It’s been a while since I last wrote about any high literature, so it’s time to set all those light novels aside and discuss… Kueki Ressha, a 2010 novel by Nishimura Kenta, an Akutagawa Prize winner – that’s how I learned of its existence. It was introduced to me as a modern example of an I-novel, so I decided to give it a spin, not knowing much about what would await me and expecting some nice Dazai vibes. The book was adapted into a movie, too (haven’t seen it). And on that occasion, given an official English title: The Drudgery Train. Before anything else: it has no trains in it, unless a brief mention of the protag commuting by train counts. I want my money back.
His name is Kitamachi Kanta, which is what you’d get if you used the “inverse image” option on “Nishimura Kenta”. Are those two the same person? They’re both sad losers who ended their education after middle school, but I doubt The Drudgery Train is 100% autobiographical – I find it hard to believe you can be that much of a human dumpster fire in real life. When Kanta was a child, his father committed some kind of sexual crime. His mother had a divorce, escaped their hometown with the kids, and so Kanta fell into a pit of guilt and self-hatred he never got out from. At 15 years old, he gave up on school and started living alone.
For a while he’d been spending his time looking for a job, being rejected everytime as underage, and living in rented rooms, not paying for them, and then running to some other place where he’d do the exact same thing for as long as possible. Until finally he miraculously finds work stacking frozen seafood for 5500 JPY a day. A repetitive physical job that makes your brain play songs you haven’t heard in years in your head, as if you’re dreaming with your eyes open. Been there, done that. Not even knowing if his daily wage is a lot or not, he starts a new life. Now he’s 19. He’s still a chuusotsu living in squalor, owning one garbage bag-ful of possessions, working a rather shitty job. And grappling with his bad genes that force him to do something stupid and self-destructive once in a while.
To an extent, his story felt personally relatable to me – I’ve been a poorfag and I had dilemmas like his: how to spend a very limited sum of money at my disposal, not die of hunger, and not go insane? How to deal with the sight of food and the need to spend as little money as possible at the same time? And yet Kanta is far from sympathetic. He’s superpoor largely because of his complete lack of control, or even a lack of the will to limit himself in any way. He smokes. He drinks. He does whores. Spends more than he earns, saving nothing. Doesn’t pay for the roof over his head even if he can afford it. Initially, he only works once in a few days, only as much as he absolutely has to. And he’s a asshole, mostly friendless, with the expection of one patient co-worker whom he despises as inferior at first, and then hates for being superior to him. Absolutely not someone you’d call likeable. After being a grim shitgremlin for over 100 pages, he ultimately loses his job and the story ends with the protagonist not having changed in any way since the beginning…
After the novel, there’s a short story titled Ochiburete Sode ni Namida no Furikakaru… in which Kanta is forty and only slightly better a person than he was at nineteen: he now buys smokes in bulk to save some money. And he’s a writer who struggles with his failing health and trying to write a prize-winning book.
So, that’s what Kueki Ressha is about, but… the most notable thing about this autobiography of a loser is how it’s written. There are many ways you can write and many rulesets deciding what constitutes a good literary work and what doesn’t. The classical way to write is to have as big a resource of vocabulary as possible and try to make reading your novel a tricky endeavor. The Drudgery Train pushes this attitude to its logical limits. I’m imagining Finnegans Wake in Japanese would read sort of like this. The first word of the novel is 曩時. What does it mean? Try googling a little and you might run into a search result saying “I’m reading Kueki Ressha, what is this shit?” or at least “drudgery is what reading this travesty of a book is”. Well, there’s “kueki” in the title, you could have expected that. Super obscure vocabulary. Super obscure vocabulary with irregular readings in them. Archaisms. English words out of nowhere (I’m guessing Japanese people would find this a problem). And no furigana, unless Nishimura decides to let you know he pulled a new, original reading of a word out of his ass. If I learned he introduced a plot point only so he could use this one cool obscure word, I would not be surprised. The contrast between the poetics aspect of The Drudgery Train and its very low subject matter – vulgar, ugly and disgusting – is gigantic. Kueki Ressha is a 170 page-long brochure, and the proper novel ends on page 125, but making my way through it took my much longer than a day or two. It’s a doozy. It’s haaaaaard. On the bright side, it taught me a lot. I looked up a lot of vocab, and could have looked up more – if I insisted on googling things everytime I don’t understand a thing, I wouldn’t be doing anything else, seriously. You could say that’s an achievement – probably the reason why he was awarded the Akutagawa Prize. Though it’s not bad at all in the storytelling department either. Or maybe this is common in the world of Japanese hi-lit and I’m a scrub who needs to read his Kawabata or something. I’ve never read anything like it in Japanese. I survived the experience, but will think twice before I do anything of the sort again. Back to light novels it is.