Author: booksyo

JESUS’ SON BY DENIS JOHNSON

The longer you live the more you seem surrounded by people who are in the process of losing themselves. That’s what I’ve noticed. When I was a kid things were scary; and everything connected to that fear seemed permanent. From my late teens onwards my life moved into different territory, one that resembled a graveyard but which was actually a kind of halfway house. Everyone drifting, moving out of your reach, like you’re a cat trying to catch a light-spot on a wall that shifts each time you pounce. People like Tom, who we tried to help, but only ever in small scale ways that involved taking him for a drink, hoping he’d see in that gesture some kind of empathy, or assurance, because we were more afraid of facing his problems than he was. And then one day he was gone. He was no longer losing, he’d lost.

We still had J, and he was an alcoholic, although no one ever acknowledged that. Alcoholics are a riot, much more fun that drug addicts. J had plenty of cash, and was always treating us at the best bars, buying cigars and brandy. I remember him once coming up to me at the end of the night and hugging me aggressively and saying take me home and fuck me! No one has ever seen a man run so fast; I could have broken records. Not in this lifetime, J. And then there was the time he fell asleep in the backseat of a car and the driver didn’t realise he was there and took him halfway to Milton Keynes. We didn’t know the guy; the driver, I mean. J had broken into the car, somehow, in search of a bed. That was brilliant. Or so we thought. Or didn’t think. Just enjoyed it. It’s easy to reminisce about those times, because the pleasant or funny incidents push back the horrible stuff lurking at the periphery of each memory.

“Sometimes what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”

Jesus’ Son is referred to as a short story collection, but is more a series of connected episodes featuring a lot of the same people and places. The narrator, nicknamed Fuckhead [I hate that, by the way], is the one constant, and each episode is like a little adventure, something [something usually unpleasant] that he had been involved in or witnessed. The first story, which involves a guy catching a ride with a family, was one of my favourites. The car crashes and Fuckhead [I still can’t write that name out without cringing] ends up walking the road with a baby in his arms. There was something weirdly beautiful about it, something like what Ballard nailed in the best parts of Crash, which is to say those parts that don’t involve mucus. The structure is idiosyncratic – the timeline confused, the narration jumpy – so that one isn’t sure how much of what is being relayed to you is real. A kind of gritty surrealism. I thought that worked amazingly well; and Johnson’s writing is just great, full of heart and eye-catching imagery. I was pretty much convinced that I’d unearthed a masterpiece at this stage.

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But then I ran head-first into the second story, Two Men, and that is, to be frank, a fucking mess. In it a guy [we assume Fuckhead again] is at a party or gig or something and he has a gun, and he kisses and touches up this girl who has a boyfriend. Then he leaves and gets into his car with a couple of friends, and there’s this other guy in the backseat who he doesn’t know. This guy is a mute or pretending to be one; they drive him around a bit, to different houses, and the narrator sounds off about the boyfriend of the girl he was kissing and how he’s expecting some retribution. They somehow manage to lose the mute guy; but they spot this dealer who the narrator says sold him some dud stuff, so he waves the gun at him.

He drives off and they follow him in their car to his house. They push their way into the house and the narrator threatens the wife with the gun, insisting she give up her husband. But he has jumped out of the window and the climax of the story is a suggestion that they might, well, rape the wife. There’s so much wrong with all this that it’s hard to know where to start with critiquing it, but I was most irritated by the fact that Johnson didn’t seem to have any idea where he wanted the story to go. It’s simply an aimless night-crawl, a bunch of naff and random incidents. Even Tarantino would have turned up his nose. And, yeah, I know what the defence will be, that you can’t trust the narrator, that he might be lying or exaggerating or just too high to determine what is real and what is not. But I don’t care. Unreliable narrator or not, a story is still meant to be entertaining, and this one isn’t.

