On Manga Cafes, Convenience Stores, and the Taste of Human Flesh: An Interview with Justin Isis

July 30, 2013

This is an interview I did with Justin Isis for the BSC review. It was a bit ago, so I am reposting it here:

On Manga Cafes, Convenience Stores, and the Taste of Human Flesh: An Interview with Justin Isis

Justin Isis. He’s like Jonathan Franzen if Jonathan Franzen was better looking and could write. Like Paul Leppin meets Kawabata in an empty brothel with cold tile floors. His just-published book, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, is plastic romance at its best—something sure to cause anger and distress and be gripped by lonely housewives at 2 a.m. while their husbands are in the backyard digging holes. This is neo-decadence for the unincarcerated—the book that will keep you up at night until your lips grow numb mouthing the words. So, cover your cheeks with glitter, paint a big pink heart on your depilated chest and read the following interview, because the price of food has just gone up again:

Brendan Connell: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Justin Isis: The ability to send messages to my past self, like “Don’t go to that party at Alfredo’s house because the microwave is going to blow up and permanently scar your ankle,” or “Invest heavily in the startup company your friend Edmund’s cousin just founded, because it’s going to take off globally,” or “Heather from your third grade class is actually in love with you and waiting for you to do something, but won’t have the courage to say so until fifteen years later on Facebook.” I’m sure in practice the laws of physics would fuck this up somehow by creating an endlessly ramifying series of parallel universes on the basis of the altered decisions, which would mean multiple (or endless) versions of myself would have to keep sending different messages to different past selves, similar to having an inbox full of millions of unopened e-mails to reply to. X-Ray vision would be easier, probably.

BC: What do you think is the message of your book?

JI: I don’t think there’s an explicit message to the book other than for it to be an ornament, but I’m aware that people might want a message, so I think the message should be, try to have a good time if you were born in a first world country. Most of the conflicts in this book are based on psychological and/or existential problems that, however debilitating, are not as bad as extreme poverty or being ethnically cleansed. Every time I feel depressed in real life I usually think “I own an iPod” and then I feel better. I think the iPod is a reliable source of existential meaning, or that my life is more insane than Napoleon’s because I can listen to the same song indefinitely and get pork buns from the convenience store. Lawson is probably my favorite convenience store in Japan, but I also like Daily Yamazaki.

BC: Why do you consider Lawson to be superior?

JI: Generally higher-quality baked goods and meat buns, high-quality oden (broth with meat, eggs and pickled vegetables) in winter, etc. I think the real reason though is a kind of undefinable atmosphere or spirit. I like standing around in Lawson doing nothing, especially in the early hours of the morning, when usually hostesses, drunks, and other interesting people come in and you can have random conversations with them. There’s also a sub-chain called Natural Lawson, which sells organic and more health-oriented foods at unreasonably higher prices. They’re rare though and I never see anyone in them, so they have a different atmosphere, kind of like ghost convenience stores. They feel like they’re from the future for some reason too.

BC: Are you single right now or are you dating someone?

JI: The last girl I thought of as a girlfriend in the “girlfriend” sense was an ex-hostess who I lost to a Taiwanese plastic surgeon with much more money. It was pretty unfair because I had better clothes and dancing skills than him. So now I usually introduce myself as a lawyer or financial consultant. You can meet interesting people and girls by posing as a priest too—they often don’t believe you when you say you were just joking. The collars are easier to come by than you might think.

BC: Is hierophilia common in Japan?

Probably not as much so as in Europe, although I did have sex with a girl behind a shrine once. A lot of these shrines are located in very urban districts and have open space in the midst of an otherwise condensed area, open pavilions with trees and minimalist architecture, atmospheric at night and during festivals.

BC: I noticed that all of the stories in your book take place in Japan. After reading it, will I be better prepared to visit the country?

JI: I think you’ll be prepared to go to Lawson, go to karaoke, listen to idol music, and maybe go clubbing or something in Shibuya. I wanted to keep everything on the level of what the characters would experience every day and take for granted, so a lot of the settings are kind of monotonous and not what the characters themselves would consider culturally interesting. I think I mention izakayas (combination eating and drinking establishments, often with all you can eat/drink deals) and karaoke in maybe every other story, since they’re a pretty big part of everyday life. There are even homeless people who live in karaoke or manga cafes, they just keep renting the same room every night, much cheaper than a hotel. Probably the book could take place in any first world country in the early 21st century, although there are some cultural references and in-jokes in it about Japan, like the list of gyaru fashion models from 10 years ago in one of the stories, and also a ridiculously obscure video game reference in the last story that no one has gotten so far and which I don’t really expect anyone to get.

BC: That’s great. I didn’t get the obscure reference, but one of the characters was playing Minesweeper, and I appreciated that. Do you think video games make people more aggressive?

