From the ‘Fictive Nation’ to the ‘City in Short Fiction’: Reading ‘The Book of Tokyo’ After Barthes

The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction, edited by Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks, and Masashi Matsuie (Comma Press, 2015)

by Calum Rodger

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-13-08-41The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction is a book of chance encounters. In Toshiyuke Horie’s short story “The Owl’s Estate” (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies) the encounter is between an unnamed Japanese male narrator and a “young woman […] with the creased eyelids of a Westerner.” They cross paths in a quiet, dilapidated residential area of Tokyo, brought together by the logo, printed on a package of books carried by the narrator, “of a well-known French publisher of classical literature.” Although the two begin talking in French, the woman, it turns out, is Australian, calling out “because she had trusted the air of intelligence the bag had afforded.” Together, they buy sushi and walk to the woman’s apartment to dine with her Italian housemate. The narrator builds a “vague picture” in his mind en route:

The sitting room would be spacious and full of natural light, fitted perhaps with a beige leather sofa that was firm so it wouldn’t a sag under the weight of the long-limbed Italian stewardess as she sat down, and there would a low clear-glass table arranged before it. Would I sit there, I wondered, timidly grazing on the sushi once it had been laid out on the spotless table?

His “picture,” however, could not be further from the truth. The room is in the Japanese style (unlike the narrator’s own Western apartment), with a tapestry of Buddha on the wall and no furniture except a small folding-table. Later, we discover that the house serves as transient accommodation for foreign women who top up their earnings as dancers in the nightclub district Akasaka; the narrator’s romanticised, faintly erotic fantasy gives way to an altogether more complex reality.

It is an arrangement he finds distasteful: “I still felt uncomfortable about the way the influx of Westerners was being marketed as evidence of an increased cosmopolitanism, even though they were only passing through, and only via backdoors like cheats in a video game.” Nevertheless, he immediately goes on to concede:

my thought processes lacked the viscosity of natto maki and the vinegar lucidity of sushi rice. My understanding was limited to generic flavours, and I didn’t have the necessary creativity to give birth to new, previously unknown classifications of sushi. This was perhaps why I was unsuccessful in garnering more information from interacting with these people in the flesh, and talking in a foreign tongue, than I could from reading something in print.

With metaphors like these, the “timidly grazing” Japanese narrator is no less stereotypical than his image of the “long-limbed Italian stewardess.” His awkward sushi analogy is a measure of his discomfort, which in turn belies his attraction to the girls. Sure enough, he soon finds an excuse to visit again, delivering a book to the Australian girl. The book – tellingly, for a character who prefers “reading” to “interacting […] in the flesh” – is Roland Barthes’s 1970s meditation L’Empire des signes, on what the philosopher describes as the “fictive nation,” Japan. Since The Book of Tokyo presents the freshest entry point into contemporary Japanese literature for the Western reader, it’s curious to find Barthes pop up like this – because whatever Barthes’s “fictive nation” is, it is not the “City in Short Fiction” of this book. Indeed, the way Horie plays with his orientalist precedent reveals the difference between Barthes’s “fictive” and the present “fiction.” In so doing, it illuminates the way The Book of Tokyo approaches its subject matter and how far we – readers, like Horie’s narrator – have come.

L’Empire des signes (translated by Richard Howards in 1982 as The Empire of Signs) is Barthes at his most playful, not so much an anthropological study or travelogue as an elaborate semiotic fantasy, a series of dances among the exotic signifiers of the “faraway.” His object is not to locate the “essence” of Japan (which – spoiler alert – doesn’t exist), but rather to find in his experience of the country a “reserve of features whose manipulation – whose invented interplay – allows [him] to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.” As with much of Barthes, ‘readings’ are as compelling and entertaining as any well-crafted fiction, especially when framed in contrast to Western culture (and so perhaps not as “detached” as its author would have us believe). Tempura, for example, in one of those charming little reveries at which the writer excels, “is stripped of the meaning we traditionally attach to fried food, which is heaviness.” Through a series of metaphoric inferences it thus becomes “an item […] on the side of the light, the aerial, the instantaneous, the fragile, the transparent, the crisp, the trifling, but whose real name would be the interstice without specific edges, or again: the empty sign.”

