Review Of I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, by Justin Isis
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 2/7/11
Any topic, no matter how disturbing, is potential for a short story. It all depends on how well the said topic is executed, and if executed well, the story succeeds. If executed poorly, it fails. Then, there are topics that when shoved together within a single collection don’t always work. Topics like cannibalism, incest, animal cruelty, S&M, masturbation, transsexuals, and any additional form of emotional cruelty may not work if there are more than say, two of these topics within a tale. Reason being, the writing then runs the risk of becoming too melodramatic, too self-conscious with the writer’s desire to “shock” just for the sake of shock alone, or just not believable, and ultimately the literature is lost. Yet this debut collection of short stories, by Justin Isis, not only touches upon many of these “troubling” topics, but the stories do contain wonderful moments of lyricism—the best collection of short fiction I can recall reading from a first time writer.
First, I don’t want readers to be put off by this collection simply
because it contains subject matter that might seem “upsetting” to some.
Because here’s the catch: Isis shows us that something like cannibalism or
cruelty can be used as an effective metaphor, for the tales themselves are
dreamlike. While one can see influences from Japanese writers like Yasunari
Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, Isis has an approach that is all his own. By using
just the right amount of emotional detachment, Isis is able to accomplish what
few writers can: he actually crafts beauty from violence.
In “The Garden of Sleep,” here is how the narrator describes his
lover’s fingernails: “That
day you had gone to a nail salon in Omotesando, and now your hands were
beautiful jewelled claws, ornamental and useless, the hands of an empress: each
inch-long silver nail encrusted with plastic gems and tiny pink roses. As always
you sat with your back perfectly straight.”
Note the spare yet poetic writing style, how there is just the right
amount of description present. Isis’ prose is the result of both an observant
eye and ear, for he knows just the way to describe his characters, giving them
the added insights needed, while also structuring the scene with the distance
necessary to obtain full effect. In his title story, “I Wonder What Human
Flesh Tastes Like,” we are given two troubled teenagers: the male is a writer
and the female is, well, disturbed. (Both are, actually.) While in a park
together, the girl notices a dog and decides, after picking it up, that she
wants to kill it.
walked over and picked the dog up. Its head and tail drooped over the sides of
her arms. It struggled, but her short arms held it to her chest.
think maybe it belongs to that old man? Check the collar.
want to kill it, she said, and walked off in the direction of the toilets. He
walked behind her and reached a hand around her waist.”
Following the killing, “Let’s go get ice cream,” she says. Little
is spoken of the incident afterwards. What makes the tale so effective is not
only the way Isis presents this disturbing scene, but he leaves enough ambiguity
so that we are left wondering if this is just a dream or not? After reading this
tale, I felt saddened even though I knew it was only fiction.
One of the best tales in the collection is “The Quest For Chinese
People,” and it is somewhat different in approach from the rest. Kenji, the
owner of a pizza restaurant, suddenly becomes fascinated with the Chinese
because he learns there are 1.3 billion of them on earth. He begins to think he
is being left out of a club, and the tale is an excellent exercise in fantasy,
for while this tale is not as dreamlike as some of the others, it involves the
ideas of fantasy as pertaining to identity, and reading it is ultimately an
existential experience. It also is one of the more character driven tales.
In the final novella-length tale, titled “A Thread From Heaven,” here
is the wonderfully poetic way the narrator describes an otherwise violent
accident on a train:
closed his eyes and imagined a terrible collision: the train derailing and
striking the side of the station, all passengers shredded, merged, left
illegible in the language of flesh, the contrasting surfaces of their skin fused
in an instant of perfect love, everyone’s conflicting slices of mind erased
like a blackboard, a delicate communion amidst the bones and fluid—
“A familiar sadness overcame him. The train would not derail
kind of crystalline beauty could only exist in a dream.”
The reference to the dream at the
end is not meant in the nebulous sense, but is a hallmark of Isis’s characters
that often ruminate and resurrect items from their dreams, as well as observing
their present. Phrases like “left illegible in the language of flesh”
and “conflicting slices of mind” are
both interesting and memorable. They show that the writer has talent at hand and
the potential for growth for future works.
Yet the intro, by Quentin S. Crisp, is bizarrely worshipful of this first time writer as he begins with a list of individuals he idolizes, all of which reside on a “shimmering cloud.” Isis is, of course, one of them. Readers will likely be asking WTF and wondering why Bozo the Clown and Frosty the Snowman were left out from the list. (It is too easy to parody.) Though such mental flatulence should not turn readers away from Crisp’s novel “Remember You’re a One Ball,” a horror-thriller which contains both good characterization and narrative. So given the strengths of Crisp’s own work, his bowing before the Egyptian Goddess is a bit perplexing.
I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like is odd and dreamlike at times and the second book published by Chomu Press. Both Isis and Crisp are worth a gander but save the worship for church, or maybe Ra.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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