In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?
Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).
Not only does Kazumi appear naïve, but perhaps a bit daft. For instance, when she questions her boyfriend, Masao, about being homophobic, her ruminations sound much more authorial than an authentic voice of a innocent twenty-year old whom just discovered that she had a penis:
Come to think of is, was the fact that Masao had sex with women proof that he wasn’t a faggot? He thought penises were dirty and he didn’t like the idea of sex with men, but he felt no qualms about sticking his dirty penis into my mouth at the same time that he emotionally felt closer to men than women. He was so confused, his emotional life so riddled with contradictions, he couldn’t possibly be normal! . . . But then who was I to talk? I had a penis.
Exactly. The main character does have a penis and this it what it takes for her to recognize someone else “riddled with contradictions” because apparently, she hadn’t noticed any of his contradictions in the three prior years that they had dated. This is what makes the main character inconsistent and then, unbelievable. Throughout the book, Kazumi is sickened and frightened by the idea of lesbianism, finding the idea of sticking her toe-penis in a vagina “gross.” Later, she experiments with a woman after she leaves her current boyfriend, Shunji, and finds that perhaps it isn’t as disgusting as she thought it was, but still not convinced that lesbianism or any other relationship is worth it:
Then he began preaching: “Forget this lesbian stuff! Nothing ever comes from two women getting together. I guess it can’t be helped if a woman is too ugly to attract a man—that’s a reason to turn lesbian. But you’re cute. Don’t you think that you should just stay with this Shunji kid here?”
I hardly knew what to make of these bizarre statements. True, maybe nothing came from two women getting together, but nothing came from a man and a woman getting together either—nothing but babies. Or did he know something I didn’t know? I had no idea whether or not there women who turned to homosexual love because men wouldn’t have anything to do with them, and I couldn’t help wondering what led Utagawa to believe there were. And what made him think he could be so arrogant as to decree, even if he wasn’t explicit about it, that women who could attract men were better off in heterosexual relationships—that they should mold their sexual proclivities to the needs of men, rather than stay attuned to their own desires?
Again, this sort of interior monologue runs contrary to Kazumi’s alleged innocence. Also, I get nervous as a reader when the author has the character asking questions. Matsuura has Kazumi asking questions in her mind frequently and it wears on the reader because it’s a lazy way of developing character. The reader is smart enough to ask those questions without the character doing it. So, this kind of intellectualizing does nothing for the reader in terms of believability of Kazumi as an innocent or even as a fully developed person.
Ultimately, the characters in this novel are thinly veiled stereotypes of what sexuality is. They give method to the intellectualization of gender and sexuality, but no meaning or passion. Matsuura intellectualizes the hell out of any attraction or passion so that by the end of the novel, the idea of sex of any kind seems joyless. More time spent on investing in the characters would have made me care, made me believe in Kazumi and her “apprenticeship.” As grating as this novel is, I found the translation above the material and hoped at some point, the writing would match the translation. Instead, I felt relieved that I was rid of her and her sexual musings and wished someone more fun would have grown a toe-penis.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .