I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, page 1
I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like
By Quentin S. Crisp
I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like
by Justin Isis
Published by Chômu Press, MMXI
I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like copyright © 2010 by Justin Isis
Introduction copyright © 2010 by Quentin S. Crisp
The right of Justin Isis to be identified as Author of this
Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Published in January 2011 by Chômu Press.
by arrangement with the author.
All rights reserved by the author.
First Kindle Edition
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Design and layout by: Bigeyebrow, Justin Isis and Chômu Press
Cover illustration by Colwyn Thomas
“If you ever wanted to experience some life-bending obsession but thus far are still waiting for one to come along, reading I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like will serve as the next best thing. In his disarmingly masterful first collection of stories, Justin Isis reports on what it is like to be young, Japanese (quite incidentally in our global culture), and hopelessly a slave to awful and bizarre attractions—eccentric enchantments that any fugitive from the conventional world would take agonizing pride in confessing to a sheaf of private papers.”
“Justin Isis’ stories read like future videos, in their shape-shifting, voyeuristic Eurasian themes, dominated throughout by the obsessive retrieval of visual detail pulled right from the edge of one space-time dissolving into another. …the author’s ability to live parallel to what he is seeing … gives the collection an elusive, fetishistic concentration… I love these stories for their fractionally off-world message that is always vitally, sexily modern.”
“Justin Isis is a genius and an inspiration. I've said so before; and I'll say it again.”
Introduction by Quentin S. Crisp
1. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Unauthorized Egg Model Book Cover
3. Manami’s Hair
4. The Garden of Sleep
5. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like
6. The Quest for Chinese People
7. A Design for Life
8. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Etc.
9. The Eye of the Living Is No Warmth
10. A Thread from Heaven
J-K Huysmans, Nagai Kafu, Celtic Frost, William Burroughs, Mishima Yukio, H.P. Lovecraft, David Bowie, Higuchi Ichiyo, Thomas Ligotti, Dare Wright, Kodagain, Bettie Page, Tom Baker…
Other people no doubt have similar mantras to this partial one above, which is mine. It is a kind of catalogue of star-names, each embedded in the firmament of the personal imagination. ‘Stars’ is a conventional way of thinking of such entities, but I would like to consider them for a moment as a special kind of soap bubble. That is, although these entities might be related to each other, it is not necessary for them to be related to exist in the same sky, and appear to be part of the same shimmering cloud. What matters about each soap bubble is not so much its relation to the world or other worlds, as the world of visionary fertility that it contains. Each bubble is a sui generis globe of phantasmal possibilities, though these magic-lantern possibilities appear to us as iridescent reflections of the outer world.
I said the mantra with which I began was partial; one name missing from it is that of Justin Isis.
The first Justin Isis story that I read was ‘Nanako’ (included in this volume). I do not remember what my expectations were, but the opening line told me that the author had already arrived as a writer even though, apparently, the world had not yet noticed. I read that line and was intrigued by the sense of imaginative riches waiting to be discovered:
When he was a young man he’d known a girl called Nanako who reminded him of a Buddha.
The truth is, I was relieved. I am sometimes sent stories by unpublished writers, and more often than not, the author is still struggling with the most basic elements of writing prose. In such cases, it would be fatuous simply to praise, and I do not like dishonesty in critiques, but I am also aware how sensitive aspiring writers can be and have no wish to discourage them. Therefore giving feedback on such works can be a difficult duty.
After reading ‘Nanako’, there was no such difficult duty. Reading it, I had the peculiar sensation of disbelief. How was it that this story was not already published and well known? I could not believe how good it was, and sometimes I still cannot believe it, though when I re-read Justin’s work my initial judgement is always confirmed.
I wonder why it should be hard to believe that unpublished writing is good. It takes only a moment’s thought to realise such an attitude is absurd, and yet it is very common and, in some people, very stubborn. There must be hierarchies of authority involved.
Anyway, my subsequent correspondence with Justin and my reading of his work has made me excited about writing again and has reinvigorated my own work. If I may allow myself the vanity of talking about my own writing for a moment, I would not be surprised if any interested person noted an Isis influence in my writing from the year 2007. And if I know any person who is the future of writing, it is Justin Isis.
