Monday, March 28, 2011

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like was the second book Chomu Press published, but it was the second-to-last of their books I bought, only picking it up after ordering The Scholar's Tale, The Man Who Collected Machen, Revenants, and The Life of Polycrates.  The reason I held off on buying I Wonder... was a petty one: I'm instinctively turned off by works with attention-grabbing titles.  Whether they're ironically self-aggrandizing (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Winner of the National Book Award) or whimsical ("Dr. Bliss and the Library of Toast") or shocking, they feel too transparently manipulative.  I realize this is an absurd bias, but I'm stuck with it nonetheless.  Now let's say no more about it, because this review is not about me quirks, but about Justin Isis' brilliant new book.

This debut collection opens with its shortest story, "I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Unauthorized Egg Model Book Cover."  I don't know what that means (if it's meant to mean anything; see below for more), but the story is excellent, both in and of itself and as an introduction to Isis' work.  In three pages it demonstrates all of his gifts: insight into the experience of being young and being obsessive, prose that captures that insight and melds it with striking descriptions of the beauty (and horror) of everyday life, and flashes of transgression that disturb and yet are undeniably, almost wonderfully human.

I mention transgression and obsession.  To tell the truth, I'm not sure that these are categories that truly to apply to the fiction of Justin Isis.  Transgression implies a notion of wrong-doing, and the characters of these stories don't seem bothered by that sensibility; they simply do what they have to do.  And obsession... technically accurate, perhaps, but as Isis understands, obsession doesn't feel obsessive from within.  It's simply life, lived the only way it can possibly be.  Isis' descriptions capture this quality, describing strange, often unsettling behavior in language that, quite properly, renders it as naturally as the events of any minimalist slice-of-life fiction.

Take the title story, where a young man and a woman meet in a park and strike up something that might be called a relationship.  All that needs to be said about the nature of this connection is that the first substantive sentence she utters is "Let's burn things," and that ends up being their least creepy pastime.  Everything they do and say is described flatly, leaving the reader to imagine for himself the deeper drives and hidden psychological forces at work.  At one point the young man says:
--Last night I decided to call my new story, the one about the fox, "I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like."
Hidemi looked at him.
--You might be wondering what the connection between foxes and eating human flesh is.  The truth is that there is none, but by calling my story that, I force whoever reads the story to make some kind of connection.  That's part of my strategy, to force the reader to make connections between things they wouldn't normally connect.  If it's successful, it taints their everyday system of associations with new associations that I can impose.  That's the kind of power artists have, to reorder how people see the world.
(That may, or may not, explain some of Isis' own story titles.)  It becomes obvious that both the man and Hidemi are searching for something, but I don't think it's possible to put the subject of their search into words.  To call it "a search for meaning" would, I believe, simultaneously trivialize it and elevate it beyond what it deserves.  If that makes any sense to you.

I'm worried that I'm making Justin Isis sound like an unpleasant writer, or one whose stories feel like work rather than pleasure.  That's hardly fair.  I read most of I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes in one rapt sitting.  Isis writes about what most people would call dysfunction, but never in a way that feels showy, or tries to smear degradation all over the reader for the sake of doing so.  He's only shining a light on aspects of human behavior that often go unremarked.  And his prose is eminently readable, full of remarkable images.
The moths orbiting the streetlamps became fantastic, impossible butterflies.  The trees replayed the seasons in moments, a flicker from summer-green sheen to the brown of a light-wrought autumn.  The moon caught madness from the sun; its face reddened in shame, whitened with fear, sickened with green.  A woman was crying somewhere; Miyabi turned and saw her smiling.  Rivers of yellow and green trickled from her eyes as the broken starlight silvered her hair.  She read subtle blues and pinks in the line of her lips; a vein in her breast lit up with a cool fire before fading to burnished gold.
Miyabi, the protagonist of that story, sees the above in a dream, and her daily life is also one of observation, albeit of a much less elaborate world.  Unemployed, she leaves her bedroom rarely and the house more rarely still, living off her sister as she watches TV and scrounges peanut butter from the fridge.  A small, pathetic life, one might think, but Isis recognizes and captures in prose the way the details of such an existence can expand to satisfy any needs, the way one can live in expectation on what another would starve with.  Whether their obsessions are with an old schoolmate, a pop group, the cross-dressing boy from the bookstore, or the very existence of Chinese people, these characters know what they want, and wouldn't live any other way, even if they could.

Perhaps my favorite story in the collection, if that's a word you can apply to it, is "I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Etc."  In this case, the title has obvious relevance to the story, about a pair of vegetarian sisters who decide to try eating meat.  Thus emboldened, they then move on to other varieties and flavors, until the more adventurous of the sisters begins to wonder... well, you can imagine.

This is disturbing, more so perhaps that anything that happens in any of Isis' other stories.  But because it begins with such a small thing-- eating a steak-- something most of us do all the time without thinking about it, it underlines how any obsession begins in the normal, in fact causes the normal to expand to contain things you once imagined impossible.  Before reading the story I had decided to have lunch after I finished.  I was halfway through making my chicken sandwiches before I realized that I was handling actual, once-living flesh.  It wasn't easy to go on after that, though being human I managed it.

I still don't think I've managed to get at how Justin Isis' fiction actually works.  Probably it's impossible.  I could come up with fancy high-concept labels "Raymond Carver meets Borges writing about eccentric Japanese youth," but if you don't share my sense of what those two writers are about, you'll never see what I'm getting at.  Perhaps the best I can do is to say that I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like is not, in the end, merely a shocking title; it is a sign of the mind-bending, genre-bending fiction you'll find within.  Justin Isis is already one of my favorite new writers, and this unclassifiable book is already one of the best of the year.

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