Me Against the World' is a study of existential despair, taken to its obvious extremes. It's all about death -- inevitable death, which really throws a spanner in the works. Since we know death is coming ... well, there's no point to anything, right ? Yes, for Mr.K that's the crux of the matter -- all matters. Conversely -- so Mr. K --: "If we can realize immortality every problem in this world will surely be resolved".
Yes, there's more than a touch of the Houellebecqian to his philosophy too:
Strictly speaking, sex to humans is a means for realizing pleasure. And that's the very reason why human sexual intercourse has ended up becoming so infinitely disgusting. I can conclusively say in fact that it has become the height of depravity itself, having lost its essential point -- which is reproduction.
There's some appeal to these extreme positions -- and a character beneath, revealing himself and his lonely struggles of 'Me Against the World' -- and even the basic idea (we're going to die so what else could possibly be the point ?) and some of the consequences he draws from it are intriguing. But it's so poorly argued as philosophy, and there's so little intellectual rigor. If it's convenient to his arguments, then a TV demonstration by a 'psychic' isn't questioned in the least: "As far as you can tell from watching the program, it's impossible to doubt his ESP". The bar for 'impossible' has to be higher than that -- and it isn't here, as Mr.K throws around with absolutes and certainty without bothering with any sort of foundations or explanations (much less proofs).
Of course, the lack of foundations allow for another reading, too -- that Mr.K offers not a world-view but a desperate and despairing lament for his own personal failure, that when he speaks in generalities and universals what he is in fact bemoaning is his own inability to connect and feel:
I believe we are simply not endowed with the faculty to accept from the heart, to deeply appreciate, a peaceful, quiet and beautiful world.
Are Mr.K's writings -- which we know he struggled over for a decade -- simply a flailing reaction to rhe modern condition, to the intense personal isolation Mr.K experienced and which he was unable to free himself from ?
As such the novel would indeed be more 'a novel' -- but there's not quite enough along those lines for it to be a success as such either. (Additionally, the many poorly- and mis-argued claims frustrate the exercise, regardless of its nature.)
Me Against the World is, conceptually, an interesting work of fiction -- but the reliance on Mr.K's text, and the weaknesses of that text (specifically, a truly shocking lack of intellectual rigor -- this is stuff that wouldn't pass in a beginner's philosophy seminar) make for a relatively frustrating read. There's appeal to the outlandishness of Mr.K's philosophy -- but their proponent can't do them justice here. - M.A.Orthofer
August honors the dead in Japan, so it’s fitting that Kazufumi Shiraishi’s raw discourse on mortality makes its English debut this month. Originally published in 2008, “Me Against the World” breaks from Shiraishi’s fictional works, offering the author’s undiluted musings on life. As told The Japan Times in a recent interview: “I had tried to include the ideas of this work in all of my previous novels, but I was at a point where I wanted to thoroughly sort out my thoughts and record them in one book, so I wrote the whole thing in one go. It took about a week, like writing an extended memo to myself.”
Using his background in fiction, Shiraishi created a loose narrative form. In a constructed “Publisher’s Forward,” a fictional journalist provides a brief explanation of a Mr. K and their friendship to introduce the manuscript he has inherited after Mr. K’s sudden death. The rest of the book is the manuscript itself, a series of entwining, metaphorical reflections on the biggest questions in life. For Shiraishi, these questions have preoccupied him since childhood. As he explains: “Why are we here? What is the reason for us to be on this earth? It’s no joking matter. This is something I’ve been thinking about from the time I was young. As a child, I really wanted to know.”
As an adult, Shiraishi’s unblunted examination spins into heady, addictive mind candy. The English translation, by Raj Mahtani, captures Shiraishi’s contemplations with profound simplicity. The brilliance of “Me Against the World” is found in its contradictions, its pragmatic nihilism somehow morphing into compassionate biocentrism, its metaphorical imaginings mired in a reality that lays bare the ironic absurdity of existence.
The opening of the “manuscript” jars in its harsh appraisal of love and humanity, drawing the reader into a seeming rabbit hole of negativity. As Mr. K soon explains: “Humans too lead meaningless lives, having no reason to be born. What’s more, humans have broken away from Earth — their life-support system, their mother — and are destroying her as they please before indiscriminately propagating themselves. To Earth, humans are without a doubt nothing more than cancer cells.”
