Akutagawa Prize #144: Kueki ressha, by Nishimura Kenta

Nishimura Kenta 西村賢太 shared the 144th Akutagawa Prize (for the 2nd half of 2010), with his Kueki ressha 苦役列車 (Train of hard labor).

It serves me right.

All along in my reviews of these things I’ve been throwing around the term “I-novel” loosely, far too loosely for my own good.  What I was trying to say with it was that A-Prize novels tend to fall into a first-person, confessional mode that is one of the hallowed literary conventions of modern Japan.  This mode is sometimes associated with something called the “I-novel” or shishōsetsu 私小説 (or watakushishōsetsu).  But, strictly speaking, the shishōsetsu was a much more limited and strictly definable phenomenon of the naturalists of the early 20th century – and the odd thing is that many of them didn’t write in the first person.  They went through the pretense of putting their navel-gazing in the third person, leaving it to the readers (and the journalists) to piece together the I-ness of the thing through matching thinly-disguised details in the text with the documented life of the author.  I mean, they weren’t fooling anybody, but this is what they did, and it shouldn’t be conflated with the larger phenomenon of first-person confessional slice-of-life novels in modern J-lit, which owes a lot to but isn’t completely identical with the shishōsetsu properly speaking.  I conflated it.  My bad.

This kind of clarification (okay, confession) becomes necessary at this point because Nishimura Kenta is self-consciously trying to bring the shishōsetsu idiom, narrowly defined, into the 21st century.  In fact he’s so open about his devotion to this idiom that he was instrumental in getting one of its more obscure practitioners, Fujisawa Seizō 藤沢清造, back into print.

His story is confessional – oh boy is it confessional – but it’s written in the third person.  More than that it’s written in a prose style that’s instantly recognizable as belonging to the naturalists of the early 20th century. 

The story is about a teenager named Kanta (not Kenta) in the mid-1980s who has dropped out of school after junior high to live hand-to-mouth as a day laborer.  He’s estranged from his mother, and his father is in prison for sex crimes.  Becoming known as the family of a rapist ruined Kanta and his mother, and is largely responsible for Kanta’s miserable existence, or at least that’s how Kanta sees it.

If you know anything about the tradition that this story is an homage to, you’ll expect the story to detail a miserable personality and its obsessions with sex, violence, and unreasonable grudges that doom the protagonist to failing at life, and that by rubbing the reader’s face in the sheer squalidness of life the writer is hoping to arrive at some sort of ultimate truth, if only by forcing us to confront certain existential tragedies.

That’s exactly what Nishimura does here.  Over a hundred and forty pages we follow, in minute detail, Kanta’s days working as a seafood unpacker, missing his rent, sleeping with prostitutes whenever he gets enough cash, skipping work whenever he gets enough money to eat for two days in a row, seemingly never showering, and creeping out more normal people who try to befriend him.  And he can’t figure out why he’s all alone.  Must be his father’s fault…  (Needless to say, the details of Kanta’s life match up quite well with Kenta’s.  Notoriously, in his post-A-Prize interview, when asked what he was doing when he got the call saying he’d won, he said, “I was just about to hit a sex club.”  Coming from Murakami Ryū this might have been edgy or cute, but Nishimura made it sound just kind of matter-of-fact, like the old sexual harasser in the office who can’t figure out why pubes on a Coke can don’t make the ladies swoon…)

At first I thought this was going to be a parody.  His emulation of the old prose style is pitch-perfect, and there is a mildly interesting disconnect in reading it applied to ’80s things – imagine Sōseki describing vending machines and you’ll get an inkling.  But by the end it was clear that Nishimura wasn’t up to anything new at all.  In short, he’s just trying to bum you out, just like his idols.

The o-make story here, Ochiburete sode ni namida no furikakaru 落ちぶれて袖に涙ふりかかる (Broken down, with tears falling on his sleeve), is if anything even more unpleasant.  It joins Kanta two decades later, in something close to the present day, when he’s scraping by as a writer of shishōsetsu.  We spend the first half of the story getting detailed, vivid, and yet somehow dull descriptions of how he has to piss into a plastic oolong-tea bottle because he’s thrown his back out and can’t get out of bed.  Halfway through we realize he’s waiting for the announcement of a literary prize that he’s up for.  We then get a prodigious outpouring of bile on how he knows that it’s unbecoming of him to want the prize so desperately, but he wants it anyway.  (Okay, so that’s kind of interesting to someone who’s interested in the idea of literary prizes.)

So, obviously I didn’t enjoy these stories.  So what?  I’m not sure so what.  I don’t have to enjoy them to see literary value in them.  So do I?  See literary value in them?  Usually I’m game for that question, but I feel like to try to answer it with regard to Nishimura would just send me off into the night looking for an oolong-tea bottle to piss in and muttering about the impossibility of defining literary value.  If you’re really, really in need of having your face rubbed in the misery of existence, then Nishimura’s probably doing something valuable.  But otherwise this book is a just a wallow in a particularly grotesque kind of self-pity, unrelieved by any humor, couched in a prose that’s trying really really hard to be as ugly as it is.