“And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”

After the second story I was going to ditch the book, it irritated me that much. I didn’t though, obviously, mostly due to the good will engendered by the one preceding it. The rest of Jesus’ Son thankfully does not plumb the depths of Two Men, nor, for the most part, reach the heights of the first episode; no, it settles down to a consistent good or very good. However, there is one real stand-out, the best of the bunch, which is called Emergency. In terms of plot, Fuckhead and Georgie work at the hospital, and a guy comes in with a knife through his eye. I won’t say any more than that as I don’t want to spoil it for first time readers, but for those who have read it: baby rabbits. Oh, and the graveyard. Johnson’s writing is wonderful in this one, full of humour and pathos; and the structure of the thing, with the pay-off of that last line, is perfect.

I’ve mentioned Johnson’s writing style more than once now, but it probably deserves even further discussion. I really liked it, in the main. It’s tough, but sentimental and sometimes beautiful, which, if you think about it, is kind of what it’s like to be out of your head on certain substances. However, I do think his writing is also occasionally too obvious or predictable. What I mean by that is that it often gives you exactly what you think you’re going to get from this sort of thing, which is to say a ‘classic’ American novel about lowlifes. It’s also sloppy in places, especially in terms of the imagery which sometimes doesn’t work; and the whole thing creaks a bit, like you can’t always lose yourself in it. At times, I was too aware that I was reading a book, that someone sat down and wrote this out on a typewriter or on paper, that it came from someone’s brain; for example, the end of Two Men, which is deliberately provocative, and the main character’s name [it just doesn’t feel authentic].

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ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND BY LEWIS CARROLL

I want, perhaps one last time, to write as I once did. To not punish myself, and punish you, with my words. Last week, I began a review in dialogue in which I meet adult Alice, old Alice, close to death, in a darkweb chatroom, knowing that it was so odd and unsettling that I would never publish it even if I finished it. I cannot continue to present you with flowers that smell like dirty feet. Yet it troubles me to put together sentences and make them stick. In Tokyo, I collapsed, and ever since I have been experiencing a ‘dropping’ sensation in my head. Momentarily, I feel as though I am falling, and, as in a real fall, I anticipate the end point as a sudden, devastating impact. I anticipate the impact, but do not experience it. It troubles me to attempt to think coherently, to pull together the loose threads of my mind. But I want, perhaps one last time, to force myself to do it, and produce the kind of review I once produced with ease.

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

I will write about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, because that is why you’re here. I will write about Alice as though I know her, as though she is the solid surface upon which I have fallen. I will call her Alice, although she denies the name and wishes that I would call her something else. She is easily bored, and possibly a little stupid. Certainly, she is impetuous and sometimes thoughtless. She follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole, remember. She drinks from strange bottles and eats strange things, without a great deal of consideration, without being sure that it is safe to do so. When talking to a mouse she cannot help but mention her cat, even though she understands that it frightens the poor creature. She often puts her foot in it, not out of malice, but rather out of carelessness. In person, she would be infuriating, to me at least, but in fiction she is charming, because she has a dreamy disposition and is not without obvious faults.

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Alice follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole and enters a world that is disconcerting to her. Within that world she is transformed; she becomes ungrounded, peculiar. She is the outsider there. The inhabitants, whom she thinks speak in riddles, question the turn and quality of her mind. Alice’s experiences in Wonderland are often compared to a dream, and they are dream-like in ways. She says so herself, in fact. As in the dream realm, the population and landscape of Wonderland isn’t unfamiliar, not completely so. Alice recognises the mouse and the bird, the door and the fire. It is more accurate to say that the familiar is distorted. The mouse speaks, for example. The dream realm isn’t another, or alien, world, it is a wax model of your world that has been placed too close to the fire. Yet there are signs, clear signs, frequent suggestions, that Wonderland isn’t part of the dream realm at all, but that Alice is more likely mad. Indeed, it is this way of interpreting the story that resonated with me, that moved me even.

The inhabitants, as far as Alice is concerned, speak in riddles, remember; their behaviour, moreover, strikes her as strange, unrelatable. This confuses and angers her and, in fact, makes her doubt herself. I feel that way all of the time, have done my whole life. Other people, the oppressive other, seem perfectly content and comfortable; they engage with each other successfully; and yet I cannot understand them. ‘We’re all mad here,’ the Cheshire Cat says, but isn’t it Alice who is mad, as she is the outlier? My concentration levels are poor these days, and I am unable to read carefully, but it seems to me that Carroll presents Alice, not as a young girl having weird yet harmless adventures, but as one who is unstable, as one who is, specifically, suffering from a crisis of identity. She is, to my mind, experiencing a fracturing of the self. Consider how we are told that she, in the ordinary world, pretends to be two people; she plays against herself, she admonishes herself. In Wonderland, the caterpillar asks her ‘who are you?’, to which she replies ‘I hardly know myself, sir.’

A GIRL ON THE SHORE BY INIO ASANO

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I had arranged to meet Georgina one evening, but she went drinking with her friend instead. I was relieved,</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>although I felt as though I should be indignant. I’m sorry, she said in her message to me, I know I have let you down,,, but I couldn’t say no. |I no longer lay awake at night and cry. Georgina came over not long after midnight ?? She apologised for her perfume.</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>*At what point did women’s bodies become boring to me</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Irene is 31 and a virgin. She had been concentrating on travelling and her career, she said. I met her in Nottingham, a city where once, years ago, I had been punched by a young man in a case of mistaken identity.     Irene is 31,</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The one thing I regret in my life is my lack of sexual experience, she told me. \\I feel as though I am living my life backwards</p>

<p style=”text-align: center;”>I am not always able to maintain an erection/.</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>i tell them i am drunk, but the truth is that i am bored</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Sophie wants to be my sex slave™  SPIT IN MY MOUTH</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>[I no longer cry at night]</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>It is not true to say that there is no end to this, there are countless endings,</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I once read books in order to escape my life and myself and to escape you. I once wrote as means of  ;</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I picked up A Girl on the Shore and looked at the pictures. At the arseholes, the dicks, the vaginas. And I thought about how, once upon a time, I was not<em> wading through filth</em></p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>A Girl on the Shore is not filth. It is, in fact, almost beautiful, almost moving in the way that it represents sex between the two main characters. I had: arranged to meet CarA in Manchester but she cancelled when she got her period.</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>       I do not cry</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The more sex I have the harder it becomes to remember a time when I truly enjoyed it</p>

<p style=”text-align: right;”>spit in my mouth</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Upon how many <strong>faces</strong> have I ejaculated?  Asano Inio > mangaka. It seems as though each of his major releases are significantly different in subject and tone. ] A Girl on the Shore is about a boy and girl</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I lay awake at night, my dick in my hand  “The girl is called Koume and the boy is called Isobe.” — Gulag of the soul — Koume was, perhaps, forced, but certainly coerced into sucking a guy’s dick, some guy that she likes, maybe, in some way […] They are young, at school ‘ – Koume and Isobe〈</p>

¶a rebel from the knees downwards

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Isobe likes Koume || he wants to kiss her, to be with her, as something like a boyfriend. Koume will not kiss, because kissing is intimate, unlike sucking dick. She is using Isobe, or gives that impression, which frustrates and upsets the boy ↵ She is using Isobe in order to feel better about herself  -</p>

I sometimes wonder why they fuck me % what are they doing it for, for pure enjoyment?

<p style=”text-align: right;”>That hardly seems likely.</p>

I do it because, well, what else is there to do

<p style=”text-align: center;”><strong>?</strong></p>

<p style=”text-align: left;”>I met Linxian Δ outside a bar, early afternoon</p>

<p style=”text-align: left;”>I ejaculated in her mouth an hour later. The next day, she messaged me to ask me if I thought she should shave her vagina and, fleetingly, I was moved</p>

<p style=”text-align: left;”>≤ I do not know why ≥</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>It is clear that Isobe and Koume do not understand themselves, do not understand their relationship. There is real charm in the way that they fuck, with innocent eagerness, as though it is new and exciting. There is an intimacy to it that I had forgotten existed, and which they do not recognise ↓ Arseholes, vaginas, mouths….these things have lost meaning for me ↑ I see them, I touch them, I taste them, I fuck them, but I don’t know them any more. I realise this only now, as I write.</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Years ago, I remember feeling honoured, as stupid as that sounds, to be allowed to slide my hand under the waistband of a woman’s underwear • Sometimes I would leave it there, enjoying the moment, not wanting to drive further down. [I felt chosen] [I feel nothing now]</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>There is a touching moment when Koume says of Isobe that he has the cutest face when he cums. They are two confused, lonely, hurting people, who don’t ever really talk to each other, except to needle and bicker. The way that they communicate, honestly, sweetly, is with their bodies =</p>

<p style=”text-align: center;”>I was touched</p>

+ fleetingly

They find themselves in sex; their awkwardness disappears and they let themselves go.

One understands that there is hope for them, maybe together, maybe apart

but Hope, <strong>nevertheless</strong>

<p style=”text-align: right;”>Yesterday I met Kimberley, who is studying law. She wants to have a good time.</p>

Koume’s family think that she is earnest and pure, and we are perhaps meant to snigger because, we, the readers, know that in reality she isn’t

⇒because she fucks and is fucked⇐

because Isobe fucks and eats her ass and asks her to shit in his mouth – (let’s not be coy)

But the sex in the book is the most earnest and pure I have encountered in literature

<p style=”text-align: center;”>     Did you</p>

<p style=”text-align: center;”>                                 have a good time, Kim</p>

<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I am not crying</p>

DOMU: A CHILD’S DREAM BY KATSUHIRO OTOMO

They often come to me from different towns or cities. I meet them at the train station, and on each occasion, as we exit, and start the climb towards one of the bars in the city centre, I turn my head and draw their attention to the Park Hill housing estate. I know I shouldn’t do it, but I do. The woman is not the same but this scene is; repeated I don’t know how many times now. Look, I say, and they look. And then I begin my explanation, which, by this stage, is almost scripted; and I’m boring them, I know; and I’m boring myself; but I can’t help it, as I am intensely moved. I didn’t grow up in Park Hill, but it was a place just like it; hard, raw and grey. The design of the buildings mirroring my experience. It’s pretty ugly, they say, or something of that sort. I don’t tell them that I feel ugly too, for this sort of thing formed me. I too am hard, grey concrete. For a while they stopped buses going up there, to the estate where I lived, because children would throw bricks at them. Where did they get such a supply of bricks? Were they stolen from the tower blocks themselves? In my mind I see little gutter kids sitting in the dirt, carefully removing bricks from the base of tall buildings. And in the next moment I see them toppling, in a perfectly choreographed, Twin Towers-like collapse.

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On the surface, Domu, by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, is a horror/murder mystery. At a large housing complex, the residents are dying – twenty-five in less than three years – in unusual circumstances. What appear to be suicides, murders and accidental deaths, are, the police think, somehow linked. The latest apparent suicide had, they note, no history of mental health problems and left no note. He also had no access to the key to the door leading to the roof, from which he flung himself, and the door itself showed no sign of being tampered with. At one stage, one of the detectives says that it is a ‘locked roof mystery,’ in a nod to the once popular locked room subgenre, of which Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room is a prime example. In the early parts of the manga, Otomo builds his puzzle carefully and expertly, leaving numerous clues and providing a number of possible theories. It could be that there is a serial killer in the housing complex who has a grudge against the residents. Or is that someone has a grievance with the complex itself, someone who was forced out when it was built perhaps? Or could it even be one of the children? Or a ghost or spirit of some kind?

After a while, however, although the ‘mystery’ remains important to the police, the truth is revealed to the reader and the story then becomes more about the housing complex itself. In fact, even from the beginning it dominates the book in a visual sense. It is a huge, brutalist structure, of the kind I grew up in. It is described as ‘really creepy’ by one character; while another says of it that it ‘goes on forever.’ It appears in almost every frame, often in the background, looming ominously behind the residents or the police. Having lived in something just like this, I understand how they function in the mind. It is a little world in itself, a world made up of often vulnerable people, a little world from which it feels impossible to escape. Wherever you are you can see it or you can feel its presence. One interesting thing that Otomo does as an artist is draw important scenes where the lens has panned out, so to speak, to show only the complex, and the speech therefore appears to be coming from the building itself, rather than the characters. It gives the impression of, not only its immensity, but of a community swallowed up by the complex. In this way, Otomo uses it a little like the Bates motel or the house in The Exorcist; it is not directly responsible for the crimes, but is, nevertheless, a symbol of evil.

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The truth of who is murdering the residents, and the police, is Cho, a senile old man with extraordinary powers. He can levitate, for example, and can move objects with his mind; but, most importantly, in terms of his crimes, he can influence people to do things, such as kill themselves and others. His nemesis is Eksuko, a little girl with similar, if not stronger, powers. The two engage in battle and this provides Domu with its thrilling climax, which is, as far as I am concerned, the best action sequence in manga. On this, my issue with Akira is that there is simply too much of that sort of thing, but here Otomo provides a perfect balance between action and character development and psychology. In any case, it is said that Cho was abandoned by his family, who simply moved out and left him. The murders are, therefore, part play, by a bored old geezer, and part revenge. When he makes someone kill themselves he needles them about their failures, about how awful their lives are. Like the housing complex, Cho could be said to have a symbolic function. He is the suffering, the hopelessness and the destructiveness of the residents. He is the bad spirit, energy or atmosphere.

GOGO MONSTER BY TAIYO MATSUMOTO

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.

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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.    Screen Shot 2018-11-19 at 21.35.01.jpg

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.

KIJIN GAHOU BY SHINTARO KAGO

We hadn’t even finished our first drinks. This is what I do now. I invite strangers back to my place. She invited herself, in fact. She thinks I have a cat. But the cat is dead. She doesn’t seem to notice. I guess she isn’t here for the cat. I’m wishing I had drank more, so I could feign impotence. She notices the books. It’s difficult not to notice the books. ‘Wow, you have a lot of books,’ she says. She wants me to show her the one I spoke about on the way home, which, I now realise, I mentioned in an effort to put her off. The disgusting one. She’s not unattractive, but I have done this too many times to find meaning in it. I’ll cover her in my scent, in my DNA, and then she’ll leave and never return. I collect these women now, in the same way I collected all those books, without ever really enjoying it. I’m surrounded on all sides by shaky towers. One day I’ll die under a book avalanche. ‘You must love reading,’ she says. I want to tell her I hate it. This, I think, with an imaginary sweeping gesture that encompasses her too, is not about love.

“Met her at my younger brother’s family barbecue. I punched a hole in her cheek with an iron spit. My cum was leaking out of it. Amusing.”

The disgusting book is Kijin Gahou, a collection of one-shots, or standalone short pieces, by mangaka Shintaro Kago. I don’t know who put it together. Does it exist because the author wanted it to or was it fan-made? I can’t imagine that any publisher saw it as an opportunity to make money. Or not a lot of money, anyway. There’s something so unsettling about parts of the collection – and one story in particular, which I will discuss in detail later – that the healthy, immediate response would be to suppress it, to hide it, to look away. But, then, the world isn’t a healthy place. So maybe this is the book we need right now, maybe it’s the book we deserve. Certainly, I feel as though I have reached a [low] point in my life where it is one of the few books that has any significance for me, that says something meaningful about how I see and experience the world.

