Review: Kiss Me First, by Lottie Moggach

kiss-me-first-978144723319001>>Published: July 2013

The idea, in a nutshell, was this: The woman—Tess—would inform her family and friends that she intended to move abroad to start a new life in some distant, inaccessible place. She would hand over to me all the information I would need to convincingly impersonate her online, from passwords to biographical information. Then, on the day of her “flight,” she would disappear somewhere and dispose of herself in a discreet manner, handing the reins of her life over to me. From then on I would assume her identity, answering e-mails, operating her Facebook page, and so forth, leaving her loved ones none the wiser that she was no longer alive. In this way, I would help facilitate her wish: to kill herself without causing pain to her friends and family, to slip away from the world unnoticed.

“Naturally, your immediate concern will be whether she is of sound mind,” said Adrian. “Well, I’ve known Tess for a while now, and I can assure you she knows exactly what she’s doing. Is she a colorful character? Yes. Crazy? Absolutely not.”

After that reassurance, my thoughts then turned to practical matters. As long as I had the relevant information to hand, I thought, the logistics of imitating this woman online seemed fairly straightforward: answering the odd e-mail, a few status updates a week. Adrian told me the woman was quite old, in her late thirties; hopefully that meant she wouldn’t even write in text-speak.

Rather, my worries were about the premise and the conclusion of the operation. Was this “new life abroad” a plausible move for Tess in the first place? And, vitally, how long would the project last? After all, I couldn’t impersonate this woman indefinitely.

***

The debate over legalized/assisted suicide is a touchy subject, as much now as it was when Jack Kevorkian was first given the label “Dr. Death.” More than likely we’ll never find a suitable middle ground between the two extremes—those on one end promoting the sanctity of life (no matter how agonizing an individual’s situation), and those campaigning for an individual’s legal right to choose, if they so desire, the time, place, and method of their self-disposal, and whether or not they need help to make it all a reality.

Lottie Moggach’s first novel, Kiss Me First, introduces us to two women: the mid-twenties shut-in and World of Warcraft-obsessed Leila, and the almost-forty, severely bipolar Tess. The two women were introduced to one another by a third party—the enigmatic, smooth-talking, manipulative, libertarian-cum-objectivist (and Ayn Rand worshipper) Adrian Dervish. Adrian is the owner and operator of the website The Red Pill, “an oasis of reason, a forum for intellectual inquiry…” The website takes its name from the film The Matrix—from the pill Neo (Keanu Reeves) takes to pull back the curtain of his own isolationist reality and expose his mind to the truth of his surroundings. The site’s name is a targeted attack aimed at nerd stereotypes—those for whom the world outside of their computer monitors is uninteresting and void of worthwhile interactions. These are Adrian’s freedom thinkers—minds he knows, due to their limited social awareness, will be easily swayed by Philosophy 101 ideas and discussions that make every one of them feel superior in some way to the sheep grazing just outside their carefully walled garden.

Following her mother’s death from complications resulting from Multiple Sclerosis, Leila finds solace in The Red Pill’s community and quickly rises to the top of the “intellectual” pile. Her posts catch Adrian’s attention, and after some time he comes to her with a proposal: to help a young woman who’s lost her will to live—to help this young woman calmly, quietly end her life in a way that will prevent any caring, loving party from ever being the wiser. Why? Supposedly to prevent her family and friends the pain of learning of their daughter’s/friend’s/lover’s demise and to instead make them think as if she’s simply cut all ties in an effort to find herself… a play that seems almost as cold, if not colder than allowing them to think it was simply suicide, as it points the finger less at this woman’s inner pain and more at the people in her life, as if to say “it’s not me, it’s you.”

This, of course, is Tess—traditionally described bombshell exterior, malignant, troubled, exhausted interior, desperate for a way to put an end to her up-and-down existence, which has worn away her resolve.

The plan? For Leila to learn and absorb every salient detail of Tess’s life—from family events, relationships, and her youth, to more private details like random sexual encounters, drug use, and arguments and dissolved friendships. For several weeks Leila interviewed Tess about her life, down to her most secreted away moments, charting all of it like points on a map so that, following Tess’s “checkout” on April 14th, Leila could then assume Tess’s identity in order to falsely prolong her life while the genuine artefact finds a discreet opportunity and method through which to end her emotionally pained existence.

