Link to all my Kenzaburo Oe Posts
Link to all my Posts on Japanese Literature
It has been eight months since I read and posted on Kenzaburo Oe and that is way too long for me. Oe (1935-Japan-Nobel Prize 1994) is on my "Read Everything I can List". J is the 13th of his works I have read so far. I think this leaves me five or six works still to go (it is my understanding that less than half of his fiction has so far been translated) There is background information on Oe in my prior posts for those interested.
J is one of Oe's first novellas. Oe is one of the very greatest of living writers in all the world. Numerous other writers sell many more books than Oe but no Japanese author is as respected. His image among those who do not really know his work is of an ultra-serious author whose work should be approached only when in a properly reverent state of mind. His work is a world class treasure and in the right frame of mind it can be a lot of fun. Oe is shunned in some quarters of Japan for his complete opposition to the militaristic activities and the state of mind that lead the Japanese into WWII.
J is a very funny near x-rated book that centers on three men, one sixty, one thirty or so and one eighteen that ride the very crowded Tokyo commuter trains at rush hour wearing nothing but a trench coat and shoes. They bring themselves to orgasm by rubbing up against women train riders. J goes into graphic details as to how they do this. It details the reaction of their victims (not everyone realizes what is going on) and the reaction of others on the train when they become aware of what is going on. (I guess this is a world wide issue-there are female only cars on the commuter trains here in Manila)
We get to know the central character J pretty well before he decides to cruise the trains and subways. There are very openly described sex scenes and descriptions of the nude bodies of young women in J. It is kind of a boy's fantasy book in that the women in the novel are all beautiful and all eager to have sex with anyone. J's wife is a film maker. There is a lot of unconventional sex acts in J, besides the ones on the train. I think some readers will be put off a little by the ages of the women in the book and the way they are depicted. Any mention of a woman is sure to be followed by a description of her breasts and her sexual availability. A lot of the time the women in J sit around naked just because they feel like it.
OK maybe you think J might be fun but what is so profound about a bunch of subway perverts? Is this how you get the Nobel prize? Under the weird behavior and sex antics this book is a deep study of aloneness, transcendence, crowds, the collapse of values of an old world culture, and it is deeply about how we feel most alive while fixed on that which can destroy us.
J might not be liked by a lot of readers for its seeming treatment of women. It is harsh and portrays some very ugly attitudes. One woman, who sees what is happening to her on the subway, is described as being so ugly she should be honored to have any kind of male attention. She has a growth on her head which is so disfiguring that J says the woman should thank him for bothering with her instead of carrying on and screaming like she has been in physically hurt. J and his two cohorts tell themselves that none of the women are actually hurt, and in their perceptions, some of the women seem to find it quite thrilling.
There are some unanswered questions in the novel. The biggest one concerns the eighteen year old subway pervert (he sees himself as doing this to seek inspiration for a great poem he will one day write). I was left wondering whether or not he tossed a very young girl in the path of a train or whether or not he rescued her. In a very interesting introduction to the book (it comes with another of Oe's early short novels, 17), Masao Miyoshi suggests Oe is having fun with the youthful suicidal heroes in the works of Mishima-I can see this also.)
I have three more Oe books on hand to read and review. When I complete these I will have read sixteen of his works. I may do a Reading Life Getting Started with Kenzaburo Oe Guide then.
J is out of print but can be found on Amazon.com, sometimes for less than $5.00. 17 is in the same book so it is a fair value. The print is large and the production value is high.
If you love Oe and do not mind (or if you like it, go for it) r/x rated descriptions of sex then you will for sure like this book. If you just pick it up at random to read while on the subway (OK I could not help it) to work, you might at first honestly and fairly ask "what is so profound about subway perverts?". I think when you can begin to answer that question, you are on the way to "getting" Oe.
The next Oe I post on will be 17. I will also soon begin posting on many short stories by Japanese authors. I will wait until the Japanese Literature V Challenge begins July 1, 2011 to begin. Japanese literature is one of my reading passions and it will be a permanent feature of my blog. Like my other interests, sometimes it will seem to dominate my blog, sometimes it may seem I have totally moved on. I have found over the years that new interests deepen my understanding of old ones, they do not end them.