AUGUST 3, 2019
SCIENCE FICTION HAS BEEN mapping the topography of a yawning postcapitalism since the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s, a laborious undertaking still ongoing in the 21st century. Before cyberpunk, Deleuze and Guattari pointed the way in their books on capitalism and schizophrenia; after cyberpunk, as the science-fictionalization of reality gained momentum, many novelists and theorists continued down the same path. In Jennifer Government (2003), for instance, Max Barry envisions a near-future world prescribed by “capitalizm,” a hyper-accelerated form of social organization that has affected nearly every aspect of culture and society, with characters adopting brand names as their own (e.g., Billy NRA, Michael Microsoft, Jason Mutual Unity, Buy Mitsui, Vanessa Fashion-Warehouse.com) and tattooing their logos onto their bodies. Barry’s concept is quite different from, say, the extrapolations of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, who fetishized how electronic technologies invaded, modified, and evolved the flesh, but a shared preoccupation with corporeality — namely the commodification of the body and, by extension, the psyche — seems to inform most postcapitalist SF. This is certainly the case in Dempow Torishima’s Sisyphean, a mosaic novel in every right, combining elements of irrealism, bio-horror, biopunk, fantastika, and techno-absurdity while foregrounding how bodies are (re)processed by the corporate animus. It is a remarkable literary feat complemented by Daniel Huddleston’s magnificent translation. (Before Huddleston came along, the book had been widely deemed untranslatable.)
Sisyphean contains four novelettes strung together by four one-page “fragments”: “Plunder,” “Jewel,” “Genesis,” and “Exile.” There is an equally short “Preface” and “Finale” as well as black-and-white illustrations by Torishima himself. As many reviewers have noted, the illustrations appropriately recall H. R. Giger; they are detailed yet obscure and ethereal, as if, at any moment, the still-shots they depict might evaporate. In an interview in Weird Fiction Review, Torishima reveals that, contrary to what readers might expect, the text of Sisyphean began as a supplement to the illustrations, part of an effort to “produce a work that was like a visual story.” Eventually he “started giving more and more weight to the sentences,” and the text took over. The first, titular novelette was published in Japanese in 2011. Torishima liked the world he had built so much that he decided to write three more stories set in it, “going backward through the ages, changing things up with each one, until at last in 2013, [he] was able to bring it all together in one book.”
Combined with the complexity of the prose, Sisyphean’s oneiric attributes render any kind of narrative-historical map-making problematic — the story lines are neither linear nor clearly demarcated, and going backward feels more like going in multiple directions at once. Like many cyberpunk authors, Torishima’s story is deeply immersive, forcing readers to piece the characters and plot together themselves (though often those pieces are not a perfect fit). An overload of sensory details actuates the prose, and reading the book can be like scrutinizing a painting.
Sisyphean has generally been grouped into the New Weird genre, an extension of darkly fantastic fiction written in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft. The editors of Weird Fiction Review admit that “it’s weird [even for] weird fiction.” This is because it operates more according to the principles of the irreal than the categorically weird. Weird fiction follows the banal rules of most genre fare in terms of character development and narrative format. Irreal fiction, in contrast, combines dreamlike scenery and scenarios with an absurdist ethos, alienating and estranging readers, yet at the same time creating a sense of uncanny familiarity. The archetype is Kafka, who captures irreality better than any other author before or after him; his stories and novels wreak semiotic havoc on everyday phenomena, especially as that phenomena relates to bureaucratic machinery and antagonism. It’s no surprise that Sisyphean is thoroughly Kafkaesque in form, function, and context, replete with ministries, departments, agencies, companies, corporations, clinics, associations, workers, directors, managers, presidents, investigators, and other indentures to the collective “Law.” Nor is it coincidental that many facets of postcapitalism can be traced back to The Metamorphosis (1915), The Trial (1925), and The Castle (1926), all of which represent the dehumanizing toxicity of the capitalist system.
