While everyone has a minor identity crisis from time to time, most people are pretty aware of who they are and where they’re from. However, in the latest work to appear in English from Japanese writer Tomoyuki Hoshino (no stranger to outlandish concepts), we encounter a society where the idea of the individual identity has become rather blurred. You see, it’s not just that people are struggling to remember who they really are – it’s more that they’re not really sure if they’re an individual at all…
ME (translated by Charles De Wolf, review copy courtesy of Akashic Books) begins normally enough at a McDonald’s, where Hitoshi Nagano, a bored camera sales assistant, decides on a whim to swipe the mobile phone of the office worker sitting next to him. Later, when he’s browsing voice messages on the stolen device, the real owner’s mother calls, and before he knows it, Hitoshi has assumed the identity of Daikichi Hiyama and scammed ¥900,000 from his ‘mother’. However, the stunt backfires when he returns to his apartment the following day to find the old woman cooking and cleaning – for him.
Somehow, Nagano/Hiyama has slipped into a world where he has become the man he stole from, and over the next few days, everyone around him plays along, constructing a new identity for him. Confused and unsettled, he decides to pay one of his rare visits to the family home, only to be rejected by his mother and told to get lost by someone who looks very familiar. And that’s where it all starts to get *really* weird.
ME took out the 2011 Kenzaburō Ōe Prize, and having read one of Ōe’s more off-beat works recently (The Pinch-Runner Memorandum), I can see why the great man admired Hoshino’s book. It’s an excellent take on the problems of Japanese society, looking at what it means to play your role in the community while keeping a sense of individuality. However, in Hoshino’s trademark style, what starts off as a story based in reality very quickly pushes the envelope in terms of everyday life, soon taking us into far more speculative territory.
The key to the novel is the narrator’s discovery that not only does his identity seem to have changed, but also that there are other people around that don’t just look like, but almost definitely are, him. He finds the first of these people when he visits his parents’ home, or what he believes to be his parents’ home. With the young man he encounters there assuming the identity of Hitoshi Nagano, he is content to stick with his new persona, Daikichi (Daiki) Hiyama, and a student the new Hitoshi encounters becomes the third member of their small group of MEs (as they call themselves).
There’s far more to the similarities than a physical resemblance, however, and the three new friends are delighted to discover that they get along so well, each sharing the others’ interests and frustrations. After a fun day together, the narrator begins to dream of a society of MEs:
I slouched in my seat and fell into a reverie. In it, I was working for the Our Mountain branch of Megaton. All of my coworkers were MEs, as were the customers. All the thousands living there – no, the tens of thousands – were MEs too. With those colleagues I enjoyed perfect mutual understanding, our teamwork resembling a beautifully performed symphony, as knowing all our customers’ hopes and expectations, we sold them the ideal cameras at just the right price – clerks and clients basking in happiness.
p.118 (Akashic Books, 2017)
A society of like-minded souls, each looking out for the interests of others – a utopian idyll?
Erm, no… Anyone who has tried another of Hoshino’s novels in English, Lonely Hearts Killer, will suspect that the tranquility won’t last too long, and the second half of the novel turns Daiki’s utopian dream into a dystopian nightmare. Quickly, the number of MEs begins to increase, soon spreading from young men to women, older people and even babies, and the more there are, the less they want to interact with those like them. Far from opening up to each other, the MEs experience a lack of mutual trust, hiding away in order to avoid giving in to violent tendencies, or becoming the victim of others’ outbursts. The trouble with this is that if you think like everyone else, you’re probably going to do exactly what they do (and go where they go, too…).
It’s hard not to take ME as an allegorical take on Japanese society, with the spread of the MEs critiquing a homogenous society. The narrator realises too late the downside to his dreams of togetherness:
I felt that I no longer knew a single human being. Who were my friends, my colleagues, my mother, my father, my siblings? I had no idea, and thus I was equally ignorant of my own identity. For all of them, their contours were composed of unconnected dotted lines. I was simply and wholeheartedly a ME. Outdoor, indoors, in a train or in a car, all that I surveyed was ME, ME, ME. Among ourselves we were inflicting wounds, erasing each other. (p.162)
In a clever twist on real life and the competitiveness of contemporary society, it’s not the outsiders that are under threat in the world of Hoshino’s novel, but the insiders. Those who are not MEs are simply ignored while the abundance of MEs means that keeping your head down is no longer an option – it’s attack or be attacked…
It’s a little lazy to assign influences in a review, but it’s hard to look past names like Ōe and Kōbō Abe when reading Hoshino’s work, and there are hints of the two Murakamis too in the casual Americanised manner (Haruki) and the writer’s desire to destroy Tokyo from time to time (Ryū). However, Hoshino has a style all of his own, and what works best in ME is the way in which the story never stops developing. It would have been easy for the writer to simply take the initial premise as the impetus for the story and then explain how and why the switch happened. Instead, he continues to develop the worldview, with the society he’s describing crumbling before we’ve even got to grips with it, and by the end of the novel our sense of ‘story’, ‘narrator’ and ‘identity’ have been seriously challenged.
I’d never heard of Akashic Books before being made aware of this book, but I’m very happy that they decided to bring it out. Literary fiction with a speculative bent, it’s a novel I highly recommend, and there’s a lot to like about the finished product apart from the story itself. There’s a translation of Ōe’s comments on awarding his prize, a short word from De Wolf about a few Japanese terms (although there’s little here that will confuse the average reader) and an excellent cover that ties together the idea of text messages, the iconic Tokyo crosswalks and the theme of the book. If you click on the photo I took and look very carefully, you might notice something rather interesting. You see, it’s not always easy to stand out from the crowd…