Akutagawa Prize #156: Shinsekai, by Yamashita Sumito

Yamashita Sumito 山下澄人Shinsekai しんせかい.  Shinchōsha, 2017.

This won the 156th A-Prize, for late 2016.

Yamashita (b. 1966) is an established playwright who founded his own theater troupe in 1996;  he started writing fiction in 2011 and has been nominated for the A-Prize twice before.  It’s the title story in this volume that won it for him.  I know nothing about his theater work, and haven’t read any of his other stories.  I specify this because, reading between the lines of the judge’s comments, I’m guessing that he got it this time as much for his other stories, and for his career as a playwright, as for this one.  This story (the title can be translated as “New World”) seemed to have few strong supporters on the committee, and I can see why…

It’s about a 19-year-old kid named Sumito who, rather aimlessly, leaves his hometown in Kansai to join an experimental theater school in Hokkaidō.  The story covers his first year in the two-year program.  As many committee members note, this invites us to read the story in a number of ways:  as a coming-of-age story, as a portrait of the artist as a young man, and as a roman-a-clef.  Because Sumito-the-author did the same thing as a youth, studying at Kuramoto Sō 倉本聰’s Furano-juku 富良野塾.  The story is clearly set at this school, and while all the other characters are named, the head of the school is not;  instead, he’s suggestively referred to only as Sensei (in brackets and boldface).  The school, too, is left unnamed;  in fact, all locations are referred to in only the most generic of ways, contrasting with the odd specificity with which all Sumito’s classmates are named and then nicknamed.  I call this odd because there are a dozen or so of them, and in a 130-page story there’s no space to learn to distinguish most of them.  Why bother to have so many?  Why bother to name them?

The answer, I suspect, is in the roman-a-clef reading of this.  If you’re familiar with the Furano-juku concept and its many illustrious graduates, and are intrigued by the charismatic Kuramoto, not to mention if you’re an admirer of Yamashita’s own career, then a lot of this probably reads like an exercise in spot-the-alias, and the story probably adds up to a lot more than it does otherwise.  But otherwise, it doesn’t seem to add up to a lot.  Sumito-the-character stumbles into this because he has nothing better to do at 19, not because he has any ambition in the arts;  he doesn’t even know who Sensei is when he arrives at the school.  This is a good set-up for an artistic self-awakening – but it never happens.  In fact we seldom get any hints as to what Sumito is feeling or thinking, despite a couple of obviously symbolic dreams.  Sumito-the-character is clearly a disaffected youth, clearly lost and searching but too numb to realize it, but he doesn’t change or grow over the course of the novel.  He’s the same passive figure at the end that he is at the beginning.

Fine;  maybe the point is to bring the Furano-juku to life?  But while we get a decent sense of the hardscrabble mountain life it imposes, and a bit of a critique of the cult-like devotion it cultivates, this aspect of the story doesn’t come into very clear focus, either.  We get very little about Sensei’s philosophy of the arts, so the school experience doesn’t come across as transformational in that sense either;  but while there’s a vague sense of cult-of-personality hovering over the school, it’s not specific enough to turn the story into an exposé.  Again, though, I wonder if all of this is much more effective if you’re familiar with the writer’s other career, and with Kuramoto as a cultural figure.  In that sense this may only work as an i-novel:  it may be completely dependent on the reader’s ability to match it up with the writer’s life.

But maybe not.  The last paragraph but one tries to pull the rug out from under us by confessing that everything that’s gone before might just be made up, might be a fiction that the author has come up with as a substitution for what really happened, the truth of which has receded into the dim reaches of the past.  So, we can’t trust the novel to be truth.  Fair enough, but this too is a pretty hoary trope.

Stylistically, too, it leaves me nonplussed.  It’s obviously experimenting with narrative voice and the rendering of dialogue, but these experiments don’t seem very consequential.  They amount to a lot of run-on sentences and comma splices in the narrative, and the initially confusing tactic, in rendering direct quotations, of placing consecutive utterances by the same speaker in separate sets of quotation marks, as if we’re switching between speakers.  “Hi.”  “How are you?”  You’d normally assume this is Speaker A and Speaker B, but in this book it’s often Speaker A continuing his speech.  It does keep you on your toes, but I’m not sure if it does anything else…  I’ve noted some online reviewers suggesting his prose is meant to suggest reading a playscript, but it doesn’t really do that for me.

I generally try to describe more than judge in these reviews;  I’ve failed to do that here.

Incidentally, Kuramoto did the calligraphy of the title for the cover and title page of the book.  I like the calligraphy:  it’s simple, bold, powerful.

The other story in the volume is called Shōjiki ni itte oboeteinai no da, ano ban, jissai ni jisatsu o shita no ka dō ka 正直に言って覚えていないのだ、あの晩、実際に自殺をしたのかどうか (“To be honest I don’t remember that night, whether I committed suicide or not”).  It concerns the night before he took the exam that admitted him to Furano-juku.  He’s in Shinjuku, staying in a hotel for the first time, and he’s unable to sleep so he wanders around Kabuki-chō.  The title refers to a strange interlude in which, after a couple of random suicidal ideations, he runs into a homeless guy who says he’s just about to gas himself in his tent, and would the narrator like to join him.  The narrator may do just that, but then the narrative jumps to a later time and place and the narrator himself isn’t sure why, or if he really met the guy, or what happened.  These devices could make for an interesting story, but again the author resolutely avoids letting us into the character’s interior (much), and also avoids all but the most banal description.  We get ten pages of obsessive description, though, of the narrator asking the hotel desk clerk to draw him a map, then going out with it, then coming back to ask for another map, again and again.  It could be meant to suggest the character’s nervousness, but it’s also a bit of a drag on the narrative…  This story is a perfect pair for the title story.