The novelettes are essentially thought experiments that take place in the wake of the “Great Dust Plague.” This apocalyptic event affected the metaphysical and ontological structure of what has become (and maybe always was) an alternative, or future, or alien, or schizophrenic universe; consciously and unconsciously, characters struggle “to adapt to […] world[s] that could not possibly exist.” While the novelettes can stand alone, there are marked connections and common tropes, such as religious folklore, symbiotic lifeforms, biotechnologies, ultraviolence, grotesquerie, structural dualisms (geographic, psychic, and historical), and abrupt shifts in point of view — not to mention the Greek myth alluded to by the title, which extends from the mythic Sisyphus’ eternal fate to Camus’s essay on the absurdity of the human condition. The problem of memory is the most pronounced theme: characters repeatedly grapple with mnemonic schisms, losses, or proliferations that disallow them from recounting history, grounding themselves in reality, and establishing a firm identity, particularly within the framework of machinic capitalist life.
Gyo (short for GyoVuReU’UNN), the protagonist of the first novelette (entitled “Sishyphean (Or, Perfect Attendants)”) is a definitive example of these themes. Gyo works in a tower as a laborer for his boss, “Mr. President,” an obese, gelatinous homunculus in a suit. The tower overlooks a vast sea of mud, the “coaguland,” and is an organism, too, with scaly walls and hallways like digestive tracts. In fact, the narrator compares the structure to the president: “[S]ticking out from the wide opening of its collar was an eyeless, noseless, mouthless, translucent head whose shape mimicked that of the office building itself. Tiny particles and a smooth, glossy sheen slide across its surface.” Architecture as somatic, fleshly, anthropomorphous — this is another commonality in the novelettes. Gyo’s responsibilities include helping to prepare “synthorgans” for distribution and attending to the president’s body, an unwieldy mess of wet flab that constantly molts and oozes fluids. Torishima meticulously details Gyo’s plight as “the worker,” punctuating his hardship by exclusively referring to him as such (his actual name is scarcely mentioned). Of Gyo’s past, Torishima writes: “Those old memories he could never be sure were dream or reality became altogether impossible for the worker to recall, and locked into a cycle of depthless, two-dimensional days, his work came to be a merely reflexive activity, like the nervous twitching of a spine.” As the author notes in the aforementioned interview, his own experience in the workplace instigated the characters:
I think the misery of having to work for a long time at a company that had bad working conditions, coupled with all the turmoil I’d been bottling up because of my commercial illustration and design work, just broke out all at once, like the Great Dust Plague. […] And when I looked around me, I saw lots of people suffering from outrageous demands of their jobs, and thought that by using the techniques of SF and fantasy novels, I might be able to make that present situation apparent. So I set out to create a work where the novel itself would function as a work of installation art on the extremities of labor.
Whereas they don’t portray the constraints of the workplace to the same degree, the subsequent three novelettes — “Cavumville (Or, The City in the Hollow),” “Castellum Natatorius (Or, The Castle in the Mudsea),” and “Peregrinating Anima (Or, Momonji Caravan)” — all feature officious antagonists and traumatized, overburdened protagonists. Foremost among the antagonists, perhaps, is reality, the fabric of which is torn and volatile, and which, as in so many Philip K. Dick novels, routinely authorizes bizarre goings-on and endangers the characters. This dynamic is punctuated by Dick’s recurrent interest in the primacy (and pathology) of capital, a formative ontological and metaphysical catalyst in his postcapitalist futures. Unlike Dick, however, Torishima doesn’t tie up loose ends: he lets them flap in the wind without explanation or apology.
Consider the following excerpt from “Peregrinating Anima.” Walking home from work one night, a man named Hisauchi has a vision that may or may not be both authentic or occurring in the present:
Just a few paces ahead, something suddenly leapt out of the seam where the road met the stucco wall. It had the energy of some predatory beast. With a gross, sticky sound, it stuck to the street. It was a chain of tumors the color of raw meat, tangled up like a set of puzzle rings. In the light of a lonely streetlamp, the tumors glistened. They bubbled up one after another from the edge of the street, twisting and turning like beads in a rosary as the mass as a whole swelled larger. Many clawed fingers protruded from the gaps in the tumors, twitching as if tapping on keyboards. […] As the fingers played their silent strains, they started swelling up, as if each were competing to be the largest, and varied organs resembling skinned rats and cow tongues grew bountifully from their tips. Just as suddenly, bulges began appearing in other places, and all manner of internal organs began spilling out one after another.