Discussing everything from psychic beliefs to religion; romantic love to reincarnation; and comparing human life to an oscillating thread, an ink spot, a “paper pattern tailors use,” the spiraling, philosophical meanderings gradually converge on a simple pinpoint of truth: Compassion is the only answer in the face of such epic farce.
Catching up with the author, it comes as no surprise that the young Mr. K, as in Kazufumi, the son of acclaimed novelist Ichiro Shiraishi, read voraciously and questioned incessantly as a child. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gide, Sartre, Camus — as a teen and young adult, Shiraishi looked toward the intellectuals of Western literature for answers. For a long time, however, he never considered following in his late father’s footsteps.
“I never dreamed I would become a writer. To be a writer, you have to come up with something only you can write. It took me a long time to find this,” he says. “I wasn’t convinced I could write something only I could write.”
First finding work as a journalist and editor, Shiraishi was encouraged to write by the efforts of his twin brother, Fumio, also a published novelist. Nearly 20 years since his 2000 debut novel “A Ray of Light,” Shiraishi has enjoyed both commercial and critical success. Awarded the Naoki prize for “To an Incomparable Other” in 2009, (he and his father are the only father-son pair to have each won the prize), he also won the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize in the same year for “Remove this Arrow from Deep in my Heart.” “The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside,” published in 2002, became a national best-seller and is upcoming in translation from Dalkey Archive Press.
Shiraishi calls “Me Against the World” “a fitting debut” to Western readers, grappling as it does with the existential questions more commonly addressed in classic Western literature.
“Japanese tend to be more concerned if a person’s life or death is beautiful, or aesthetically pleasing,” he points out. “People in the West seriously debate philosophical issues like the meaning of life and death.”
For Shiraishi, a discussion on death naturally begins with love: “If you trace its origins all the way back, like going upstream a river, you find that the root of love, it’s fundamental cause, is death. And that’s what I wanted to say in this novel.
“In other words, if there is no death, there is no love. Human beings perish, without fail, within a brief passage of time, far briefer than, say, a tree. Human existence involves consciousness, which fades away along with the body, before we disappear, in the end. And love is something that compensates for this ephemerality.
“If we don’t die, there is no love, no nothing; no family, no marriage, nada. In other words, if you think about what’s truly everlasting — well, everyone thinks that love is eternal, but what’s truly everlasting as an absolute truth. What forms the foundation of love — it’s our mortality, isn’t it? The act of dying itself?
And that’s what I wanted to say. That’s also why Mr. K, when he thinks about love, is left with no choice but to think about death.” - Kris Kosaka
To an Incomparable Other
A man and a woman, both from well-to-do families, respectively figure in this pair of novellas about love. The title work centers on Akio, the third son of a distinguished family whose great-grandfather was a successful entrepreneur. Whereas his father and both his older brothers are talented academics, Akio was a mediocre student and now at 27 makes his living as a sales rep for a sports manufacturer. Akio’s wife Nazuna is a beautiful younger woman he married two years ago against his family’s wishes after meeting her at the cabaret where she worked. One day Nazuna suddenly leaves him to go back to her hostessing; as she confesses, she is carrying on an affair with a childhood friend, although the man, too, is married with a family of his own. Akio’s plaints find a sympathetic ear in his boss Michiko, and little by little he becomes attracted to this self-proclaimed “homely” woman six years his senior. Although he briefly goes back to Nazuna, he divorces her when he is transferred to China. Upon his return he marries Michiko, whom he nurses through relapsed lung cancer and eventual death.
The second tale, Kakegae no nai hito e (To an Irreplaceable Other), reverses the premise: this time the role of protagonist falls to a privileged woman whose father is the president of a power-line company and mother the head of a hospital pediatrics ward. Although engaged to an elite company colleague her own age, the woman finds herself enthralled by the sexual expertise of a former boss in his forties. Through both scenarios the author calls on us to reexamine our own life choices. - www.booksfromjapan.jp/publications/item/442-to-an-incomparable-other
A Ray of Light
At the young age of 38, Kōsuke Hashida is chosen to head the personnel department of a company that belongs to one of Japan’s largest conglomerates. A rising star on the corporate fast track, he is engaged to be married to 28-year-old Rui Fujiyama, daughter of an oil company president and niece of his own company’s head, Ōgigaya. One day Hashida comes to the aid of a junior-college student, Kaori Nakahira, when the owner of the bar she works at is giving her a hard time. As their friendship grows he is soon giving her advice on finding a job, offering emotional support, and helping her out in a variety of other ways. Having been abused by her mother and older brother as a child Kaori is mentally fragile, and she remains terrified of her brother, who continues to try to approach her.
