Justin Isis’ ‘I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like’ is never less than interesting. The style is measured, reflective and smooth, suiting the anomie of the characters and in nice contrast with their obsessiveness it yet underlines. In the book’s last story, he – I’m assuming it’s a ‘he’ from the name on the cover – he assumes the literary convention of someone outwith the writing who knows the main character both inside and out while, as narrator, knowing more. I call him a non-evident writer and what he does with the protagonist monitoring.
With dialogue he introduces another character he’s not presuming to know except from externals. Surface characteristics of others are described. There’s an odd sentence: ‘no one cared if they were fifteen …since there was obviously nothing for them to enjoy,’ as if the criterion for the older characters the writer’s envisaging would be the pleasure or not of the fifteen year olds in their midst. That’s unlikely. There’s no peep beyond the appearances of these older characters. The narrator is projecting onto their impassive surfaces what his protagonist would impute to them, either himself imbuing the primary character with his own characteristics or identifying with him so strongly he takes on the like viewpoint. It’s like a dream or an imagining where only what’s enough to identify a person from life is dreamt and only as much detail of the background given as at any moment is being seen by the dreamer and by his persona.
The protagonist in ‘A Thread from Heaven’ is called Park, a Korean name. His other name is Seok-Hwan. His mother’s name is also Park, the equivalent of our surname, presumably the father’s. Fathers are conspicuous by their absence, a factor in homosexuality. Park copies his in giving to his girlfriend what his father had to his mother. Mothers exist to indulge their children without intrusion. The children take that they’re provided with funds for granted, as an entitlement.
The father had been a young doctor in Gwangju, which may or not equate to Guangji, in China. I’m no cunning oriental linguist, and nothing much more is ostensibly made of this cause for alienation in Japanese society. Park’s success with girls could be put down to his stated beauty rather than any daring exotic appeal. Foreigners are described as standing out but as if Park himself were integral. Yet Park is an alienated character and the narrative tone detached, deadened even. Some of this could be put down to his being unacceptable; and his not being accepted could also account for his knowingly putting himself in a punishing situation at the hands of a superior boy. Park’s masochistic, save for the want of an orgasm which would’ve controverted Pack’s heterosexuality at a stroke, regardless of how many girls he was having, to prove otherwise. Come to think of it – and all of this is retrospective thinking – apart from the lack of orgasm, the pieces of Park are picked up by his friend’s mother, a further countering by the narrator of any adverse sexual connotation being put upon the character he identifies with. Park’s inclination to his friend’s mother isn’t however taken much farther, having served its purpose.
The majority of the characters are alienated. That they are could be put down to adolescent disconnectedness. Park matter of factly dumps his girlfriend, because of a romantic idealisation – he determines is only that – for another girl; and the girlfriend is mostly concerned for the temporary loss of status entailed in not having a boyfriend, going on to cut Park’s hair in no very vengeful way. She’s not saving face, covering emotion up, because there’s no emotion to cover up.
Park’s friend has a romantic fantasy of his own. He takes in Park’s philosophy and while acting in accord with it provides as consequence a merger in his art that Park takes extreme exception to. I didn’t understand why at a first reading. It’s only art, after all, wish fulfilment, which in the circumstances prevailing could be shrugged off or even found flattering.
Park is a thief and liar. He makes, as his friend has remarked, excuses. He doesn’t keep his word. He gives it to be agreeable, when he’s being imposed on, knowing he won’t keep what’d inconvenience him to keep. You’d think then the last thing he’d do would be to admit he’s read what he shouldn’t when he need say nothing but he makes quite clear he has and that he won’t be countenancing the realisation of his friend’s fantasy as it pertains to him. When his friend resorts to emotional blackmail, he is again quite categorical. He acts out of his usual character perhaps because of an implicit fear of the unstated homosexuality, goad to heterosexuality, but that does not provide explanation enough of his subsequent overreaction to his friend’s art. What does is his self-regard. The friend has trumped him at his own game. His narcissism has been black affronted. His passion is for himself. We can all identify with that.
Does my analysis hold up? In the first story, I was starting to sympathise with the protagonist when pulled up short by his vulgarly puerile, immoral act, but this is fiction: anything goes.