Of course, not everything goes as planned.

Kiss Me First is a first-hand account written after the fact as Leila is reflecting upon her time as Tess’s surrogate—time spent crafting a life as if she were piecing together an online avatar for a game. What’s clear from the outset is that the truth of Leila’s actions have been revealed, as has Adrian’s culpability as the leader of an Internet suicide cult responsible for synching gullible shut-ins with people who wish (or think they wish) to end their lives—people with significant money to be given to Adrian prior to their “checkout”. Following rather icy conversations with some of the more important people in Tess’s life (and the police), Leila embarks on a journey to trace Tess’s final days in hopes of putting a grace note on the whole ordeal, so that she and others can move on from this mess.

What else is clear from the outset? Leila is not a likable character. Nor, for that matter, is she a relatable one. In fact, this brings up the single largest problem I had with Kiss Me First: there is not one truly likeable character in the entire book—not Jonty, the annoying if-I-knew-him-I-would-kill-him-myself roommate; not Tess, whose decision to end her life in a way that would supposedly spare her loved ones pain is actually more selfish and destructive than if she had simply put a gun in her mouth; not Connor, the former lover with secrets all his own (again, selfish to the core); and most certainly not Adrian, whose modus operandi is to prey on those who rely on the simplest of online interactions to feel as if they have something worth living for.

Leila, however, is the most difficult to like—problematic, since she’s our main point of entry into this whole sordid affair. As a character, she’s horribly uneven. Due to her mom’s struggle with MS, Leila was forced to grow up a bit quicker than most. This affords her a certain amount of sympathy, but her later interactions show a dichotomy that never feels resolved: she has clear issues with social interaction (evidenced by the rather blunt, unfriendly manner in which she sifts through potential roommates), yet she knows all the questions she needs to ask Tess in order to provide a close approximation of her identity; she has a critical mind, but is easily taken in by Adrian’s soft-spoken platitudes; she is seemingly aware of her difficulties engaging with real-life humans and approaches such things from a moderately analytical point of view, yet she becomes twisted and obsessed with Connor with so little precursor.

It’s that last part that gave me the greatest difficulty—while impersonating Tess, former-flame Connor sweeps in via email, attempts to re-ignite in Tess the love they once shared, and Leila is so quickly taken by his charm (unwarranted, given the lecherous dickwad that he is) that she begins to see herself as being responsible for what he claims he feels for her: “It was only through the e-mail exchanges, my words, that he fell for her again. It was me who had created that love. Me.” And (spoiler alert) when Leila reveals to Connor the truth, that Tess has killed herself and it’s her he’s been corresponding with, she immediately asks him out, and is then put off by his very justifiable anger and revulsion. As much of a cad as Connor is, his reaction in this scene is believable and earned; it’s far easier to sympathize with him than with Leila, who appears to have imbibed in her very own special blend of Kool-Aid. The sensation reading this part was gross and unnerving—deliberate, I’m sure, but unpleasant all the same.

More than just actions, Leila’s dichotomous behaviour is further brought to light by her uneven tone and diction. At times, Leila feels her young, still impressionable age. However, her language and internal monologue are frequently erudite in ways that feel not necessarily mature for her age (she’s not), but manicured by, well, a novelist’s hands, turning her into an unrealistically objective and well-spoken ideal that is at odds with her presentation as someone almost completely detached from reality and the impact her decisions have had/will have on others.

Moggach’s writing is straight and narrow; there’s little colour and emotion in Leila’s world, save anger (from Connor and Tess’s mother) and the discomfort that comes, as a reader, from waiting for this rickety house of lies to cave in on itself. The novel is a quick read, but does little to paint the world with anything but flat hues.

Yet… it’s difficult to criticize the novel for this, because, as previously mentioned, it’s Leila who guides us through this world. Leila, who is flat, and grey, and missing that extra little bit of humanity that tells her how to read people’s emotions and tailor her reactions accordingly. It’s Leila who is uncertain how to trust, how to socialize, how to express interest in another person as herself and not through the skin and experience of an avatar—even if said avatar was once a real-life, flesh-and-blood person. Her gamification of the world is unpleasant, but necessary for the character—someone whose imagination is limited by her already enclosed, often difficult emotional journey.

