October 2014

Alex Houston


I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar, translated by Sheila Dickey

There's a kind of cottage tradition of culturally and generationally specific -- yet universally and perennially relatable -- coming-of-age stories with too much vitriol, viscera, and self-destruction to be lumped into the pious Bildungsroman tradition. They might be traced, somewhat arbitrarily, to Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, the tale of love, death, and disillusionment that spawned fashion movements, copycat suicides, and a German Democratic Republic update (The New Sufferings of Young W). In the U.S., of course, there's The Catcher in the Rye, whose age and apparent white male-centricism have failed to curb its ongoing appeal, and, more recently, the slow-motion explosion of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These stories all involve depression, self-harm, and social rebellion, and, thereby form critiques of particular status quos via the slow disintegrations and quiet implosions of young people. And yet, the best of them endure long after the fall of this or that government, social system, or trend by tapping into -- and expressing perfectly -- something timeless.

Enter into this micro-canon I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar, a sparse, spectacular novel with the simultaneous simplicity and depth, subtlety and boldness, of an ukiyo-e woodblock print. Set in contemporary Japan, it's told from the perspective of twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro, who is a hikikomori, or young shut-in. I was ignorant of this phenomenon before reading this book, and it's as strange as it is fascinating. Between 200,000 and 700,000 Japanese young adults -- mostly middle class and male -- currently lead almost completely hermetic lives, often cutting social ties around age fifteen and living locked in a room (usually in their parents' homes) for months, years, even decades. All sorts of Japanese social factors have been pointed to as potential causes: pressure at school and from parents, the difficulty of fitting into a highly conformist society, the fear of entering an unfathomably competitive job market. But the danger of diagnosing or discussing any social problem is that it must be done on the scale of the society itself, made general to include all of the particular instances and circumstances, thereby disregarding the peculiarity of each case, the subjective side.

This, of course, is where art and literature come in, the necessary flipside to objective social analysis. To this end, the hikikomori phenomenon has been explored and expressed in manga, anime, films, and novels, including Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. And now we have Necktie. At one crucial moment, Hiro says that he is "not a typical hikikomori... not like one of those in books and articles that are put on my door from time to time... Nothing can distract me from the attempt to protect me from myself. From my name, my inheritance... From my body, whose needs have not ceased." This, I think, sums up the message and mission of this book and others like it: it refuses to accept that there is a "typical" anything, insisting instead on exploring, with great heart and fervor, an individual experience in all its irreducible specificity, and thereby -- perhaps only thereby -- touching on something true.

But Necktie is, actually, not the story of one person, but two. The book's title refers to the name Hiro gives to a man he encounters -- and subsequently, profoundly befriends -- soon after emerging into the outside world for the first time since turning inward two years earlier. Driven outward, at last, by the sight of cranes flying in the sunlight outside his bedroom window, Hiro stumbles through nausea and disorientation to a park bench where he'd spent happy afternoons with his mother when he was a child, when the world still seemed, he says, "a friendly place." This bench quickly becomes a kind of extension of his bedroom, a place to sit with a sense of safety, unnoticed as the world passes by. But one day, a middle-aged man begins to appear with the same regularity on a neighboring park bench, sitting for hours in silence, eating his bento box, and always wearing business attire: shirt, jacket, necktie.

Beginning with an almost involuntary nod of invitation by Hiro, the two men slowly reveal to one another the series of personal catastrophes that led them both to sit, solitarily, on park benches, alone in a crowded city. "Necktie," whose real name is Ohara Tetsu, has lost his job due to his inability to keep up with the younger generation -- of which Hiro is, in spite of himself, a part -- but cannot bring himself to tell his wife, Kyoko, who still packs his lunch and sees him off to work each day, not knowing he takes the train to the park instead of the office. This, however, turns out to be one of many communicative chasms between the couple, whose initial love and enthusiasm for life have been battered by both tragedy and tedium, and further diminished by silence and repression. The layoff itself is not the issue, rather the disruption of routine its disclosure would cause. As Tetsu says, "It's not that I didn't want to tell Kyoko. No, I wanted to. But then I couldn't bring myself to. Something held me back. Habit, maybe." Hiro, too, is haunted by silence: his failure to speak or act led, in his view, to the deaths of two close friends, leading him to shun communication and human connection entirely. Indeed, his friend Kumamoto was driven to suicide by his own belief in the inherent failure of words to grasp the truth in its entirety. Shortly before attempting to end his life, he tells Hiro: "I have an image in my head. I see it clearly before me... but as soon as I rush to capture it, it explodes, and what I write down are separate bits that don't form a whole."

What Kumamoto failed to realize is that these "separate bits" themselves contain the truth: there is no whole, there is no perfection, and that's okay. This idea is, in a sense, reflected in the form Necktie takes: 114 miniature chapters, which together tell a story, but not a complete one. The light of redemption that shines in the final few pages of the book is a suggestion, not a promise. And in the end, we still don't know why, exactly, Hiro was a hikikomori, while other teens who struggle with tragedies continue on normal trajectories, or why Tetsu shut himself off from his wife. Sure, there are social phenomena at play: Hiro and the friends he lost were outsiders in a culture that requires submission, and Tetsu's relationship with his wife was paralyzed by their adherence to and dependence on traditional gender roles and customs. But these are factors, not explanations -- as one character says to Hiro near the end of the novel, describing his own recovery from mental illness: "If I think: Society. Then my head spins. Too big. What is that? I can't see it. What I see are the details. That's what I want to stay with." This cuts to the core of what Flašar has done with this novel: she sees and stays with the details.

Flašar's ability to capture the smallest things -- a crack on the ceiling, a family photo on the wall, the contents of a bento box -- and imbue them with meaning in just a few words is perhaps her greatest accomplishment in terms of craft. Her unaffected style also works perfectly for Hiro's narrative voice, since Necktie is, as much as anything, the story of his slow emergence from silence into speech. As someone who has never been to Japan and had never heard of hikikomori before, the novel's stunning emotional power is, to me, a testament to the ability of words to reveal fragments of experience, in all their exquisite imperfection, across cultural and generational lines. With Necktie, Flašar has made a contribution to the disaffected-youth-in-literature subgenre that will resonate everywhere as long as there are nonconformists among us, which I hope means forever.

I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar, translated by Sheila Dickey
New Vessel Press
ISBN: 978-1939931146
133 pages