August 2003

Sanford May

big in japan

The Compulsory Technical Program

Barriers to entry. This a term more common to business plans than literary criticism, but there are barriers to entry in Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe's novel Somersault. The novel is a big book, both in scope and length; and the dense, complicated method by which Oe has chosen to tell the story contributes to the casual reader's frustration in getting deep into the book.

Somersault features a cast of characters worthy of a dramatis personae, that heavy-handed prefix to many bad science fiction novels. Oe doesn't provide such an index, but he manages to distill the many viewpoints by focusing, more or less, on the perspectives of two characters: Ogi, a young, directionless man caught almost unaware in the events that unfold around him; and Kizu, an aging art professor with a terminal disease who has implicated himself in the structure of the story to follow the path of a lover. Between these two distinct entities Oe relates the story of a modern Japanese religious movement that has failed, come undone, and is on the verge of rebirth. In order to give each character voice through just two windows, Oe exhorts long, detailed monologues from the novel's secondary population. You may not like this approach; monologues are not the most natural way to prepare a novel. However, if you think of Somersault as more of an oral history set to paper, it may keep you from bogging down in a few thousand words of oratory wishing that Oe had chosen a more traditional format for his book. To Oe's credit, this device does allow him to tell his story without an unnecessarily large and confusing number of voices singing in your head. Everything is presented through the ciphers, Ogi or Kizu, and reading from behind the masks of these two characters, you'll easily keep your place on the complex map that is the plot of Somersault.

As mentioned, this is a big novel with a complicated plot, a plot that is not effortless in its execution. Oe follows tributaries and diversions that, when they reach their ultimate destinations, may only be accounted for as blind ends, fizzled like dud firecrackers, but they serve to bolster the philosophical tone of the book. With the exception of a brief prologue, the story opens ten years after the two leaders of a modern religious movement have renounced their faith and their church, put their followers asunder, and retreated into a self-imposed exile. Once called Savior and Prophet, they have taken the names Patron and Guide; reviled by their former church members and laughed at by the country at large, they live in seclusion, away from the eyes of the press and the remnants of their own flock. But in the madness of their reversal - the Somersault, from which the novel takes its name - there was the orchestration of method: a radical group within the greater church planned to execute a terrorist act and the leaders saw the spiritual flip-flop as the most expedient means of capping the wayward, violent sect. Now, a decade hence, Patron and Guide, accompanied by their gal Friday, a young woman known by the nickname Dancer, have begun their long and arduous trek out of the metaphorical desert in hopes of reclaiming the religious high ground they once held. Soon they are joined by Ogi - called, in good humor, Innocent Youth - convinced in no small part by Dancer's strong sexual undertow to aid in establishing a new church led by Patron and Guide.

Behind the overt symbolism of the names Patron and Guide, there is some confusion as to who belongs to which set of traits. Patron is supposed to be just that, the patron, or supporter, of mankind, while Guide is the teacher. Yet it is Patron who falls into deep, mystical trances that reveal the inner workings of the universe and, perhaps, the features of the face of God; Guide merely translates Patron's visions into something better understood by the average bystander. Even Kizu, in a momentary reflection halfway through the novel, ponders this question: Is Guide the teacher, or is Patron the true teacher, while Guide serves only as a sort of spiritual code-breaker? The confusion of roles between Patron and Guide is likely to leave a lot of readers stumped, and it's difficult if not impossible to tell if Oe intends for these principal characters to have malleable boundaries, or if he merely has trouble keeping them in their proper containers.

As disaster is wont to do, it strikes in the form of the death of Guide just as the two gurus are planning the resurrection of their former church. The radicals, unsatisfied these ten years with the limbo state the church has fallen into, capture and interrogate Guide until he suffers a stroke from which he never recovers. This leaves Patron alone and unable to translate the muddled data he collects in his trances. Professor Kizu, stricken with a recurrence of cancer that he believes to be terminal, has followed young Ikuo, his lover, into the tiny founders' group working to establish the new church; and Patron, perhaps seeking the company and wisdom of another elder, requests that Kizu become the new Guide. Flatly, this goes nowhere. Kizu never takes on the role of Guide. Indeed, though integral to the novel, Kizu never really becomes of more than tertiary significance in the birth of the new movement. And Oe's explanation that while the original Guide was a forward-looking Guide, Kizu will serve as a backward-looking Guide, an historian of the new church, isn't at all satisfactory. Kizu doesn't look forward or backward, but only maintains his peripheral position within the church. He's more of a court painter, an art servant, than anything else. Unfortunately, this is one of the aspects of Somersault you'll have to ignore if you want to come away from a reading with anything of value.

