Akutagawa Prize #154: Shinde inai mono, by Takiguchi Yūshō

Takiguchi Yūshō 滝口悠生Shinde inai mono 死んでいない者.  Bungei Shunjū, 2016.

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

Takiguchi was born in 1982.  He was a finalist for the previous prize;  has been writing since 2011.

I want to translate this title as “The Undead,” but since it’s not about zombies I’d better refrain;  I guess “Those Who Haven’t Died” is most exact;  maybe “The Not-Dead-Yet”?  Or “The Nondead”?  Anyway, it’s a book-length story (it takes up the whole volume, at about 140 pages) about a funeral.  To be precise, a wake – it all takes place during the night of the tsuya 通夜 of an old man who’s only ever called “the deceased” (kojin 故人).  As befits the title, though, it’s not about the deceased, but about the living who come to the wake.  Specifically, it’s about a large extended family – his five kids, their numerous kids and their kids’ kids, plus assorted spouses and a couple of friends of the family.

What stands out about this book most is the narrative technique, specifically the point of view.  There isn’t one.  Or rather, there is and there isn’t.  The narration shifts focus from person to person frequently, moving freely up and down the generations and in and out of the characters’ heads, memories, imaginations.  And yet it’s not quite an omniscient narrator – sometimes characters’ actions are described in the speculative manner of someone who’s observing and drawing conclusions, and sometimes descriptions are given along with subjective judgment or sensation.  But if this is a first-person narration, there’s no hint of whose it might be, no indication of an actual subjectivity we’re inhabiting, and then of course there’s the way the narration slips into the past, and into the deep consciousness of many of the characters.  So is this the ghost of the deceased who’s narrating it?  Are we experiencing these people’s lives with the freedom of the newly dead, someone who is freed from the bounds of subjectivity but not entirely shorn of it?  Perhaps – there are the barest nods in that direction, including a memory late in the book that concerns nobody but the deceased and his wife (who died much earlier).  But that memory isn’t entirely untethered from the point of view of a friend of the deceased who is attending the wake…

The Prize Committee’s reactions to the book seemed largely bound up with this vagueness in the point of view.  If you have problems with it, you don’t like the book;  if you’re okay with it, you like the book.  I’m okay with it, but it does puzzle me.  It doesn’t seem like it’s an enigma wanting to be solved, but rather like an experiment.

What it allows is interesting, and that’s the thorough exploration of this whole extended family, from multiple points of view.  Of course, this could also be accomplished through a traditional third-person omniscient narrator;  but then the reader might demand more careful explanation and development than we’re given.  The oddly floating semi-subjective nature of this narrator forestalls (for some readers, at any rate) objections when it randomly moves on to a different character.

There:  that’s what I felt was the flaw in the book.  I didn’t find any of the characters to be developed deeply enough to be satisfying.  By the end we do find that we’ve gotten to know some of them better than others (a 17-year-old girl and her 27-year-old shut-in brother;  an absent alcoholic father and his troubled kids), but not well enough for their stories to really stand out.  Just when we seem to be getting to the bottom of one, the narration will drift off to someone else, either a new character or someone we’ve met before, as if to remind us that the point is the group portrait, not the individual.

As a group portrait, though, I found it curiously moving.  There are so many characters that even though they’re listed carefully a number of times, with their relations to each other spelled out, I found it next to impossible to keep track of who was related to who and how.  But I don’t think we’re really meant to;  the characters themselves have a hard time, as is typical in big extended families.  This is one of the aspects of the book that I really liked:  the texture of the family, some of whom are close, others of whom see each other only at occasions like funerals, all of whom are basically aware of each other, but each of whom has her or his own problems that do and don’t impinge on the others’ lives.  It all feels normal.  There are problems, such as the alcoholic and the shut-in I mentioned, but they don’t seem out of proportion.  This isn’t an exposé of the modern family.  But neither is it the heart-warming (read: cloying) thing it could have been, either.  It’s dry, in that sense, in a good way.  Carefully poised;  ambiguous, just like the position of the narrator.