Friday, 12 May 2017

Asura Girl / A Clockwork Orange

(May 2017)

Japanese ghosts will fuck you up.

Not, you understand, because of anything you did. Not because you dared to sleep overnight in the abandoned mansion on the hill; not because you spent money you didn’t have on a relic from a store which appears to now no longer exist; not because you defiled their graves or threatened their ancestors or made a pact with the devil. This is not about you—Japanese ghosts are not here to be tools for the benefit of your moral education, to teach you about hubris or respect or the proper order of things—this is about what they want, and what they want is to get revenge everlasting and fuck shit up, and they’re doing all right on both counts, thank you very much.

Clear? Good, because about three-quarters of the way through Otaro Maijo’s hot mess of a novel there is what initially appears to be a very adeptly crafted mittel-European ghost story. (From here on out I shall, if you care, be spoilering the hell out of this book, because there’s really no way to talk about it properly otherwise.) Kerstin, Hejdanatt, and their other childhood friends go searching for Kerstin’s lost brother in the Western Forest, heedless of warnings about the monster that lurks within. They are drawn deeper and deeper into the shifting, complicit darkness of the woodland, and find themselves being threatened with awful tortures in their own voices. So far, so Hansel and Gretel (if slightly more goth). Rather than finding a trail of breadcrumbs and a gingerbread cottage, however, Kerstin has to watch as invisible hands dismember the other children one by one, before she rides on Hejdnatt’s eviscerated corpse and comes face to faces with a vast, multi-limbed monstrosity constructed from the still animate body parts of her friends and her brother. Then it eats her.

The writing for the thirty-two pages of “The Forest” is genuinely good. Not superlative, but good: believable narrative voice, effective pacing, disconcerting shading to terrifying imagery. There is such a contrast between this chapter and the rest of the book that I half wonder whether the rest is supposed to be taking the piss, because the rest is everything that this section is not. In fact, I increasingly suspect this to be the case.

The first hundred pages of this two-hundred-page novel introduce us to Aiko, our narrator. She is a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl leading a life of casual violence and even more casual sex. More specifically, she is a rather sheltered, adult man’s idea of a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl leading a life of casual violence and even more casual sex—which is to say, utterly ridiculous. A Manic Yankii Dreamgirl whose internal monologue is in an idiolect that no teenager has ever used anywhere, and who indulges in all those moral panics the popular press likes to have about degenerate youth but which later turn out to have been little more than products of a lazy hack’s overly febrile imagination (my personal favourite variation of which remains “Rainbow Parties”). Underneath her spuriously ‘edgy’ exterior, of course, she just wants to be loved by the good guy at school, despite being quite thoroughly friendzoned by him. This makes Aiko unhappy. It’s not nice, is it Aiko, being ignored by someone you fancy? How do you like being dismissed by the object of your affection, Aiko? You’ll sleep with everyone else but not with him, won’t you, Aiko? THE BOOT’S ON THE OTHER FOOT NOW, ISN’T IT AIKO? HOW DO YOU LIKE IT AIKO? HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES ALISON? AIKO. I MEAN AIKO.


Anyway, there’s clearly a large degree of projection going on here, both for the author and (by design) the reader. Aiko claims to love of the kind of movies that make up the standard late-nineties hipster-bro canon—The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction, Caged Heat—but consistently misremembers them,* and at one point detours to share a bizarrely specific pasta recipe, seemingly just to demonstrate that the author knows how to cook (as all right thinking men should). To say that these things sound out of character would be to imply that there was a character for them to sound in in the first place, which would be inaccurate: copious swearing does not a personality make.** Aiko is a hollow vessel into which rejected (and never rejected because they never plucked up the courage to ask) ‘nice guys’ can spill the juices of their collective discontent and thwarted desire; an empty receptacle for the spent frustrations of nerdish bad-girl hate-wank fantasies everywhere.

You may think I’m laying this particular metaphor on a little thick (for want of a better phrase), but the book literally begins with a guy trying to come on Aiko’s face. It opens in media jizz as she fucks an awkward classmate, essentially for the lolz. Thanks to his undisclosed bukkake plans, she regrets this almost instantly, kicks him in the head, and leaves. The following morning she tries to get one step ahead of the rumour mill by knocking seven shades out of the school queen bee in the girls’ lavatories, but is pulled back from the brink of GBH by the intervention of Yoji, the object of her unrequited adoration. It turns out that the girls just wanted to talk to Aiko because Sano, her splash-happy paramour of the night before, has been kidnapped and she was the last person seen talking to him. This has added urgency because the “Round-and-Round Killer” is at large, having butchered some neighbourhood triplets, and the denizens of an online message board called the Voice of Heaven have decided to track down the killer by beating up junior high school students for reasons or something. In amongst all this chaos, meanwhile, Aiko skips school and attempts to persuade Yoji over to her place to enjoy her “cute Triumph bra and panties,” but the deposed queen bee turns up instead and brains her with a sledgehammer.

That’s the first half. So far so B-List Grindhouse movie, but then it gets really weird. The second part of the book, spanning some ninety pages, concerns the visions Aiko has while in a coma. First she encounters a load of unfashionably retro Japanese celebrities and, gloriously, the (then) governor of Tokyo and (still) right wing nutjob Shintaro Ishihara, before being tempted to cross the River Styx by Sano’s ghost and rescued by a combination of her dearheart Yoji and a heretofore minor supporting character (of whom more later). This is all very odd. Next comes her alter ego Kerstin’s adventures in “The Forest”, and finally she experiences some sort of astral bodyshare with the Round-and Round Killer as he attends the funeral of his victims’ father and then kills himself in turn.