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On the surface, ‘collecting’ is what ties together many of the stories. In fact, the opener is actually called The Collector. It features a girl who is so in love with a boy that she wants to keep and catalogue everything he comes into contact with. It’s one of the strongest entries in Kijin Gahou, for the way that it unfolds with a satisfying, gruesome logic. If the girl wants the pencil that the boy touches, simply because he touched it, then it seems to naturally follow that she would want the skin of the people he touches too. I’m starting to realise that this is something of a Kago trademark, which is to say that he takes fairly banal or commonplace situations or phenomena and draws them out to an absurd, but still logical conclusion. While The Collector is, of course, about the act of collecting things, the author’s real focus is on the psychology behind it. The obsession and madness, I mean; and the strange – to me – desire to own something that once belonged, or was touched, by someone notable, often someone you admire. I have never understood how an object can become significant purely by virtue of having passed through the hands of another human being, but then I have always been unsentimental.

The most distressing, the most notorious, and the best, story is Suck It. Immediately after finishing Suck It I did not want to think about, discuss, or write about it. It affected me that profoundly. Yet even while I was reading it I knew that it had an incredible power, and that it was important in some way, even though I simultaneously hated it for what it was doing to me. It is concerned with a man who wants to photograph women giving him oral sex. For the most part, all that we see are the photographs themselves, with a short comment by the photographer. At first, the pictures are fairly standard, but they quickly increase in extremity and depravity. One way in which Suck It is so disturbing is that it makes you feel complicit, or made me, and perhaps most men who read it, feel that way. Having a dick, and having taken many a photograph and video of this sort myself, I could not help but put myself, my dick, in the situations I was observing. It was, in a sense, my dick that was being sucked; and that is the genius of Kago’s choice, of presenting us with the photographs, rather than a traditional narrative.

Suck It has many notable, and disconcerting, things to say about male sexual psychology. One gets the sense that the man is more interested in the image than he is in the blowjobs themselves, that he is, in other words, more concerned about his project than his pleasure; or, perhaps more accurately, it is the case that working on the project increases his pleasure. It is the desire to try something new, to get a different kind of picture, that appears to motivate him. ‘If you get down to it,’ he comments early on, ‘all faces look pretty similar’; and he then endeavours to make then look as different as possible. I have had many discussions over the years with men who want to fuck a range of women, simply to be able to say they have done it. Like a fat girl, for example, or someone of a race or nationality other than their own. It is a sort of competition with oneself, a kind of cataloguing of the opposite sex. The pleasure gained from these experiences is not from the acts themselves, or not primarily, it is in the accomplishment of a goal, in ticking a box. Maybe it is the case that women do this too; I’m certain that some do, at least; but it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent and toxic.

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I’ve read a lot of ero guro, both in terms of conventional literature and manga, and it is undeniable that much of it verges on, or just is, misogynistic; and, if one glanced at his work, one could accuse Kago of it too. Indeed, almost every story in Kijin Gahou involves sexual, or sexualised, violence against women. There are, for example, images of breasts being cut off, and of a woman sucking dick while having a hole drilled in her head, to name but two of many. However, the further I progressed through the book the more convinced I became of the author’s warmth and empathy towards women. In fact, he seems to focus on issues affecting women far more often than those affecting men, such as abortion in Fetus Collection. The young woman at the centre of the story is ‘filled with inertia.’ She has regular unprotected sex, she says, ‘to please and to avoid seeming unappreciative.’ The sad image accompanying this statement is of her vagina, with semen dribbling pathetically out of it. She then states that ‘the value of my existence is defined by the sexual desire of men.’ In any context I would find this thrilling, this subtle fuck you to all the guys who sulk and bitch if a woman won’t accept their cum, but in male-authored ero guro it strikes me as almost unprecedented.