As usual for Barthes, he isn’t writing about what he purports to be writing about, but about writing itself, which he likens to “that loss of meaning Zen calls a satori.” His “Empire” – a fictive one, to be sure – is celebrated precisely for its lack of essence, of substance. Its locus, Tokyo, is a “precious paradox”: it “posess[es] a centre, but this centre is empty.” (The centre in question is the Imperial Palace and its grounds, to which the public are not permitted access.) Barthes’ is a flighty, self-reflexive orientalism, transcending its postcolonialist trappings by virtue of “the side of the light.” Meaning itself becomes analogous to the oriental Other, and by exposing its fictiveness – locating the “empty sign” in the metaphor of the Zen “satori” – he implicitly undercuts those misguided cultural critics who presume to “read” Japan for the enlightenment (or entertainment) of Western audiences. All the same, his self-professed “detachment” is not so much liberating as merely enchanting. It’s a spell: an “invented interplay” among smoke and mirrors, and the enlightenment of its Zen state only, on waking, a good trip.

So L’Empire des signes can’t tell us much about Japan. It might tell us something about language; it certainly tells us something about Barthes. Horie makes light of this later on in the story when the narrator, meeting with the Australian again (whose name, we learn, is Isabelle), brings up the subject of the book:

She gave me a dimply smile and said she had read about half, then outlined some of her opinions on the work, including how she thought it would be interesting to compare the portrait of the man in the book with Barthes’ later work on photography, and, while it was certainly possible that the portrait was just another example of the many ‘signs’ he had seen scattered throughout Japan, she considered it altogether more likely that Barthes had chosen the man simply because he had fancied him.


               ‘I’m pretty sure Barthes didn’t choose him at random, you know, not with cheekbones like those – he’s being pretty obvious about it, really.’

               When conversation dwindled, Isabelle told me she was going to head to the gym to work up a sweat and clear her mind, so we waved each other a quick goodbye at the ticket gates inside the underground station.

Barthes “signs” – his book – become a prop for some light flirting, and the “satori” of his “interstices” placed into perspective with the not unconvincing thesis that, “with cheekbones like those”, Barthes just “fancied him.”

The dialogue draws the loftiness of Barthes’ ambitions down to earth, returning to the sign (in this case the photograph) its body. While The Book of Tokyo shares with Barthes the idea that Tokyo is a city with an “empty” centre, it is here not so much an idea as a sentiment, from which follows a distinctive response (such is the difference between the writer of philosophy – “fictive” as it may be – and the writer of fiction). In his introduction to the collection, Michael Emmerich writes that “[r]eading The Book of Tokyo, you may not always be able to identify your location on a map. If so, it means you are getting there – you are experiencing one of the great pleasures of being in Tokyo: a sense of disorientation that blends seamlessly into a seemingly opposite sense of rootedness, of being at home.” For Isabelle, it’s not a writing-induced “satori” that clears the mind, but a visit to the gym. In other words, it’s not detachment she desires, but a “rootedness” in “disorientation”; her Tokyo – the collection’s Tokyo – is not a place of the empty sign, but of the marginal body.

Nowhere else is this demonstrated more forcefully than in the collection’s opening story, “Model T Frankenstein” by Hideo Furukawa (translated by Samuel Malissa). Written in the second person, it begins: “You see a goat.” This doesn’t feel like Tokyo, and sure enough the story proceeds to question its setting (its “rootedness”), the limits of the city itself:

This is what you remember – I’m on an island.

This is an island fifty minutes by plane from Tokyo.

But what does it mean, from Tokyo? […] There is a certain vagueness in this too – a very common sort of vagueness.