The growth Leila does experience comes not from gaining a better understanding of the world, or even who she is and whether or not what she’s done is on some level right, or completely, deplorably wrong, but from learning that it is possible to trust people, and that forgiveness is not given but earned—and sometimes it is altogether impossible. The ambiguity that ends the novel is its strongest element, because the details of Tess’s death or disappearance do not matter, nor does it matter that Leila does not receive the emotional closure she desires. What matters is that when all is cleared away, Leila has not necessarily done what she feels is right, but what she knows objectively to be right, and in doing so, by attempting to mend gulfs she herself has either created or exaggerated, she has earned both her freedom and Tess’s.

My experience with Kiss Me First was noticeably uneven. The novel is a perfect example of something being more interesting than it is enjoyable; while the story itself was compelling and kept me turning pages until the very end, the detestable nature of almost every character (save for Annie, the kindly woman from Connecticut Leila meets while following Tess’s cold trail) did its best to keep me from ever wanting to get too close to the narrative, preferring to view its outcome from a place of emotional reserve.

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Review: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

16131077>>Published: June 2013

>>Finally got around to it: July 2013

She has time to yelp in surprise as a man steps out from the shrubs, grabs her arm and swings her to the ground with quick and incontestable force. She wrenches her wrist as she automatically sticks it out to catch herself. Her knee hammers into a rock so hard that her vision goes briefly white. When it clears, it’s to see Tokyo lying heaving on his side in the bushes.

Someone has wrapped a wire coathanger round his neck so that it cuts into his throat, leaving the fur around it soaked with blood. He’s twisting his head, squirming his shoulders, trying to get away, because the wire is looped to a branch sticking out of a fallen tree. Every time he moves, it cuts in deeper. The hacking sound is him trying to bark with his vocal cords severed. At something behind her.

She forces herself up on to her elbows, in time for the man to swing the crutch into her face. The impact shatters her cheekbone in an explosion of pain that arcs through her skull. She crumples onto the damp earth. And then he’s on top of her, his knee in her back. She writes and kicks under him, as he wrests her arms behind her, grunting while he wires her wrists together. “Fuckyougetoffme” she spits into the mulch of dirt and leaves. It tastes of damply rotting things, soft and gritty between her teeth.

He rolls her over roughly, panting through his teeth and rams the tennis ball into her mouth before she can scream, splitting her lip and chipping a tooth. It compresses as it goes in, expands to force her jaw open. She chokes on the taste of rubber and dog spit and blood. She tries to push it out with her tongue only to encounter a shard of enamel from a broken tooth. She gags at this piece of her skull in her mouth. The vision in her left eye has gone hazy and purple. Her cheek bone, pushing up against the socket. But everything is contracting anyway.

***

Harper Curtis both admires and despises women. He wants to meet them as children, watch them grow up, grow into the incredible potential he sees in their futures. He then wants to extinguish those futures, one by one slashing and carving away the inside light from each of his shining girls. With the key to “the House,” Harper is able to step out of 1929 Chicago and into any time he wants, until 1993 (for reasons I won’t explain for fear of spoiling the ending) hunting his girls across generations—murdering, with extreme prejudice, strong, independent women for whom the world and opportunity is waiting.

Kirby Mazrachi is one of these shining girls, existing both with and without a future. On March 23, 1989, Harper attempted to kill her and failed. Three years later, working together with Dan Velasquez, a former homicide reporter (currently working the sports beat) with the Chicago Sun-Times, Kirby begins an investigation into the grisly details of her own near-death experience, as well as the deaths of many other women in the Chicago area, across an unbelievable number of years—unbelievable, anyway, for one ordinary man to be responsible for. Impossible anachronisms slowly reveal themselves in the gifts Harper exchanges at each scene—e.g. a baseball card left by a body almost a decade before it could have possibly existed—leading Kirby to conclusions she herself finds difficult to imagine, but impossible to ignore.

The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes’ fourth book, is a breathless mindfuck from the very first page until the very last, one that plays with an existing and overused conceit—time travel—in surprisingly new, thrilling, and very fun ways. The novel is also a surprisingly well-crafted character exercise that captures the look and feel of several unique epochs without ever having to force-feed the reader too much scene-setting information.