With Guide memorialized and dispatched, the church secures new digs out in the countryside through the administrative prowess of Dancer and Ogi. Administrative skills play an important role in Somersault: the church is operated like a business. E-mails are received and answered, faxes sent, phone calls initiated and returned, accounting books kept in meticulous order. These are modern times and the church does not confront or eschew the modern disciplines, but rather adopts them, employing established systems to further spiritual goals. It's an interesting commentary on the position of religious organizations within Japan's - indeed, the entire first world's -- largely capitalistic and business-oriented society: operating a church in the context set forth by secular administration doesn't negate the religious or philosophical value of the institution.

Out in the country, joined by two sects of the former church that have remained largely intact, the new church establishes away from the mainstream a redoubt under the wary gaze of the locals. Part corporate campus, part commune, the church settles on the land and begins making plans in earnest for a summer conference - almost like a trade show or annual sales meeting - that will mark the official beginning of the new organization, eventually dubbed the Church of the New Man. During the quiet but busy months prior to the conference, Kizu's health deteriorates, but his condition is soon reversed entirely when he appears miraculously cured of his cancer; minor intrigues ensue as Oe continually adds to his already formidable cast; and characters with whom we are already familiar further relate the intertwined histories of Patron, the former church and themselves.

The summer conference culminates in an event that can either sanctify or spell out the permanent end of the Church of the New Man; and it is only through Oe's epilogue that we can be sure that the Church has indeed survived and even begun to prosper in its timid youth. The epilogue reveals a few surprises that once unveiled don't come as much of a surprise at all. That's good: you'll gain some appreciation of Oe's ability to craft a story and subtly convey tone when you discover at the end of the novel that things wound up, rightly, in the direction they were drifting all along.

It's easy to be loudly critical of a novel like Somersault. Oe is both aged and a Nobel winner: his grocery lists would be published if he saw fit. It's never surprising when an old man of letters manages to publish a novel that should have never been allowed out of the slush pile in his bottom desk drawer. But Oe's latest is not that novel. Somersault is not a bad novel at all. Granted, it is at times overwrought and peppered with unnecessary digressions that amount to nothing. And, whether a product of translation or Oe's peculiar style, his characters occasionally emphasize their speech like gun molls and gangsters from a 1930s B movie. But what he lacks in brevity, Oe makes up for with the force of his ideas. In the end, Somersault is most powerfully a book about ideas, the structure of contemporary religious organizations, and an exploration of spiritual philosophies for a modern age. While he relies heavily on traditional western theology - everything from popular Bible stories to the elegant, exceptional verse of recently deceased Welsh poet R. S. Thomas - Oe embraces an entirely modern and abstract concept of God. In Somersault, he defines life as particles flowing out from the Almighty and then, upon death, these particles return upstream, back to the seat of their power, only to be redistributed to create new life. Thus our universe becomes an infinite transit system for the flow of energy, life force exchanged between all living things and a God that is neither anthropomorphic nor meddling. This concept jibes well with science's assessment of the physical universe as a self-sustaining institution, constantly recycling component matter in order to form new organisms.

I'm going to hesitantly recommend Somersault, especially in light of current interest in new forms of spiritual experience and also because of the present significance of religious fanaticism - western, eastern and mid-eastern - in world events. However, just as I wouldn't suggest Nabokov's Ada as a likely starting point for that modern master's oeuvre, I don't propose anyone dive into either Oe's work or contemporary Japanese literature with Somersault open on his lap. Despite the novel's richly layered and orderly prose, Oe does sometimes get away with things that a writer of lesser reputation would have seen sliced right out of his manuscript. So, don't start here. Start somewhere else and then come back.

Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe (translated by Philip Gabriel)
Grove Press, 2003