Akutagawa Prize #146: Dōkeshi no chō, by Enjō Tō

Dōkeshi no chō 道化師の蝶 shared the 146th Akutagawa Prize, awarded early this year for work published in the second half of 2011, with Tanaka Shin’ya’s Tomogui.  It’s by Enjō Tō 円城塔, who prefers to romanize his name “EnJoeToh.”  He’s been writing for a while, so his followers may feel this prize is overdue him.

The title story (“Clown Butterfly”) is about an entrepreneur named Abrams who sponsors a mysterious author named Tomoyuki Tomoyuki, who writes in several languages including Latino sine Flexione.  Nobody knows anything about the author:  nobody seems to have met him.  And of course nobody can actually read his complete works.  But the narrator, or sometime narrator, is hired by Abrams to write a comprehensive bio of him, or is to catalog his works, or is it just to track him down…

It’s that kind of story.  It also involves Abrams’ signature invention, a kind of gossamer silver hairnet that catches the fleeting ideas of people sitting next to him on airplanes, which he then converts into successful mass-market products.  Ideas such as “the perfect kind of book to read on airplanes”.

Which, irony of ironies, sounded like a real good idea to me when I was reading this story, because I was mostly reading it on airplanes, and it’s most definitely not the perfect kind of book to read on airplanes.  It’s that kind of story. 

I won’t bother with more plot summary, partly because I don’t know that I’m up to it (it’s that kind of story), and partly because plot summary in this case will be misleading.  Just re-reading what I wrote above, I’m thinking, that sounds like a pretty interesting story, like Murakami Haruki or Shimada Masahiko at their best.  But that’s not how it shakes out in practice.

In practice, I found it a maddening read.  Impossible to follow.  Willfully obscure.  Offering almost none of the pleasures that I look for in a novel.  What makes me love Haruki or Shimada even, or perhaps especially, at their most surreal is that their work is entertaining, fun, even when it’s playing with your head.  What made me such an avid reader of Kafka in my youth was that, even at his most surreal, and even when his stories aren’t fun or entertaining (and they frequently are), you could feel the passion, the emotion, behind his head-games.  Enjō is all head games, as far as I can tell.

It’s clear there are ideas behind his stories but part of his game isn’t to present those ideas clearly, but to dangle them in front of you and then snatch them away when you try to bite into them, then dangle them in front of you some more when you’ve just made up your mind to ignore the tease…

The omake story, “Matsunoe no ki” 松ノ枝の記 (A Record of the Matsunoe Family;  or, A Record of a Branch of the Pine), is even more maddening.  It’s about a Japanese hack writer who ends up translating the work of a foreign writer, which the foreign writer then translates back into his/her native language, which the Japanese writer then retranslates, which the foreign writer then re-retranslates…  Which all, again, sounds like it ought to be catnip for yours truly, but isn’t.

But, as always, this may be just me.  Enjō is clearly a gifted puzzle-constructor, and what he’s made here are two enigmatic fictional edifices whose foundations are squarely set in the shifting sands of death-of-the-author postmodernism and whose spires soar into Nabokovian heavens of erudite intellectual play.  If this is your cup of tea, Enjō may be your gyokuro.