Hashida’s smooth-sailing career encounters choppier waters as he gets drawn into a power struggle within the company. An exposé appears in the newspaper about political shenanigans orchestrated by Ōgigaya to curry favor in connection with oil field development in Indonesia. As Hashida conducts his own investigation of the matter it comes to light that some 200 million yen in political funds have gone missing, and there are calls for the president’s ouster. Although Ōgigaya is indeed guilty of embezzling the money, he manages to save his own skin by shifting the blame to his loyal aide Suruga; he resigns as president to become chairman of the board. Having been thrown under the bus by his boss, Suruga commits suicide in despair, and Hashida is so disillusioned with Ōgigaya that he quits the company.
The now jobless Hashida tries to break off his engagement with Rui, but her love is strong, and she refuses to let him go: they begin a new life together. While Hashida and Rui are away on a trip, Kaori is attacked by the brother who has been stalking her, and a blow to the head leaves her in a vegetative state. Although Hashida has always been concerned about Kaori’s safety, he regrets that he has been out of touch with her while things developed with Rui. When he rushes to the hospital to see her, her fiancé Yanagihara reveals that the person Kaori really loves is Hashida. Yanagihara gives Hashida a letter addressed to him from Kaori in which she states her determination to stand on her own two feet, without Hashida’s help. Realizing for the first time what is really important to him, Hashida breaks up with Rui; vowing to remain at Kaori’s side until she recovers consciousness, he decides to file marriage papers.
The story of ill-fated love between hero and heroine shines like a single fleeting ray of light amidst the dark realities of corporate culture in this strong debut work by an author who has subsequently gone on to win the Naoki Prize. - www.booksfromjapan.jp/publications/item/2957-a-ray-of-light
The Lightless Sea
A man at a crossroads in his life reflects on his past and the choices he has made while desperately seeking a ray of hope for the future.
For the last ten years, 50-year-old Shūichirō Takanashi has been president of Tokumoto Industries, a mid-sized wholesaler of building materials with upwards of 500 employees. Avowing frugality as his credo, he is proud to have successfully steered the company through difficult economic times by reining in expenditures, but now he finds it difficult to maintain his former sense of purpose and drive. With no blood relations left and having lost his wife and son to divorce, he is completely alone in the world. The story recounts events spanning a little over a year before he yields the post of president to a successor and retires.
Takanashi’s predecessor, Michiyo Tokumoto, is constantly on his mind. Tokumoto Industries was founded by her husband Kyōsuke. In 1976, when Takanashi was 11, a company car in which Tokumoto Kyōsuke was riding hit Takanashi’s little sister Atsuko in a traffic accident, and the girl was left with a permanent limp. Two years before this, their father had run off with a young employee of the coffee shop he operated, and their mother died five years later from stomach cancer. The orphans were subsequently supported by Tokumoto Industries, and when Takanashi graduated from high school, he went to work for the company. This was four years after Kyōsuke Tokumoto died and his wife Michiyo had taken over as president at the young age of 39.
Not long after Takanashi begins working at the company, Michiyo initiates a sexual relationship with him, which they carry on secretly for twelve years. Three years after they end their relationship, Takanashi marries Junko Tokumoto, Michiyo’s daughter with Kyōsuke, at Michiyo’s behest. Junko soon bears a son, but it is the child of a man she was seeing before she got married. Takanashi and Junko divorce, but Michiyo taps him to be her successor as president of the company as she herself becomes chairman of the board. Meanwhile, Takanashi’s sister Atsuko disappears while snorkeling in Bali and is confirmed dead at the age of 24, and a private investigator he hires reports back that his father died at the age of 60.
Along the way, the various difficulties faced by supporting characters with whom Takanashi is close?Hanae, who sells urns that purify water from a street stand, and her grandmother Kinue; Mr. and Mrs. Horikoshi, whose son was sentenced to life in prison for murder?deliver a variety of jolts to Takanashi. He makes it through these trials, as well as a takeover attempt led by Tokumoto Industries’ main bank and his own effective removal from office, but as he then lays the groundwork to reopen the old coffee shop his mother had operated, he attempts to take his own life. The result of the attempt is left unknown. - www.booksfromjapan.jp/publications/item/3637-the-lightless-sea