Hisauchi’s reaction underscores the irreal atmosphere of the scene. Rather than scream or run away, as we might expect one to do in the real word, he simply loosens his tie and crosses the street in order to avoid “what was probably fifty people’s worth of viscera.” Shortly thereafter, we learn that Hisauchi, like everyone else in his world, is tormented by “recollection seizures” that distort his perception, although we can’t be sure if the undulating pile of gore that he witnessed was a product of this mnemonic disease.
The main character in the fourth novelette is not Hisauchi but Umari, a “scrapling” and low-level wrangler of “momonji,” monstrous cattle harvested for slaughter. To some extent, Torishima uses this story to critique the livestock industry. He initially references momonji in “Cavumville,” a semi-bildungsroman tale about a young humanoid, Hanishibe, set in a precarious trench-city on a moon shaped like “an olive whose seed had been removed.” “Castellum Natatorius” features an entirely insectoid protagonist, Radoh Monmondo, who has multiple arms, antennae, a segmented carapace, “acoustic pores in [his] elbows,” and “rows of spiracles in [his] sides.” In this bio-noir, Radoh, a “dodgejobber” by trade, has the ability to camouflage his body like a chameleon; using this power, he adopts the role of private eye, as the Ministry of Welfare Contemplation commissions him for what he claims will be his final case. Radoh and the entities that populate his world are more insect-like than the characters in the other novelettes, but on the whole, everybody seems to possess inhuman qualities, and if they don’t, it feels like they could mutate on a dime. What distinguishes characters from one another is the degree to which they approach human form. Either Torishima has a background in entomology or he performed significant research to describe certain body parts, bodily functions, and modes de vie.
Throughout Sisyphean, Torishima (and Huddleston, of course) pay careful attention to prose. Despite the gore, pulp conventions, and familiar SF motifs, the book is highly literary and innovates far more than it derives. Neologisms and portmanteaus abound. Sometimes the wordplay is overbearing and too heavy-handed, but for the most part it succeeds. The mosaic of the novel reaches all the way from the grand narrative in its entirety to the level of syntax and individual words, with portmanteaus ranging from the relatively short and simple (e.g., “scentences”) to the absurdly long and complex (“doorpostboxcarouselectorpedometerrariumbilicalendartboardwalkmandalandminesweeperiscope”).
Like their characters, the author and translator have labored over and constructed an “undiscovered phenovocabulary.” For Gyo, that phenovocabulary is a commercial enterprise:
Dictating syntax from the jewel he extracted, Gyo created supordinapes of manifold purpose, his goal to improve work efficiency. Furthermore, he received syntax of investment from other corporations and bred giant work-beasts as well. Their reception was exceedingly positive in terms of both words and nutrients.
This passage occurs in the fragment entitled “Jewel”; all but one of the fragments (“Plunder”) center on Gyo, as do the “Prologue” and “Finale.” Together these six micro-fictions demonstrate how “the Chaos” of Torishima’s postcapitalist universe suppresses, defines, and incorporates Gyo, who becomes a sort of everyman, into the Sisyphean scheme of things, “a vast, multifaceted ecosystem, wherein cycles of death and rebirth [are] presented endlessly.”
Possibly the best example of such endlessness occurs at the end of “Castellum Natatorius.” Radoh’s partner Ro dies and becomes the first “namas-machina” in history “to be given funerary rites as a person.” In celebration of her singular humanity, her body is turned into “shellcoins,” the dominant mode of currency. This denouement reifies a critical thesis that pervades the novel and is a postcapitalist staple: Life in itself is finite, but life via capital is forever.