Every day from nine to six, a salaryman sits on a park bench. Unable to tell his wife he’s lost his job, the man boards the same train he has boarded for thirty years, bento box in hand. At noon each day he unwraps the box and slowly, in great contemplation, chews each bite.
I called him Necktie.
That simple declaration introduces the salaryman and this slim, potent book by Milena Michiko Flašar.
Necktie’s life has intersected the life of the narrator, a young man who has stepped off the treadmill. Think of a Japanese Holden Caulfield.
The technical term is hikikomori – youths who have made a drastic move to isolate themselves in their homes, often to the point of never leaving their bedrooms. Strange as it sounds, this phenomenon doesn’t shock me. Japan puts immense pressure on its children and teens to conform, so it makes sense to pair those expectations and neurosis. Kinda like Gymnastics and anorexia.
This hikikomori’s narrative – unnamed Taguchi Hiro until page 29 – proceeds in careful, measured steps. We’re led into his constricted world with short chapters and cramped, Spartan formatting. At first blush I wondered if the chapterlets and dropped quotation marks were a bit of a stunt. But as I waded deeper into the meticulous language, I read the form as an outreach of Hiro’s mind. Every breath he takes is counting towards something – either his imminent, human demise or reintegration into the world.
How come you’re so different, I asked once, as we sat in the shade of a pine tree. Yukiko’s answer, a sentence learned by heart: Because I fell from a star.
From a star? I held my breath.
In the absence of quotation marks, the separation between Hiro’s inner monologue and his speech blurs into feeling. And it’s the feeling that is so essential to Hiro’s journey. In order to understand what drove him to choose his isolation and what holds the pair in their agonizing stases, you must sit quietly with them.
In the beginning you want to shout at Hiro, “Just finish your schooling!” Later, when you catch glimpses of the horrible lives his parents must be living – they cannot abide the stigma of a hikikomori, so they themselves have to invent lies to neighbors and limit their contacts – the feeling becomes more acute. You want to yell at Necktie, “Just tell your wife already!”
But in sitting with Hiro and Necktie, you come to share the depths of their feelings. Their painful escape acts have a beautiful Waiting for Godot quality to them. The reader patiently waits for Hiro to break his two year silence, and by the time secrets start spilling, you almost want to whisper to the two of them “No, don’t move. Isn’t it nice where we are?” And all this while you yearn for the resolutions: Will they rejoin the world? Will they jump into traffic, like a friend of Hiro’s does in the beginning of the book?
Necktie is an exploration of community as much as it’s one of isolation. Milena Michiko Flašar writes with a deft hand and spare, clear strokes. She circles a line of thought until you almost get lost in the meditative prose, then occasionally needles in on the pulsating vein. In one instance, when relating the tale of the Miyajimas – a poor family who had come to tragedy and ruin – you realize that, like Hiro, Flašar is making you bear witness to that subtle, trained reflex of societal guilt. But just when you start wondering exactly why you need to see it, she guides you to the answer.
There was hardly another word about the Miyajimas. According to what was known, and not much was known, not much anyone wanted to know, they moved into the lower part of town, burdened with debt, and no one would have been surprised to catch sight of them under a blue tarpaulin in of the parks in S. Yes, someone would have liked to be able to say that someone had seen them there. It would have been a reassuring horror story. To be able to say: They have hit rock bottom. And since the horror should not be allowed to fade, people said, without really knowing: No doubt about it. Even if they are not quite there. Some day they will hit rock bottom.
Everyone knows the consequences of being different, the rules that accept one person and purge another. But from Hiro’s distance, the ability to back up past No doubt about it, he can see the reinforcement mechanism and the perverse validation the community feels in the culling.
Flašar’s reverence for the contemplative life is evident in many of the book’s little corners. Even on the sentence level there’s a quiet austerity, one that keeps the men’s inner turmoil under a kind of cosmic serenity.
The act of question – listen is paramount here, a prize unto itself.
Hiro has listened. And in that great act of listening, has paid a price and gained an enlightenment.
There aren’t many more questions central to humanity than the ones of self discovery. Flašar has hooked a whale here, and in contemplating how to release the thing, she’s not only given us an insight into the adolescent mind but revealed some wisdom everyone could use.
We are unfree, all of us. Only, that does not absolve us of responsibility…. We must, every one of us, relate to one another.
Climbing through the everyday is noisy. It’s easy to foot-plant to whichever drumbeat is loudest in your ears. How to find the quiet, the space to consider one’s own life and the lives orbiting far and near? Sitting zazen with the Zen Buddists? Quietly with the Quakers?
I’ll end with my favorite quote from Necktie. At the ceremony of an arranged marriage, the match-maker (a nasty woman) wishes the young bride, Kyōko, well:
May your happiness be everlasting! Kyōko thanked her with an innocent laugh: What is everlasting? We are fireworks. Glowing bright and fading, we scatter sparks that soon die out.
I Called Him Necktie came out in German in 2012 and won the 2012 Austrian Alpha Literature Prize. The English translation, by Sheila Dickie, was published this September 9th by New Vessel Press, a new publisher specializing in translations.
And you, Dear Reader, what’s your source of quiet?