Kirby is the heart and soul of the book. She’s smart, determined, and quick with the insults. She’s been displaced not in time, but by time—by Harper’s failed attempt at murder. Though she is not dead, she is unable move on with her life until the mystery of her attacker is solved. In essence, Kirby has become unstuck in her life because of a man somehow unstuck in time. This displacement develops within Kirby a sharp divide between the harshness she’s willing to put out for the world to see, and the vulnerability she shows only to Dan. Not even her own mother, an aging hippie who spends her days painting and giving false names to birds, understands Kirby’s need to discover, if not understand, the man behind her attack and his strange existence.

Though the story is Kirby’s, Beukes gives careful consideration to detailing the lives of all of Harper’s victims—giving them pasts, presents, and glimpses of futures brimming with purpose, but instead lost and cut short by tragedy. Each chapter tracking another victim in another time reads like a complete short story with a beginning, middle, and an end; the other victims each have their own identifiably unique voices and internal monologues, and Beukes meticulously—but not overwhelmingly so—fills their worlds with markers of the time, from the Depression to World War II, McCarthyism, and the hippie and feminist movements of the 1970s, and elements of pop culture from the ’80s and ’90s.

Harper is given almost as much page time as Kirby. His tone and mannerisms are believably malignant without his reasons ever becoming expressly clear. Beukes seemingly didn’t feel the need to give Harper a proper origin story, or detail the methods to his madness. Instead, he is what he is: a man whose brain has become warped beyond repair, listening to voices inside his head, constructing plans of attack with obsessive-compulsive ambition. Similarly, the House simply exists—a dilapidated tenement on the outside, quite striking within. In a time—Depression-era Chicago—when homes are being foreclosed upon and boarded up on a regular basis, Harper unexpectedly kills his way to a key that affords him a new purpose in life. If Harper stands limping as an affront to women’s progress (somewhat represented in how he reacts to being drugged and his “kindness” taken advantage of by nurse Etta), the House follows suit as a symbol of a past best forgotten. Incidentally, Harper is unfazed by his ability to travel through time—like the names of his shining girls and how they have inexplicably come to him, in his own handwriting, it is simply meant to be, proving that an insane man’s purpose can override all reality, no matter how questionable or thinly stretched.

So why doesn’t he kill his shining girls when he first meets them as children? Because it’s their potential he hates and fears, not the women themselves. More than that, it’s potential that is capitalized upon that brings out Harper’s need to kill. This is exemplified when he turns on himself for killing a junkie artist who no longer shined as bright as she once had. He’s almost disappointed she didn’t live up to her potential, which positions him as being truly divided: wanting the women to thrive, but wanting them to also know their success is undeserved. He’s at once strangely fatherly and murderously anathema to the feminist movement, resenting women who’ve had the opportunity his life until this point lacked. The “circle” Harper refers to needing to close is also not directly explained, however it is representative of the larger picture: of violence begetting violence, reverberating through generations, affecting both children and parents for years to come.

The moment-to-moment writing is as fire-tongued as the plot. The banter between Kirby and Dan is almost always amusing, and their emotional journey together (as Dan’s paternal instincts slowly become something more, something he tries his hardest to fight against) is sweet, its outcome earned. On the other end of the spectrum, Kirby’s attack is so disgustingly, artfully rendered as to be effectively nauseating. It’s a late in the novel break-in scene, however, that, over just a couple of pages, shocked me with how much it was able to say without actually saying anything definitive. The illustrative work is impressive and economical.

The science and/or explanation behind the House’s capabilities and Harper’s beginnings aren’t what matter. Rather, it’s what Beukes is able to do within a specific, oft-employed framework, twisting the knife in distressing ways while not being hindered by the need to wrap everything up in a neat, 100 percent paradox-free bow. Great joy comes from seeing how details and events in one timeline and from one perspective match up later on, and the anachronistic tchotchkes add a fun mystery-puzzle element to the proceedings, but it’s the character work and how successful Beukes is in making us care for Kirby and wanting her to get to the bottom of her near-death experience that propels this semi-non linear story towards its heart-stopping, visually heavy conclusion. The Shining Girls is a book of large ideas and intimate conversations masterfully executed.

