They think that I hate them. But it’s not true. In fact, I admire them. They look so happy, so relaxed. I don’t feel happy or relaxed; not in their company; not in any company. I cannot relate to people. Their preoccupations, their conversation. I can fake it, of course, and I do sometimes. With girlfriends mostly. I use them in order to fool myself into thinking I am not a hopeless case, and because their grace and beauty soothes me in the same way a cat’s does. Actually, it’s not correct to say that I always use them. Occasionally, my enthusiasm, my participation is genuine; occasionally I am engaged; but it’s rare. Most of the time I feel as though I exist behind glass. It’s hard to fake being-like-them consistently. It’s like trying to perform a complex dance routine when you have only learnt the first couple of steps. You might look as though you know what you’re doing initially, but soon you’re stood uncomfortably still and silent in the middle of a room.
All of Taiyo Matumoto’s major work in English features children as outcasts or oddballs. In Tekkonkinkreet, for example, there are the orphaned brothers Black and White; and Sunny, which some consider his masterpiece, is set in a foster home, the kind that he, apparently, spent some time in himself. In GoGo Monster, however, the kids are less obviously vulnerable. The setting, on this occasion, is a school, and there is no suggestion, that I remember, that any of the students have been discarded by their parents, or have a complicated home life. Indeed, most of them are ordinary kids, who engage in a bit of mild bullying and name calling, and play sport and computer games. As a result, GoGo Monster has less immediate emotional heft than Tekkonkinkreet and Sunny, but is, for me, more subtly moving and interesting. Not because a school is a novel setting, for of course it isn’t, but because one is forced to look beyond their circumstances to explain the strange behaviour of Tachibana and IQ, the two eccentrics at the heart of the book.
IQ wears a box on his head and looks after the school’s rabbits. The box is, one might say, a home away from home; it is a barrier, a comfort. There’s a wonderful scene where IQ is asked to sit an exam without his box, and he replies that this is like asking a kid who doesn’t wear a box to wear one for an exam. About two-thirds of the way into the book he befriends Tachibana. The relationship between the two boys is, in some ways, predictable. They are, as noted previously, both eccentric, both largely shunned by their contemporaries, and both are intelligent. However, there’s more to it than that; IQ acts as a kind of commentator, a guide, and a therapist. For Tachibana believes in the existence of another world, which he calls ‘the other side.’ This world is populated by beings who are not monsters in the traditional sense, although he draws monstrous looking characters on his school desk, but more like a kind of energy. You might call them ghosts, but that doesn’t seem right either. In any case, none of the other children can see or interact with them, not even IQ.
Have you ever looked at a mark on a wall, or something of that sort, and thought you saw a face in it? I’m sure everyone has, at some point. In Witold Gombrowicz’s great novel Cosmos, the two detectives find their clues just like this, by imposing meaning on apparently random and insignificant phenomena. One might, therefore, understand Tachibana’s relationship with the other side in the same way. He sees distorted faces in drops of rain and on leaves; he interprets ordinary events – minor thefts or things going missing – as being the work of ‘the others.’ We have a phrase for this, of course, which is an overactive imagination, which is not uncommon in children, especially intelligent and eccentric ones. It is possible that Tachibana has created this other world because he feels disconnected from the real world, just like IQ with his box. Yet GoGo Monster makes you ask a more uncomfortable question: does the boy really believe it? And if he does, is it not actually a manifestation of some form of serious mental illness? I don’t want to diagnose, but at no point did I get the impression that Tachibana is acting out, or lonely, or not in earnest.
By handling things in this way, by posing these questions, by making our thoughts go in a more difficult and distressing direction, Matsumoto avoids the major pitfall that books of this sort often fall into, and which his own work was on the verge of falling into in the early stages. I, and probably most of us, never want to read another novel about how spellbinding childhood is, how glorious the imagination of children, and how, in comparison, rotten and prosaic adulthood is. Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince did this better than any author ever will. No one else needs to go there. I audibly groaned when Tachibana began to talk about how growing up will mean that he will not be able to interact with the other side anymore. And the ending does suggest that the boy has ‘come through’ and is well-adjusted and no longer seeing things. So, of course, there is, regardless of how serious he took these supernatural events, the possibility that it was all pure fantasy, or, as IQ says, ‘psychological escapism.’ But I know, being myself once a very strange child, who saw and did very strange things, that it isn’t always so easy to move on. You might mature, you might stop seeing monsters, but the world, the so-called real world, never stops being ‘other’ to you.