By Michael Mejia
Reviewed by Joe Sacksteder
The first of the novel TOKYO's three sections—author Michael Mejia has also described them as three novellas—is the easiest to summarize, though it is predicated on outlandish circumstances and the narrator's voice hums with an unhinged intensity. It takes the form of a report written by Ito Sadohara, an executive at a wholesale fishing concern named Uokai, Ltd., to the Japanese Minister of Commerce, chronicling his involvement in something called "The Tuna Affair." Sadohara's account is excessively detailed from the get-go and becomes increasingly untrustworthy, especially when he begins fuming about his estranged wife and the child she has just borne after going into labor in the frozen food aisle of a San Francisco market. Sadohara is convinced that the child cannot be his. Called to Tsukiji, the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, by concerned employees, he is shown an alarming tuna fish purchased by his company. "Inside was the body of a woman," he discovers, "naked, gutted, perfectly halved, just like the fish, from crotch to crown." Worried that news of the aberration will cause the company trouble, he communicates the news to Senkai Sekana, Uokai's president. The boss is a figure shrouded in mystery, accessible only through a byzantine hierarchy, and the two executives' mutual love of haiku means Sadohara communicates with Sekana in an untraditional fashion. His message reads:
Wondrous spring girl,
plowing your waves in fishes' form,
avoid the market!
It's no surprise this communique fails to bring about an immediate resolution. Three more humanoid bodies are found inside tuna fish, and Sadohara orders the whole lot to be packaged and sold as per usual. Investigators eventually catch Sadohara's team in the act, prompting his report to the minister.
In the novel's second section, "Monogatari Monogatari," textual meaning quickly becomes destabilized, and TOKYO becomes much more demanding. Monogatari, an epic form of traditional Japanese literature dating back to the ninth century, is often positioned as the terminal word in a title, as in the famous Genji Monogatari, which is referenced in this section. Doubled-up, however, it potentially points to something metafictional: "The tale of the tale of." The first page of the section—in addition to the novel's back cover—provides us with one of our best ciphers for decrypting what follows. An American writer has received an invitation from a Japanese correspondent, S, to play, "a writing game . . . a bricolage in English, an impersonation of the Empress, a plagiary perhaps, a network of tricks and allusions." Sections two and three appropriate a great deal of text from outside sources, in particular The Pillow Book, by Sei Shōnagon, the 1963 Hokuseido Press compilation of Six Kabuki Plays, and several monogatari. Longer quotes are identified in the appendix, but shorter borrowings are mashed up without demarcations. Readers will become more attuned to the accretion of certain phrases, like "positive action," "they suck each other's tongues," "buying and selling of fetuses," and "gloves edged with black fur." That last one, at least, is from Roland Barthes's Empire of Signs.
After that opening page, "Monogatari Monogatari" is arranged in three different textual zones, creating multicursoral reading paths and a sense of polyphony akin to the final section of Mejia's first novel, Forgetfulness. The text in the central block seems to be the bricolage proper, blending the courtly, psychological tales of a modernized monogatari with S's coded messages to M, mainly, "I'm risking my life on this project—there is no one else in the city I trust as much as you." Running along the top and bottom of certain pages, S and M engage in a cryptic correspondence. When we later find out that M's residency in Japan for a theater commission invests the project with a meta-awareness of cultural appropriation, the following marginal comment from S could refer to this section's bricolage, the dubious authenticity of Sadohara's report, or TOKYO itself:
Call it the New Japanese Novel, S wrote—
A barbaric hybrid—
A pillow book written in English—
disordering, infecting the Japanese corpus
with the mind and language of the gaijin—
just as Ito-san had tried to do.
"Gaijin" means "foreigner," and the use of "corpus" here recalls the bodies in the tuna, that prototypical sign of Japanese cuisine and commerce infected by Western fetishization.
In the central text, the Emperor channel surfs, sees "himself bowing over the edge of a high cliff," sees "millions of Japanese watching him," sees "Yoko . . . strapped down by love" (Yoko is M's wife), sees "a man in a black suit and a green hard hat" drinking a glass of "the exploded reactor's coolant" to prove its safety, sees "a silver-haired Japanese in a dark suit . . . casting a wreath over the edge" of a cliff. As in Robert Coover's "The Babysitter," channel-surfing becomes a mode of understanding the narrative's fragmentation. Mejia presents us with a barrage of conflicting, mediated representations of Japaneseness. And, as Donald Barthelme's "The Indian Uprising" transports the genocide of American manifest destiny to Romanticized depictions of the French Revolutions in order to get mid-1960s Americans to reconsider the pseudo-logic of our involvement in the French colony of Vietnam—its cutup text heaped like barricades—Mejia's mash-up of Orientalist gestures forces readers to consider our own participation in the West's essentializing tropes of the East.
To provide a helpful summary for the third section, "Backstage"—more narrative but equally as fragmented as the second section—is to fall victim to the heresy of paraphrase. The switches in point of view, the fluidity of characters' genders and identities, and the flux between the reality of the novel and the artifice of its spectacles, enrich the textual possibilities beyond what anything but the simulacrum of the text itself can provide. Set against the backdrop of three disasters—the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas terrorist attack, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that caused the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, and a fictional scenario of widespread human sterility set in the year 2082—"Backstage" grafts the bizarre love triangle of M, S, and Yoko onto three separate but linked narratives. In the most familiar so far of the three narratives, M is an American artist living in Tokyo, performing kabuki, as both he and Yoko, alternately, attempt to come to the rescue of S, whose project surrounding the Tsukiji market has caused them to be imprisoned by a shady, Yakuza-esque organization called the Pure Land Group in room 2082 of a nightmarish office building. In the second, Yoko is a drummer for the band Sumatori Honeymoon, and, after a threesome with M and S results in pregnancy, she looks for a way to fund an abortion and escape to America using money earned in a "pink film" produced by the Pure Land Group. The third appears to be a science fiction script written by the same Ito Sadohara of section one, a plot by the Pure Land Group in the year 2082 to control the global fish market and reestablish cultural purity through a genetically-engineered fish substitute called Y. In this scenario, M and S are human birth test subjects for Y who end up falling in love despite M acting as a double agent.
The liaisons loosely invoke the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanagi—and the kappa monster is always lurking in the background, ready to snatch various manifestations of personal and cultural shirikodama organs. Sadohara takes on several guises in the third section as well, emerging first as a writer for the company staging M's theater productions, then potentially as the child that Yoko either abandoned or aborted, who has lured the couple back to Japan. "Not so much an appropriation," M describes his kabuki performance, "as an intervention in authenticity—a slowly won self-awareness—an intentional failure to express the pleasures and perfidy of Western longing through its glowing—dream-like—fictional Easts—the enactment of those impenetrable Japans hypothesized by Melville." Mejia's use of appropriation, as well as the constantly short-circuited plot arcs, thereby reflect the impossibility of both a culture's own conceptions of purity in the heavily appropriative contemporary world as well as the exoticization, essentializing, and erasure that results from the outside looking in. TOKYO is a book that repays multiple readings, repays an approach to reading that only it can teach you, the sense of arriving in a new country for the first time. The novel is a place that, despite all that has been said about it, will feel perpetually undiscovered—and full of discovery.