Review: Fiend, by Peter Stenson

9780770436315>>Published: July 2013

I’m holding on to Typewriter’s arm and we’re running down the stairs. We’re outside and the sun is about to set behind the small river valley of St. Paul and we’re not alone anymore—the streets have started to fill with what looks like the usual haggard motherfuckers of tame Midwestern ghettos—and we get in Typewriter’s Civic and they are coming toward us, these people, these walking dead motherfuckers, all of them probably having reanimated and broken down their doors, and we’re driving away from them all.

I tell Typewriter to give me what he’s holding.

He starts with some shit about not knowing what I’m talking about. I pound the dash. I say, Give me your shit.

He reaches into his pocket.

It’s a decent-sized thirty rock.

I pull the pipe from my pocket. I put the whole piece in the bowl. My hands shake. They’re stained black from Svetlana’s blood or maybe that’s mine and the lighter won’t catch. I just want a hit, that’s all I want, like everything—survival and death and being one of the few still alive—doesn’t matter, not really, the stem shaking in my mouth, my breath held. Finally the flame stays. I drag. It’s the smell of burning plastic and chemicals, of being sixteen and wanting to be rad like the kids I skated with, of wanting to fit in behind the dumpster at Burger King, of fear, of not knowing what I was smoking, of my lungs rebelling against poison, and then the release, clear smoke expelled with a sigh like pissing in a pool.

My head becomes lighter, my shoulders released from the vise grip of being me sober.

It’s okay then, everything.

***

Peter Stenson’s Fiend accomplished something I thought near impossible: it made me give a shit about a zombie story. To be clear, I’ve been tired of the overwhelming and overdone zombie “genre” since before it was even close to the cultural phenomenon it is at this very moment. As a supernatural creature, the shambling undead has always bored me—even the best stories feature different takes on fighting off a horde of melancholic drunks (or speed freaks, as was the case with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake) who just wanna get their bite on. The more interesting takes—the ones with something to say—are the ones that push the zombies to the background, using an apocalyptic setting to tell a narrative of human survival, and how the presence of one demon will inevitably bring out the demon in all of us. In many of those cases, any sort of apocalyptic setting will do—zombies are just the thing to push people from one place to another with as many shotguns as they can carry. Thankfully, and unexpectedly, Fiend manages to distance itself from these expectations just enough to feel fresh.

Beginning in medias res, Fiend follows Minnesota junkies Chase Daniels and his best friend John (Typewriter) as they come out the ass-end of a multi-day meth marathon and into the middle of a burgeoning zombie outbreak. One dead dog and a little girl smashed to death with a typewriter later and the two are on a dead sprint to get away from the sudden chaos that surrounds them, and to discover what the hell has happened to their world—and perhaps more importantly, why it didn’t happen to them. Along the way they’ll pull a Shaun of the Dead and rescue Chase’s is-she-or-isn’t-she girlfriend KK, hook up with The Albino—the greatest meth cook in Minnesota—and take shelter in, of all things, a prison.

Fiend takes place over a single week, leaving little room to breathe. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the novel’s opening chapter, which clips along at a relentless, horrifying pace that feels a little like Trainspotting beneath the filter of an extended apocalypse hallucination. The sense of chaos is genuine, and about as easily digestible as a quarter-sized pill caught in one’s throat; by the end of just that first day, it’s remarkable—believably so—that Chase and Typewriter are still alive (when by all rights of god and Darwinism they should have been among the first to die in any true crisis scenario). Propulsive is overused to describe writing like this, but it fits.

It’s the small touches that give Fiend its more unnerving edge: the telltale “giggle” of nearby zombies, the flashbacks to the psych ward where Chase and KK first met and fell in love and their reasons for being there, the gradual dissolution of trust among the survivors. The membrane stretching across all this, however, is the unlikely but interesting conceit that it’s meth, of all things, that keeps them safe from whatever it is that’s turning people into zombies in the first place. The survivors turn to rationing meth like most would food, but with the added “oh shit” factor of addiction increasing demand of a substance already in extremely limited supply, which leads to reckless missions like operation “Get Sudafed” while they contemplate their future meth-utopia, where daily use is encouraged—nay, essential for survival.

The metaphor at the heart of Fiend is painted in broad strokes: it’s about addicts tearing down the lives around them—the lives of family members, friends, and society at large. It’s about pushing away from those suffering most due to their son/daughter/loved one’s self-destructive need. Nevertheless, the metaphor works because Stenson is willing to invert the world—to show how they’ve learned to survive when the world around them has gone to shit, because literally everyone still human, including a random trucker met early in the narrative, is a user in some way, shape, or form. It’s the users who know what’s best—everyone else had it wrong.