One reads in the interstices of life. I broke off in the second story wondering how the relationship between the protagonist and the female character could be developed realistically. On my resumption, it wasn’t. I could put the fantastical turn taken down to the obsessive protagonist’s hallucinating except ‘everyone’s eyes avoided him’, from which I inferred others were seeing what he saw and imputing it, and importance, to him or he was by such self-conscious means conferring importance on himself. I didn’t jib at that. What I found difficult to reconcile was how the object could be both in the sky and inside his kitchen, albeit ‘past’ his ceiling. At any rate, after a prolonged bout of misogynist destruction, not incompatible with male heterosexual hatred, trousers down, he accesses her throat and sees …himself.
The character monitored in the third story is female, a useless leech who, having outgrown her unloving welcome and finding no one daft enough to take her on, steps onto a sill from which, resentful of the emotional blackmail, I give her a push. Not being a character in the story, I can’t. The other characters in the story are outside, looking up. If I were in the story, that’s where I’d be. None is doing anything except vocalising at her. I’m hardly likely to call up, ‘Jump!’ With me anything’s possible. There’s no indication, except from their inaction, that’s what the others want her to do. It might be my wish, sotto voce, for her to ‘Get it over with’, but the probability is I’m racing up the stairs to save her worthless life.
In the fourth story, a useless predator grooms a vulnerable boy and finds he does after all have useful talents, for stalking and exacting exquisite revenge when the object of his obsession goes off with another man, the while deceiving himself he’s acting out of love. We’ve all been there.
The narrator takes a step back from monitoring the main characters in the fifth story. I’ll pass over the sexual predation, a further instance of sodomy, the killing, the masturbations to own image, the affected morality, to get to this: ‘I force whoever reads the story …to make connexions…. If it’s successful, it taints their everyday …associations with new associations that I can impose …to reorder how people see the world…, art determines reality.’ Fiction is a writer’s mask but we might peep behind this to read from the character’s credo the author’s. The female character is being compelled by the male who writes his dreams. In the sixth story one character instils his delusion in another, determining the latter’s reality. (This story contains a bad sentence in English, possibly affected by the looseness of Japanese. In a more recent internet story by the author a character creates an artefact which compels people to suicide or other obliteration.) Park’s overreaction to his friend’s art might be he believes it’s determining his reality as I can infer the author believes his art determines ours. It isn’t overly ambitious of an author to want to determine a reader’s reality with his writing and, after reading one of this author’s stories, I did commit suicide.
As you see, I’ve made a spectacular recovery, as a zombie. Being dead doesn’t mean I’m walking all the time on the lookout for one of the living to eat. They abound in London. Being dead hasn’t stopped me writing. This, for example. I have an eternity to write in (if I don’t get my head shot off by some paranoiac living bigot, and that’s unlikely in a yet largely unarmed Britain). I’m not convincing you that, being dead, I would be able to write, am I? Okay, I admit I didn’t commit suicide but I did want to, until I’d walked off the aesthetic effect of the writing. What the writer imputes to his character(s) he himself achieves, temporarily. We distinguish between fantasy and reality from an early age. By the time I came to a second reading I wasn’t sure which story had had the effect because none did. I believe it was ‘The Eye of the Living Is No Warmth’ because the character is a parasitic depressive who invests whatever enthusiasm he can flog up in vacuous pursuit of superficies while having pretensions to pessimistic philosophic depth and, given an opportunity for real life, scrolls ‘through to the address book and deleted her number from the registry,’ preferring to jerk himself off to the image of some cosmeticised teenage singing idol – if only, and whatever it takes, as a wise man said and all men would agree – and god alone knows what it’d take five years later when her image no longer does it for him yet his contempt then extends to encompass the whole world! which would include me, were I a character in his world who would, true to my character, be taking extreme exception to his contempt and requiring to know the solipsistic basis for it. You might see why I’d want to commit suicide after reading that story for the first time, progressing to murder at a second reading, and give credit to the writer for creating so powerful an effect. It won‘t be the same for you. You are a different reader.
The rather good seventh story doesn’t really conform to my hypothesis though there is an alienated character, because foreign, who’s accepted by the Japanese, a dumped girlfriend who has much the same reaction as the one in ‘A Thread from Heaven’ and a detached voyeuristic resolution. The eighth story answers the question what human flesh tastes like. What is on the tip of my tongue.
What doesn’t at all conform to my general thesis, and quite controverts it, is a story in another book, Dadaoism (An Anthology) which does have auto-erotic fantasies but made me laugh, out loud. That effect I did not expect from this author who, with it, shows versatility.