The final part—“Jump-Start My Heart”—covers the last twenty pages, and explains the title in more detail for those of us with insufficient knowledge of the Buddhist pantheon or who lacked the wit to google it. Asura, it turns out, are multi-limbed, multi-faced demigods who embody all the more primal urges: lust, pride, envy, anger, etc. Yuji falls for the now widowed mother of the murdered triplets, and Aiko in turn develops feelings for Tansetsu, that minor character who helped rescue her from the Styx.

          Shit, shit, shit!
          Now part of me is even thinking that it might be nice to do it with this totally weird guy.

That represents my best effort at a plot summary, in as much as there is anything like a plot to summarize. At the end of your initial reading you come away having had a hell of a ride, slightly irritated, very confused, and with a nagging sense that you’ve missed something significant. This is prompted by two things: Firstly, the contrast between the obvious writing ability displayed in the Kerstin section, and it’s absence elsewhere; and second, what appears to be the massive plot hole wherein, despite it being common knowledge that Aiko was the last person to have contact with a kidnapping victim (one whose parents receive a toe and ransom demand in the mail, no less), during the two or three days over which the first half of the novel takes place she is never once contacted by the police.

Asura Girl is seemingly set in contemporary Tokyo, not some overtly dystopian police-free future—Yoji threatens to call the cops when he discovers a couple dogging in a park (at one point there’s a couple dogging in a park, did I mention that?) and they eventually rock up during the funeral at the end—so it’s not like they don’t exist, it’s not like they don’t generally do their jobs. Jobs which don’t seem to include finding poor Sano, who after offering his siren call in Aiko’s coma vision, disappears from the narrative altogether. These aren’t just plot holes, these are entire plot strands that were only half woven to begin with, then seemingly abandoned entirely.

It seems. It appears. I keep using variations of those words because Aiko has no compulsion about throwing us through some very sharp perceptual U-turns; going, for example, from weeping floods of tears at Yoji’s rejection (“You idiot! Yoji! You asshole! I’m bawling my eyes out here and you don’t even notice. Asshole! Drop Dead! Do you hear me, Yoji? DROP DEAD!”), to barely three pages later forgetting about them almost completely:

            I remember I had been crying, but I couldn’t remember why anymore.
            Why should I when the tears weren’t even real?

Even within the “real life” of Aiko’s conscious world, it’s clear that she is not a reliable narrator. Those words—“the tears weren’t even real”—are given pride of place in closing out one of the early subsections, so it’s not like we can say we weren’t warned. It would probably be wise not to trust much of what she says at all.

So if we can't trust what the narrator tells us, who can we trust? Who knows? There’s Tenetsu, Aiko’s final crush who, I should probably mention, is a psychic, an oddball, a full grown adult, and, even better, a fairly obvious author insert. He basically turns up for no reason other than to advance the plot, is about the same age as Maijiro would have been while writing the book (twenty seven), and, just to clinch the deal, claims to have manifested as Shintaro Ishihara in Aiko’s vision. Ishihara, before he entered politics, was a novelist whose most (in)famous book was about amoral youth, sex, and violence.

Which brings us, eventually (and via a hat tip to a throwaway line by someone far smarter than me), to A Clockwork Orange, another cult movie I saw long ago, but also a novel which had been languishing unread on my bookshelves for quite a while. It too features an author insert character—Burgess thinly disguising himself as F. Alexander—as well as many other similarities with Asura Girl: structural (Act 1: Lashings of ultraviolence and the old in-out in-out; Act 2: Involuntary exposure to horrific visions; Act 3: Rebirth and rehabilitation, of a kind***), and thematic (e.g. the interest both protagonists have in unexpected, “classy” art forms). I mean, there are obviously some major differences (a teen argot that actually works, for one), but what I hadn’t appreciated about Burgess’s book was just how moral, how religious, it is, and how that would bear comparison to Maijo’s work in regards to the parsing of Christian and Buddhist traditions.

I’m not convinced that Asura Girl is meant to be a straight reworking of A Clockwork Orange, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find the movie was a major influence. The real interest lies in in the arcs of their fall and redemption narratives: how both protagonists go through awful experiences only to end up slightly older but in much the same places as before; how their personal choices influence their reinventions; how voluntary or involuntary their choices might have been; how much growing is involved in growing up.

Never underestimate the Buddha …
My God doesn’t punish people like the Christian god, or scold them or test them. He just waits, with infinite compassion, for people to achieve enlightenment … Just like you get tired of playing the same character all the time in a computer game, you eventually get tired of being bad; and when you’re really tired of it, when you’re fed up with it completely, you might end up doing something just a little bit good.

          Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers …
          And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chellovech, like old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milk-bar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his giant rookers.

Christian ghosts, Christian gods, will fuck you up out of spite, or malice, or some warped concept of ‘love,’ but it will be personal and it will be interventionist and it will be about you. Japanese ghosts and gods will fuck you up through sheer indifference. This, I think, is a large part of what Asura Girl is ultimately reaching for, but reformation and reinvention are not resolution, and asking questions is not enough if you can’t trust the questioner to be genuinely interested in answers. Asura Girl provides an adolescent eruption of concepts, philosophy, blood, and spunk that is hot and sticky enough you can’t not be slightly piqued (in all senses of the word). However, in the absence of a reliable narrative voice (or one that is at least reliably unreliable), or much else in the way of mature, measured thrust, it succeeds fully neither as a dialogue with other texts nor on its own terms. Taking creative risks is better than playing it safe, certainly, but the thing about risks is that by definition, and as here, sometimes they don’t quite pay off.

Asshole asshole asshole mega asshole!

* These scattergun recollections are actually very funny, but, and here’s the rub, only if you actually know the originals fairly well.
**I know; I’ve tried.
***These are hardly the only two stories to follow this pattern, of course.

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