Stenson writes from a place of authority. A recovering addict himself, he’s been sober for ten years. Fiend feels in many ways like an attempt to convey, through an established and currently easy to chew genre, what it’s like to be in the thick of using, to literally see the world around you as something to be fought against, as something that doesn’t want you to live as you want to live, free from oppressive legal and loving hands that might try to take away what it is that makes the pain go away.

The novel is at its most disarming near the end, when following the most unattractive sex scene in the history of unattractive sex scenes (deliberately so, I imagine), Chase comes to the realization that this is it for society—that they’re the last of the last, smatterings of junkies here and there that cannot create life but can merely prolong death:

Then I think about having to shoot my newborn up with drugs and this seems like the saddest fucking thought ever. Not so much abusing my baby. But that we’re done as a species. There’s no way to reproduce. No way to ensure our offspring make it out of the womb and no way to cultivate their minds and bodies. Even if there is some sort of cure, we’ll still have to shoot crystal every day. A baby couldn’t take that. So we’re it. Pockets of motherfucking junkies around the state. Around the country. Probably other countries too. All of us hunkered down wondering how much longer until the next thing goes wrong. Until we’re out of ephedrine to break down, or ammonia, or HCl. Until the power grid fails. Until we can’t stand our lives and slit our fucking wrists. We’re it.

No two ways around it: Fiend is a depressing fucking book, but an exciting, interesting, and surprisingly well crafted character piece on top of all that. Stenson’s mid-apocalyptic exercise does enough to turn the genre’s clichés on their head so as to remain captivating until its terrific, soul destroying ending, which slips the sober reality of the situation like a knife between Chase’s ribs, twisting the metaphor to its logical, necessary end.

Review: Bødy, by Asa Nonami

c23867>>Published: December 2012

>>Finally got around to it: July 2013

The glass was stuck deep in the palm of his hand. Crimson blood spurted out of the gash and dripped down the sparkling, jagged glass. The beer glass had broken and gouged into Fumiya’s palm. Coming to his senses, Kazuya pulled away breathlessly, in shock.

My blood. My red… red blood. My Blood.

So intoxicated was Fumiya by its brilliance and beauty, he slowly got to his feet and turned his back on the others. The glass seemed to be stuck rather deeply. It glittered as the blood continued to drip from the fleshy part of the palm near his pinkie.

“Fumiya… I’m sorry—”

As soon as Kazuya spoke, Fumiya let out an animal cry that he hardly recognized as his own. He folded his fingers over the glass into a fist and swung with all his might. Blood spattered in every direction. A sharp, throbbing pain shot straight up to his head as he buried his hand in Kazuya’s cheek.

***

The path to high self-esteem runs filthy with blood, bodies made unrecognizable by surgery and self-manipulation, and family hurt and forcibly pushed aside. Such is the message throughout Asa Nonami’s Bødy, a collection of five thematically linked short narratives.

Named for five aspects of the body—“Navel,” “Blood,” “Whorl,” “Buttocks,” and “Jaw”—the stories contained within are case studies in self-destruction via the fetishization of the human body. This fetishization takes on a number of different forms: self-obsession, anorexia, sexual addiction, the quest for power, and embodying a perceived ideal.

“Navel” tells the story of Aiko and her daughters Minako and Chihara. To better fit a westernized ideal of beauty, Minako pressures her mother into allowing her to have plastic surgery on her navel. While gathering information on the procedure, Aiko herself is encouraged to do a little lifting, tucking, and sweeping away of the years, beginning with the crow’s feet beneath her eyes. At first the women are afraid of what Aiko’s husband will say about all this, and more importantly, about where Aiko got the money to embark on this surgical journey—money she squirreled away for herself without his knowing. Fear quickly changes into a desire for recognition, for the women to be acknowledged for their transforming beauty (or notion thereof). As Aiko’s husband remains seemingly indifferent and/or oblivious to the changes his wife and daughter’s are experiencing, they push even harder, travelling down the surgical rabbit hole until sweeping physical changes have been made. In the end, however, not only does he remain unaware of how they have changed, but Aiko and her daughters’ pursuit of ever-increasing youth has seemingly sapped him of what remained of his life.