JI: I don’t know, but I feel like playing them constantly from a young age, like four or five years old, possibly affects your unconscious somehow. My dreams always used to warp into pixellated landscapes after a while. I haven’t played anything for a few years though. Minesweeper may possibly subtly increase antisocial tendencies.

BC: If I wanted to spend some downtime at a manga cafe, which one would you suggest?

JI: The chain I usually go to is called Gran Cafe Bagus; they have fairly decent rooms. I don’t read that much manga, but I used to go there and rent rooms for writing purposes, because if I knew I was paying for the time I was more likely to get work done. About half of Human Flesh, especially the later stories, was written in various manga cafes around the Yamanote Line.

BC: Some of the women mentioned in your book: Ayano, Miyabi, Shono. Are these real people or products of your imagination?

JI: They’re mostly real people. Miyabi is called Miyabi in real life. The book I’m writing now, about a professional gambler, I’m using her real name and if you read the book closely and went to Hiroshima you could probably find her workplace. I used to tell people I was going to do this and they didn’t take it seriously, like “That’s not going to happen, I don’t believe you’re really a writer.” Their image of a writer is like some old man or university professor. Anyway, none of these people can speak or read English.

BC: That’s good. Too many people can speak English already anyhow. But let’s talk about that book you’re working on. The internet has been abuzz about something called Girl Revolution with talk of a movie deal and so on. Is there anything you can tell us about it?

JI: It’s essentially the sequel to Human Flesh. There’s another book I have to publish first, but Girl Revolution will pick up where Human Flesh left off and will be twice as long. I wanted it to be like 1000 pages, but I’m not sure I can write that much. All the stories are about hostesses, vomiting, and the Catholic Church.

That said, I actually do have a movie deal, the Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo is currently making a feature-length film based on one of my unpublished stories, which will be set in Tokyo and Malaysia. It has a lot of suicides and people doing inappropriate things to reality. There was originally going to be a film based on the story I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, Etc. that was being developed by graduate students at Waseda University, but they eventually lost funding. But it had gotten to the stage where they were trying to cast actresses from television dramas.

BC: I have a lot more questions I’d like to ask, but people on the internet have really short attention spans. Anything you would like to add to this interview before we sign off?

JI: Nothing to add other than that I hope everyone who reads this will buy at least five copies of the book and also consider sending me money, which will be used to fund drinking and buying new clothes. You know it makes sense.

BC: Thanks!

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Kodagain – What can I get for a penny?

July 29, 2013

Kodagain – Lips on my face

July 28, 2013

Quentin S. Crisp, Defeated Dogs, Introduction

July 27, 2013

I wrote the introduction for Defeated Dogs, a collection of short stories by Quentin S. Crisp, published by Eibonvale Press.

This is the introduction:

“The masses are prone to perspicacity in minor facts, but to stupidity in the major ones.”

This is what Ko Hung said.

Never, since history began, have more people been able to speak English. Never, since the language began, have fewer people been able to write it well.

Who can find joy in its depths, appreciate its magnificence—its abundance?

The Earth is engulfed in a deluge of words—words clumsily skewered together like expired meat on a kebab, charred by the fires of inanity and seasoned by the clumsy hands of technology.

“Verbiage-fakers: you gulp down all that is on the plates, before wise men can dine or even get a bite.”

Hermias said this; and that some are grateful for the rush of this never-ending sewer, in which bawdy romances whirl about the precincts of gauche volumes intended for the pre-pubescent members of our society, we can have little doubt. But we also know that, ultimately, beauty attracts. Bandinelli is forgotten; Michelangelo forever remembered.

Mr. Crisp was born in North Devon in 1972. His parents were vegetarians and ran what might well have been the first vegetarian guesthouse in England. Crisp has, for the most part, avoided meat to this very day, giving “strength to his body so that it might contain his soul,” as Eunapius says.

The first word he spoke was ‘brontosaurus’. While he was still at a tender age, his family spent a period in Israel, and young Crisp returned with a cage full of smuggled preying mantises. Being naturally inclined to humour, in Secondary School he secretly put woodlice in his hair and then shook them out on his desk, causing a crisis, as the teachers thought they were giant headlice. The following year he hitchhiked to High Wycombe in drag in order to attend a concert of the German heavy metal band Accept. One of the band’s roadies, a middle-aged transsexual who went by the name of Robin Roma, was able to get the young Crisp backstage. The two afterwards corresponded with great frequency and at Roma’s suggestion Crisp had his first foray into ‘publishing’ by producing a photocopied magazine of mermaid pornography, the discovery of which earned him two weeks suspension from school.

This same Roma later became a Buddhist monk in Thailand, and it was through him, in fact, that I first discovered Crisp’s work, him giving me a soiled copy of The Nightmare Exhibition.

