ME by Hoshino Tomoyuki, translated by Charles De Wolf (Akashic Books, 2017)
"The power of thought" was how Ōe Kenzaburō described the "genius" of Hoshino Tomoyuki in Ōe's afterword to the novel ME, justifying Ōe's selection of ME for the prize named after him. In Hoshino's novel, Ōe was reminded of Kōbō Abe, even making the bold claim that sections of Hoshino's writing even surpassed Kōbō Abe in substance and prowess.
Let us restate that phrase into "the power of literary speculation". A clue was given in Lonely Hearts Killer, another translated novel by Hoshino, where the first anniversary of the Japanese emperor's death was commemorated on February 30th. The frame of reference in Hoshino's fiction was the reality of this world that is apart from this world. And with ME, he created a premise grounded in the reality of scammers and spammers impersonating someone else using a phone, then pursued a twisted fictional logic that was the territory of allegory. The same power of novelistic speculation pursued by Kōbō Abe and also by Kafka and Saramago.
It was the peak of the return rush. The train as far as Shibuya was
relatively empty, but the cars on the Yamanote Line were packed. I
absentmindedly looked up at the advertisements, when suddenly the slack
faces of myriad MEs came surging into view. They were all around me. I
found myself smack up against of an old fatso of a ME, buttocks to
buttocks, who let off a fart that reeked horribly of garlic. In front of
me was a ME about my own age. He boarded the now-crowded train wearing a
large square backpack. Every time he fiddled with his cell phone, he
would ram his burden into me. To my right was another ME, tall, slender,
and prematurely bald, who was pretending to read his newspaper as he
held onto the strap while in fact ogling the open blouse of a ME in her
midthirties, who was standing in front of him and looking off to the
side. His atrociously foul breath enveloped me. The woman was listening
to music, with the volume loud enough to allow me to make out the words
of the songs, sung by Yutaka Ozaki. It was all quite unbearable. To my
left was a small middle-aged ME, who would brush up against me whenever
the train lurched, whereupon she would glare at me.
In ME, Hoshino created that dynamic construct or code word translated as "ME". Dynamic because the identity of ME shifted and multiplied throughout the course of the novel, operating under a principle governed by pure whimsy -- a spontaneous sequence of events and encounters that defied order and rationality. ME had become a mass: a collective of persons inhabiting the same identity -- the late capitalist society's lame underachiever. The method was purposive and performative.
With some effort I pulled out a large cardboard box, opened it up, and found bundles of tote bags, plastic bags, wrapping paper, advertising flyers, and empty boxes within empty boxes, like Russian nesting dolls.
"What is individuality?" asked a lump of fish roes in a serving of caviar in Gudetama, an existential Netflix cartoon. "What a drag," Gudetama the raw egg constantly intoned. In Hoshino’s novel of many MEs, the question is no less pathetic: “What does it mean to live as an individual? How does somebody learn to be one?”
At this juncture of life in a modern city, where Big Mac becomes the default meal and McDonald's is the perennial meeting place of characters, the novelist opted to work around collapsing identity and bleeding individuality. From the explosion of nuclear families (if you'll pardon the explosion) and the attendant familial and societal burdens, the regimented life of consumer capitalism, including the defined roles in a bureaucracy, it was hard enough to live against an expectation. To be an untethered self, free from the universal role of a cog in the wheel, the novelist made a freewheeling improvisation of a self multiplying like a tumor or a radioactive substance. The novelist must be free to speculate, bend logic, and embrace absurdity.
At the novel's end, Hoshino would reenact the history of civilization from cave dwelling ME to the formation of agricultural ME societies to the Anthropocene, the age of personal and historical traumas and (collective) pining for suicide.
In fact, the reader needed only to substitute the word "human" or "person" or "human being" or "human species" to every instance of the word "ME" (and "WE" and "US") in the novel and the narrative would still operate soundly and proceed logically. This was the shared allegory of the first person object as having no human agency. The shared destiny of ME was hiding in plain sight.