He is a writer of ideas — vibrant, counterintuitive and compelling ideas. For instance, this is a sample of some conversation between the two main characters in ‘A Thread from Heaven’:
—What’s your interpretation of Christ driving the demons into the Gadarene swine?
—You mean why he did it?
—Because they were different.
Park sat up on the bed.
—No, they weren’t different. He was the same thing, something from outside. When he saw the demons, he started getting self-conscious, because they reminded him of himself. There’s no such thing as possession, the demons weren’t ‘inside’ the man — the possessed man and the demons were the same thing at the same time. Christ and the demons both had the same gimmick, except Christ was the better actor. There’s nothing a good actor hates more than seeing a bad actor ruin a role he’s played well.
As unstudied — even throwaway — as his ideas can seem, they are never one-dimensional or flimsy. Justin is a writer who redefines language and invents his own vocabulary, both systematically and as a by-product of his natural creative process. “Nerve”, “dignity” (as a non-existent quality), and “hoax” are all words that take on new significance in the context of Justin’s work.
Justin’s ideas never need to be disguised and inflated by pompous verbiage, as is the case with so many intellectuals and academics. In plain language they are sharp enough not to blunt, sophisticated enough not to pall, witty enough to need no affectation, strange enough not to be overlooked. Perhaps my disbelief has sometimes come from this fact — Justin gives ideas and writing of substance without having to resort to any of the usual disguises of legitimacy and authority. I have come to expect from this world — from the purveyors of ideas and writing — the very opposite, that is, disguises without substance.
To give an example, ‘The Quest for Chinese People’ resembles the work of Borges in the way it takes a left-field concept, places it centre-stage, and forces one’s brain to adjust, thereby changing one’s perception of the world forever. What could be a vague mystical idea is firmly situated by making use of the specific concept of ‘Chineseness’. What’s more, this is not even the whimsy it might first seem; there is real logic here. One is left wondering why one never thought of the idea before. It is a definitive story, one which seems always to have been there, but which is endlessly new in its fascination.
Justin’s concepts are as playful as those of Borges, but not as intellectually mechanical (I mean that with no disrespect to Borges). I am reminded of William Burroughs recounting an anecdote of two Japanese swordsmen. They both strike at each other and step back. One says to the other, “You missed.” The other replies, “You think I’ve missed? Try nodding your head in a hundred years’ time.” The mechanical workings of the concept may not appear on the surface in Justin’s fiction, but everything is implied in the angle of the sword stroke. And I can’t help thinking that, in a hundred years’ time, people will be nodding (their severed heads off) at how accurate the angle of the stroke is here.
‘The Quest for Chinese People’, I have said, is in some ways akin to Borges. Perhaps the story could be called absurdist fantasy (Justin’s work seems to attain an air of absurdity through sheer inventiveness), or maybe even science fiction in a very loose sense. Others might call it surrealism. But it shares its fundamental spirit and attitude with other stories in this collection — ‘The Eye of the Living Is No Warmth’ and ‘A Thread from Heaven’, for instance — that many readers would probably consider simply realistic.
What is this underlying spirit?
In fact, I am hard-pressed to give it any kind of name, and I feel that is how it should be. But I can — gropingly and provisionally — attempt a description. Perhaps there is a key to be found in these lines from ‘A Thread from Heaven’, in which Park is trying to explain to his friend Tomo the nature of mind:
—Artists are also wind-up toys that have been set in motion. If they weren’t artists, they’d be politicians or comedians or something else. The shape of the mind determines the role. Everyone is given a role at birth and that role is their mind.
—But you can change your mind.
—You can change your opinions or beliefs but not your mind. When you pull off the body of a tick, its head is still under the skin. It’s the same with the mind. You can’t make your mind exactly the same as mine or move it around in time, so how can you do anything about it?
Each person has a differently shaped mind because, in Justin’s fiction, mind is a biological reality, like body. Whatever physical reality is, it is obdurate with hidden workings, such as instinct, over which we have no control. However, the physical constitutes a kind of battleground for different perceptions, like bacteria competing for domination within the system of a host body. In a sense, the underlying reality of the body is not changed at all by a victory one way or the other. And yet, there is a hint, or more than a hint, that perhaps the subtlest turn of events in this bacterial warfare might make all the difference there is, producing a body of reality either ravaged and broken or ravished and shining.
