Akutagawa Prize #154: Irui kon’intan, by Motoya Yukiko

Motoya Yukiko 本谷有希子Irui kon’intan 異類婚姻譚.  Kōdansha, 2016.

This won the 154th A-Prize, for late 2016.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Takiguchi Yūshō’s book.

Motoya was born in 1979.  She’s been writing since 2004, and has already won the Mishima Prize;  this is her fourth story to be a finalist for the A-Prize.  She’s a bit of an unusual choice, being so well established as a writer already…

The title story is the winner.  It’s a first-person narration in the voice of a young housewife we know as San-chan.  The primary relationship it deals with is that with her husband, unnamed;  we also meet her younger brother Senta and his girlfriend Hakone, and an older neighbor lady named Kitae.

Let’s cut to the chase.  At the end of the story, San-chan’s husband turns into a peony.  To be specific, a yamashakuyaku 山芍薬, Paeonia japonica.  It turns out to be his fondest wish, and she takes him and plants him in the forest.  Some of the committee members compare her stuff (this is all I’ve read) to medieval setsuwa, the magical transformation here fitting into the same category as those you find in folktales.  And there certainly is something prodigiously symbolic about it.  The title nods in the direction of a traditional mode, too:  “Interspecies marriage story,” a semi-technical literary-history term for a particular category of setsuwa or other traditional tale.

The interspecies aspect of the marriage begins long before he turns into a flower, though.  We join them when they’ve been married for about four years, and she’s starting to notice that, when he’s at home and not thinking about it, his facial features disorganize themselves.  Droop, melt, go funny – as if he’s no longer human.  This is a story about marriage anxiety, and pretty clearly San-chan is anxious about who or what she’s married to.  It’s the “not thinking about it” part that really matters here.  From the outset, her husband had announced that he’s the type of guy who doesn’t want to think about anything when he’s at home.  His evening routine is to come home, sit on the sofa, drink a highball, and watch three hours of comedy on TV.  Later he gets addicted to an iPad game.  Still later, to making deep-fried foods, which he forces San-chan to eat.  The husband is, in a word, a total shlub, but while his behavior is kind of stereotypical, Motoya’s description of him isn’t.  Rather than rendering him as a kind of sitcom bad hubby, she has him speaking in strangely soft, feminine language, and interacting with her in an exaggeratedly nonconfrontational way.  He’s not an authoritarian, but rather a big, good-natured baby;  it’s creepy, intentionally so.  And so when his features start to drift, it’s just an outward confirmation of the deep strangeness at the heart of this guy.  We don’t expect him to turn into a flower, though;  an animal, maybe, but a flower is a surprise.  It’s appropriate, though, given that he’s kind of the ultimate expression of the herbivore male trope.

What scares San-chan more than her husband’s transformation is the possibility that it’s happening to her, too.  Somebody comments to her that she and her husband are starting to look alike, and she becomes mildly obsessed with the possibility.  By the end she starts to feel her features rearranging, too.  But she doesn’t become a flower – instead, there’s a weird role-reversal passage at the end where she’s drinking a highball and watching TV, he’s cooking for her, and then the flower.  It’s marriage anxiety, as I say, and if part of that is the fear that you’ve married something fundamentally, inalterably, unknowably different from yourself, another part of it is the fear that you’re losing your individual identity, being subsumed into your partner’s being.  That’s here, too.

There’s an important subplot concerning cats.  The neighbor Kitae has a cat that has lost urinary control – it pees all over the house.  No treatment, no change of environment, no consultation does any good, so eventually she decides to abandon the cat in the woods.  San-chan drives her there;  later she goes back to leave her husband the peony in the same place.  Kitae’s angst over abandoning the cat stands in stark contrast to San-chan’s emotional distance – Kitae loves her cat more than it seems San-chan has ever loved her husband.  Her husband, in a rare communicative moment, suggests that she married him because she knew she could recede into the life of a homemaker, more than anything.

I was less plussed about this story than the above summary may suggest.  As an examination of marriage anxieties it’s pretty memorably horrifying.  And yet…  This particular constellation of gender relations seems pretty archaic, even for Japan.  Not that couples like this don’t exist, but the story’s concerns seem a bit old.  And if you’re going to invoke setsuwa, it might be a good idea to make sure your writing is as pithy and eloquent as setsuwa tend to be.  This isn’t.

There are three omake stories in the book.  The first, “ ‘Inutachi’ <犬たち>” (“ ‘Dogs’ “), has the unnamed narrator spending the winter in a cabin belonging to a friend, on a mountain above a village.  The narrator makes friends with some wild (?) white dogs that visit the cabin regularly, but when she visits the village she finds that everybody is afraid of dogs – they seem to blame dogs for local disappearances.  Later, during a blizzard, the narrator saves one of the dogs, which has fallen down her well.  As she does, she seems to hear the dogs saying, “She’s passed.”  In a few days, when she goes down to the village, she finds it empty, as if everybody just disappeared.  She’s not upset about this – always antisocial by nature, her childhood wish was for everybody to just disappear like this one morning.  She goes back up to the cabin and goes on like before.  Then she notices that she’s growing white fur.

The second, “Tomoko no baumkuchen トモ子のバウムクーヘン” (Tomoko’s baumkuchen), is very short.  The titular housewife has a breakthrough or breakdown while making baumkuchen for her little kids.  In an instant, for no discernible reason, she flashes onto the essential absurdity of her life – it’s like she’s standing in a wasteland that used to be a game show, but the host and the audience are all gone, and the machine just keeps spitting out questions at her.  She wanders around her house recognizing nothing, as if it’s all been replaced by simulacra, or always has been.  She snaps out of it by going back to her baking as if nothing was wrong, but the feeling never quite leaves her.  The baumkuchen seems meant to suggest Tomoko’s own layers – as if this knowledge was always there, this anxiety over her life, but buried beneath other layers of consciousness.  It’s a simple story, but deep and intense.

The third, “Wara no otto 藁の夫” (Straw husband) also deals with marriage anxiety.  Tomoko (written the same; no indication if it’s the same character) is married to a man made of straw.  No explanation of how such a thing is possible, but a little description of how it works.  No face, but he wears clothes (running gear, in the story), drives, and talks.  Tomoko’s family and friends warned her against marrying a straw man, but he was so kind…  The story breaks down into two halves.  In the first half they’re running in the park – he’s coaching her, as she’s just starting out.  It seems idyllic.  In the second half, she accidentally maybe nicks his new BMW, and he throws a tantrum.  As he sulks and scolds her, teeny-tiny musical instruments start spilling out from inside him, until he’s all empty.  Then he apologizes, she stuffs them back into him, and they go running again – but not before she has fantasized setting fire to his straw and watching him burn.

As often happens to me, I found the bonus stories to be a little more satisfying than the prize story;  in this case they persuaded me to lighten up a bit on Motoya’s choice of theme.  The pervasive sense of alienation and anxiety within interpersonal relationships, mainly marriage, is something she really does well.  As for the surrealist aspects – I can see what she’s getting at in most cases.  I’m not sure I felt that she was getting at things with surrealism that she couldn’t get at in other ways, or that the surrealism brought a power that realism couldn’t have brought.  I don’t know if I felt it was necessary or particularly delightful…