“Where you see bodies, I see forces tending towards each other by a creative impulse.”

So said Balzac.

One of Crisp’s GCSEs was Television Studies. As he could only find one other boy to work with, he convinced this latter to film him putting on a wedding gown and marrying himself, the footage then being used for a video for the song ‘Woman’ by the Anti-Nowhere League.

Ikku Jippensha said, “travelling means cleansing the life of care”.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Japanese from the University of Durham, he went to Maebashi, Japan, where he spent ten months studying Japanese at Gunma University. He boarded with a barber and received complimentary haircuts; went back to England, and then back to Japan again, to Kyoto, having received a Monbukagakusho Scholarship, through Kyoto University, in order to study the works of Higuchi Ichiyo.

There is a rather amusing anecdote about his return to England after this second stay. It would seem that one of the first people he met upon his repatriation was Mark Samuels, the noted writer of strange stories. This latter found Crisp’s speech patterns so distorted from his continuous study of classical Japanese that communication was almost impossible. The incident was the inspiration for the Franklyn Crisk character in his story ‘Glyphotech’.

Crisp is known for his vital prose, his legendary green woolen scarf, his love of tea, his fear of certain kinds of fruit, and his suspicion of all things digital.

“My lowly self has sat quietly out of sight, for I was not fitted to the times, and my work has been out of tune with the day. Whatever I said ran counter to popular belief; every step I took was against the direction of the masses.”

So said Ko Hung.

For many years his work has been followed by a rather elite group of readers and its quality has placed him amongst a unique group of writers, not as part of any particular school, but rather as one of those who should be read.

“Great desire to begin another story; didn’t yield to it. It is all pointless.”

So said Franz Kafka.

To earn a living, Crisp has done various things, such as testing software for mobile phones, freelance writing, and teaching English at a nursery school in Taiwan. At one point he was employed in London as a ‘Green Champion’ which entailed him going to low income housing blocks and informing the tenants on various ways they might be greener, such as getting them to recycle, ride their bicycles to work, put bricks in their toilets, etc. And throughout all this, he has, fortunately, continued to write, despite not being petted by the soft hands of the large publishing houses.

He has written numerous short stories, several novels (a number of which are, as of this writing, still unpublished) and lyrics for the band Kodagain.

“Why talk about insects when the whole world is before you?”

This is what Shih Nai-An said.

To call Crisp’s stories simple would be to malign them; to say that they are complex would be to slander, for the highest art is that which, in its directness, its naturalness, says what it has to say without pretence.

The stories are not marked by imaginative paroxysms in which vapid thoughts are tethered together with the tails of absurd beasts, and neither are they studded with knowledge flaunted. There is in them much of the sort of realism used by Patricia Highsmith—much of the same sort of introspection. In Crisp’s case, however, the introspection has a much quieter tone—and the strokes of his brush, so to speak, are more often broken, giving the stories a heightened sense of mystery. The world is not always exactly what it seems.

Gold and vermillion rarely enter into his palette which consists primarily of white, indigo, grey-green, and yellow—the colours used to paint trees, flowers, mountains and people—but even then, the ink is not wasted and is treated as if were more valuable than money.

One might call these stories restrained, but the word naturally calls to mind tension, and in them the reins are let loose and quiet observance given its chance to roam.

Lu Ch’ai said, “Neither complexity in itself, nor simplicity is enough.”

In other words, great distances are pointed towards with a simple gesture. Simple things are made beautiful with direct presentation. The composer sees the common with eyes uncommon and finds the sublime in the poverty of his surroundings.

“To be a man, that is to say a participant of the infinite, one must abjure all fraternal conformities and wish oneself special, unique, absolute.”

These words Remy de Gourmont wrote.

With powerful simplicity Crisp evades banality. Detail is perfect, but gives way to sweeping gestures. Eccentricity, the most precious thing in good writing, is achieved without violating natural order.

“So many people have stood in my way,
But I am not afraid.
I brush my teeth each day
With new, improved yuugen.”

These are words written by Crisp for the Kodagain song ‘The Iowa Writers Workshop Lacks Yuugen’.


Lives of Notorious Cooks reviewed at BFS

July 26, 2013

Katy O’Dowd has reviewed Lives of Notorious Cooks for the British Fantasy Society website.

 

I quote:

 

“This is the type of book to leave on the bedside table of a guest bedroom. Just be sure to check said guest’s bag as they depart to make sure your copy isn’t being spirited away.”


The Cutest Girl in Class reviewed

July 25, 2013

The Cutest Girl in Class is reviewed very positively at risingshadow.net

 

I quote:

 

“I don’t remember when I’ve last read a novel that equals to this one in terms of surrealism, absurdity and weirdness.”

 

Remember to preorder!


Kodagain – Fly Down

July 21, 2013