PANORAMA OF HELL BY HIDESHI HINO

I could feel the needle enter my vein; painless, but cold and invasive, like running your tongue along chilled glass. It had taken me an hour to work myself up to it, to convince myself to go through with it, to allow this woman to take my blood. Yet I felt as though it wasn’t only mine she was taking, but every drop I had ever seen spilled. As she filled her little containers, my head was similarly filled with memories and moments. I saw myself as a child, dispassionately watching the red pool form in my brother’s cupped hands. I saw a trail, from the gates of my school, where some kid’s nose must have been broken, to the house where he apparently lived; following it in my mind like breadcrumbs. I saw a mother grab the hair of a boy her son was fighting, pushing his head down to allow her son to kick him in the face; the boy’s pink spittle dribbling onto the concrete. For almost half of my life I lived under a dull red sun which bathed the world in crimson light. So much violence and madness, I thought it would never stop.

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When I began to show a serious interest in manga I anticipated that I would turn up a lot of what I will inelegantly call ‘extremely weird shit.’ Yet it hasn’t really been the case, and hours of searching dedicated message boards and websites has been largely fruitless also. There is horror, plenty of it, and some is very impressive, such as Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, but that’s not really what I had been hoping for. The Ero Guro, or Erotic Grotesque, genre promised to satisfy my inclinations, but, aside from Shintaro Kago and Suehiro Maruo, I haven’t come across much of that either. Recently, however, I discovered Hideshi Hino’s Panarama of Hell. With my limited knowledge, I would place it somewhere between the Ero Guro and horror manga that I have read so far. Unlike Ito, I don’t believe that it was Hino’s intention, or not the primary one, to scare his audience, although there are supernatural elements to the events outlined within his work. On the other hand, it is grotesque, but without an emphasis on the erotic. Moreover, the style – which is actually my least favourite part about it – is not what I would want, nor expect, from Ero Guro either, being cute, almost charming, in a Tim Burton kind of way, which negatively impacts upon the intensity of the narrative.

The plot, what little of it there is, centres on a painter who may or may not live in hell. The man talks openly to the audience, explaining that he creates ‘hell paintings’ and that he is currently at work on his biggest and most important project, ‘The Panorama of Hell’, which will be a ‘breakthrough in technique’ and will depict ‘the end.’ He then spends the majority of the rest of the book exhibiting and detailing these hell paintings, including The Guillotine, The Bottomless River of Hell and so on. It is through the paintings that one gets a sense of his personality, situation, and past. I said recently, to the unfortunate few whose ears I have, that the book reminds me most of Maldoror. There is a similar theatricality to the central characters’ misdeeds and personas; they both revel in their evilness, in gore and pain. For example, the painter declares that ‘the sight of fresh corpses broiling is remarkable.’ This sort of thing clearly amuses and excites him, in the same way that Maldoror enjoys slicing up children. Indeed, he actually paints using blood, which he describes as the most beautiful thing in the world; and Hino’s most unpleasant images involve the man vomiting up blood and cutting and bleeding himself.

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Yet, the further you progress through the book, the more his statement that ‘the overpowering odour of blood always surrounds me’ takes on a more subtle, deeper, even moving significance. I stated previously that it is through his paintings that one comes to know the man, but it is when he tells the stories of his family – his grandfather, father and brother specifically – that most is revealed. All three of these men were brutal and violent, all damaged and destructive. Big drinkers, they beat their wives, their acquaintances and their children. In this way, Panorama of Hell is a portrait of how the sins of each generation can be passed on, about cycles of violence, and how your upbringing can harm and mould you. It’s particularly interesting how the other men are strong and overpowering but the painter is weak and, well, morbid. He is still disgusting, no doubt, but strangely sympathetic at times. He says at one stage that ‘I’ve seen images of hell since I was in my mother’s womb,’ and is born holding blood clots in each hand, and this resonated with me, affected me emotionally, perhaps more than it ought to have.