Perhaps I have framed this too crudely. One thing that Justin’s fiction is free of is crude philosophical system, despite — because of, I should say — its strong intellectual engagement.
Since I can only fail if I try and make a system out of Justin’s writing with this introduction, I will attempt a more impressionistic approach to describing his work, with a list of images that come to mind when I try to generalise ‘Justin Isis’ as a literary entity, a few tiny bubbles blown from a larger and endlessly generative one:
An iridescent boot in the heart of the brain, kicking the pineal gland.
A question mark fashioned out of razor blades.
Casanova inventing time-travel.
Aesthetics as a form of WMD.
Robots vomiting in order to attain religious experience.
Alex and his Droogs as parapara dancers.
An orgy in the court of King Midas, at which his affliction becomes the most contagious STD in history.
Sentient ice cream.
Sifow searching for blue crystals on Metebelis Three.
Takamoto’s The Aesthetic of Chôgen recorded in the grooves of the Voyager Golden Record.
Quentin S. Crisp, Totnes, 2010
I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Unauthorized Egg Model Book Cover
He started meeting Satomi after coming back from his supplementary classes. His parents were getting him to improve his English; at night he sat in front of the mirror and repeated the stock phrases until they stopped meaning anything. Then he repeated his name until it lost its meaning. He thought of it as ‘becoming English.’
He saw her standing on the platform at Hibiya; it was three weeks before he managed to say anything. She was the kind of girl who had probably had good skin as a child, but it was ruined now. Beneath the gauzy surface of her concealer makeup her left cheek was dark with acne. It took on a luminous quality in the glow of the fluorescent lights overhead. He had to be very close to notice it; even from a foot away his eyes took up the illusion of perfect smoothness.
He rode back by himself and walked to his parents’ flat. After four weeks he knew the route well enough that he didn’t have to think. When he woke at dawn and went to catch the train, he could see pink light breaking in the white sky. It rose in a soft haze. He could feel it cleaning his mind.
When he talked to Satomi his facial muscles stalled in the same rigid position. She talked with her head slanted to the side. When she smiled he saw the chipped edges of her teeth; when she turned the light caught the left side of her face and her makeup shimmered. He wanted to lick her face like a dog until the concealer came off on his tongue and all of her acne broke open.
He took care of his grandmother on the weekend. She looked nervous all the time because she couldn’t remember who anyone was. When they were alone she called him his uncle’s name. She kept asking when they were going back to Saitama. One time he pretended to be her father; he started calling her by her first name. She nodded and smiled very wide, looking at him with terrified horse’s eyes.
He wanted to live in a country where it was always dusk and the sun was never solid. He wanted it to exist as a cloud of pink light breaking against the white. He thought of it fading somewhere far off, beyond the ocean.
His parents made him be interested in the violin. He started practicing it between practicing English and attending regular and supplementary classes and working in a restaurant and cleaning the judo club room and taking care of his relatives.
He started changing history. He told his grandmother it was 1945 and took her around the city on ‘missions’. He took her to a grocery store and told her they were buying rationed rice. On different days he became her cousin, son, husband, and brother.
If Satomi wasn’t at the station he waited and missed his train. When she shifted in her seat he could see her thin white legs. They seemed sad somehow. He thought: a clean pink light; a mindless dog licking her face; more freedom than the kings of the earth—
He started getting his little sister to masturbate him. He told her it was a game.
He had dreams where he lived with Satomi and his grandmother on an island where there was no time and space. There were no calendars or clocks so they never knew what time it was or what year they were in. If they wanted to live in a certain year they decided on it and it became that year. If they wanted to live in a country they changed the name of the island to the country. They forgot their real names; if his grandmother looked at them and called them certain names then they became the people behind them. There were enough names in her memory to keep them going for years. Satomi’s face dried out in the sun and her acne turned into hard white diamonds. She looked like an African queen with pearls sewn into her skin.