“Blood,” the second story in the collection, follows Fumiya and Reiko and their strained marriage. Fumiya has a fetish for fat, knobbly women’s knees—something his wife Reiko unfortunately does not have. To satiate this increasingly demanding sexual urge, Fumiya takes risks, groping women’s knees in public places and on transit. When he is caught, his wife takes their infant son Mitsuya to her parents. They reconcile, and for a while Fumiya is able to restrain himself. But when Reiko steps on a sewing needle, the tiniest blossom of blood ignites in Fumiya a new, more overwhelming fetish. He becomes a serial pricker—using a sewing needle to poke and prick women in public places (the story never once acknowledging the alarming viral possibilities of sharing a needle amongst so many different women). Blood—all blood—becomes intoxicating for Fumiya, a theme mirrored in the troubled relationship he maintains with his mother and brother; the more enveloped he is by his new fetish, and the closer he becomes to Reiko through it, the greater the distance established between him and his actual blood relatives.

The third story, “Whorl,” focuses on Masao and Kikuka. Masao, still a young man, is balding, his hair now four identifiable, thinning, whorls. He and Kikuka have been dating for some time, and while he thinks he wants to marry her, he struggles to commit to her due to the situation on top of his scalp. Masao isn’t sure: does he marry her and accept his inevitable clear-cut soil, or does he take drastic action in the faint hope of maintaining what little hair remains so that he might again “play the field?” The Viagra parallels are undeniable.

“Buttocks” introduces us to Hiroe—an elite, popular, schoolyard bully, and the daughter of a very wealthy and prominent OB/GYN. Hiroe is a big fish in a small pond: in her school she is recognized for her looks and her power and influence, be it earned or appropriated. Upon being accepted to an all girls high school in Tokyo, she is quickly cut off from those she thought were her friends, but were more orbiting planets in need of a star. Adding to this, the culture shock of Tokyo city life takes a toll on Hiroe’s self-perception: where before she was “beautiful enough” and not particularly misshapen or known especially well for any one physical trait, in Tokyo she is wrong—the wrong shape, the wrong size. She begins starving herself, working herself into the mindset of eating so little she’ll never have to defecate again.

In the collection’s final story, “Jaw,” we meet the down-on-his-luck Atsushi—a young man with a troubled past as the victim of violence and aggression. After suffering a lifetime of being a punching bag, Atsushi is saved from a beating one night by a mysterious man he assumes is a boxer. Lusting after the strength exhibited by the boxer, Atsushi joins a local gym and begins training to be a fighter. It isn’t long before the strength he gains overwhelms his sensibilities and original desire to protect his self. He begins lusting after power—after dominion over weaker beings, turning his back on where he came from in the first place. His lack of humility as a fighter is his inevitable downfall.

While all of the stories are warped to varying degrees, it’s only “Navel” that exhibits some inkling of magical realism via the apparent premature aging and death of the husband, whose life, it seems, has been mysteriously sapped away by the rest of his family’s actions. The remaining stories are more or less rooted in the real world, and it’s the minds of each individual character that are twisted into perceiving the world around them differently.

Additionally, the stories included are predominantly from a man’s perspective—only “Navel” and “Buttocks” focus on women. Interestingly, though, in each story it is the men who are the weaker, more intrinsically and negatively flawed—negatively in the sense that their actions for “improvement” affect others outside of themselves, while the women’s stories turn inward, targeting their own bodies for dissection and piecemeal transformation. To boil it down: the men’s stories are about virility, sexuality, and power, while the women’s stories are about appearance, fitting a perceived “ideal” and being desired by others. As such, the stories illustrate the consequences of low self-control and self-esteem, and play very strongly into established cultural expectations, norms, and stereotypes.

Bødy is mostly enjoyable, although only “Blood” that stands apart as something special (and quite disgusting in parts). The collection feels more experimental than sure-footed, and I’m left wishing the overarching theme had a more profound impact on the whole. Instead, Bødy feels a little like a marketer’s collection—a grouping together of several narratives because they sort of, maybe, fit together, and not because they must be together to form, for lack of better phrasing, a unique body of work unto themselves.

And goddamn what a gorgeous cover…