The narrative continues in this questioning vein, concluding that “you” will “[g]ive this tale the respect it deserves in the mythology of a tertiary Tokyo.” Meanwhile, a strange kind of panic has been building, as the goat – in transit towards metropolitan Tokyo – has transformed into a “man in his mid-twenties […] to all appearances Japanese.” “I am a Japanese monster”, the goat-man declares, before going on a killing spree along the Yamanote line (the iconic circular railway line that serves central Tokyo). Literally disembodied, in what Emmerich calls “the feeling of bewildered awe” at “Tokyo’s endlessness,” the goat-man-monster is a limit-case of the Tokyo body as Emmerich defines it, a violently alive existentialist counterpoint to Barthes’ ascetic, onanistic “writing.” In a sense, the claim of The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction’s title is at least as bold as Barthes’ enterprise to write an “unheard-of symbolic system.” How can a whole city be contained in a book? Only, ironically, through “short fiction”: through “tertiary” Tokyos, “mythology[ies]” of the marginal body; a “certain vagueness” among the “common sort of vagueness” in a city so vast and, for Western readers at least, so distant.

The erotic charge that Barthes (as Isabelle speculates) chose to ignore in the photograph is made explicit and underpins much of the short fiction of The Book of Tokyo. At the end of “Model T Frankenstein” we find the monster in hiding, foraging in the city “at one of the two supermarkets on the border between Shinjuku and Shibuya.” He requires ashitiba – a type of parsley which, we are told, “comes from the Latin angelus, which means angel.” He reaches for it at the same moment as another: “[f]or an instant, the monster’s hand and that other person’s hand touch.” The person is a woman with “elegant” horns. The ashitiba, like Barthes’ tempura, is an “interstice,” but here it is not revealed by reading and writing, but by a “touch” which at least part human, however monstrous and angelic it might also be. “The monster gives an experimental bleat: Mehhh. She answers, Mehhh. The monster smiles and thinks, I’m saved at last.”

The chance encounter, the erotic fantasy made flesh, the heterogeneity of place and identity in an abstract – that is, fictional – metropolis which, in the twenty-first century, has long gone beyond a Barthesian “detachment” of east and west: this is the stuff of which The Book of Tokyo is made. Several of the stories are catalysed by such encounters: a dropped wallet, returned, in Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s “Dad, I Love You”; in Hitomi Kanehara’s “Mambo”, two people meeting in a taxi rank, waiting for taxis to the same destination (which turns out not to be the same destination at all); Horie’s protagonist meeting Isabelle in “an area of old houses that seem preserved in time.” Sexual undercurrents propel the narrative and often rise to the surface, as in Banana Yoshimoto’s intensely passionate (and also, like Furukawa’s story, monstrous) “Mummy.” As in “The Owl’s Estate,” expectations are rarely, if ever, fulfilled. The fiction of a city, in all its “tertiary” forms, is always stranger than the fiction of any single resident. One notable exception to these trends is the elegiac “Vortex,” which laments the passing of an older Tokyo through the prism of a middle-aged woman’s solitary reflections. Tonally, it’s closer to the quintessentially “Japanese” work of writer Yasunari Kawabata and film-maker Yasujirō Ozu. Considered as a part of the whole, it doesn’t detract from the collection’s unity so much as reinforce it, an aesthetic counterpoint which reveals, through its lonely narrator, the “distance [that] had opened up between her and the world.”

While Barthes wilfully preserves the distance between him and his “fictive” object, the “City in Short Fiction” present in The Book of Tokyo, for all its subverted expectations and monstrous disembodiments, closes that distance, through the writers’ shared emphasis that this city is populated not just with “signs” but with bodies, living, dreaming, encountering one another. Perhaps this is just to say that as Les Empires des signes was of Barthes’ time, so The Book of Tokyo is of ours. The narrator’s worry, in “The Owl’s Estate,” of Tokyo’s pseudo-cosmopolitanism, is thrown into comic relief when he compares it to “cheats in a video game”; even more so when he gives up on his train of thought because he considers it, in effect, bad sushi. After all, video games – a Japanese invention – are ubiquitous both east and west, and poised to become a more significant art-form of the twenty-first century, if they have not become so already. Bad sushi, meanwhile, is the stuff of Tesco Meal Deals. In other words, Barthes’ “faraway” just isn’t that far away anymore. In its disorientating variety, its self-conscious play with cultural stereotypes, its fascination with both body – and its appetites – and disembodiment and, above all, its fondness for the chance encounter as catalyst for fiction, The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction brings it a little closer still.