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Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008

Stephen Barber: Re-imagining the Megalopolis


By STEVE FINBOW
THE TOKYO TRILOGY by Stephen Barber. Creation Books, 2008, 320 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Apocalyptic orgasms, feral abattoir gangs and the digitalization of Hitler's ghost rarely appear in mainstream literature, and Stephen Barber's "The Tokyo Trilogy" — comprising "Tokyo Sodom," "Tokyo Slaughterhouse" and "Tokyo Supernova" — would not sit comfortably on a shelf next to a John Grisham or a Dan Brown.

Barber's closest literary familiars are Dennis Cooper, Stewart Home and Peter Sotos. Barber's pared-down style — reminiscent of Richard Allen's skinhead novels of the 1970s — is cut with historical facts and poststructuralist theory, radical politics and pornography, and presented in a formulaic language as transgressional as its subject matter — a textual equivalent of the Japanese "Za Ginipiggu (Guinea Pig)" horror movies of the 1980s.

At times, the desire to shock becomes tiresome and unnecessary — an exponential overlapping of anal sex, fascism and violence — but Barber (unlike Sotos) dilutes the hysterical elements with storytelling panache. Eschewing censure, reading like a blue movie shot by Sam Peckinpah and scripted by Jean Genet on crystal meth, "Tokyo Sodom" relates how the beautiful Slovakian filmmaker Angeliko and her Japanese counterpart Junko attempt to destroy the hegemony of neocapitalism by projecting — on huge screens throughout Tokyo — a one-minute film depicting closeups of the physical aftermath of Angeliko's anal-sex encounters. Sexual partners include Buddhist monks, Kobo Daishi, salarymen commuters, and members of an Aum Shinrikyo-like death cult — all this funded by the Sato Corporation, a shadowy offshoot of the infamous World War II biochemical warfare research and development Unit 731.

"Tokyo Slaughterhouse" recounts the journey of the Slaughterhouse Boys from Magadan in Siberia to a Tokyo ravished by eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. From Daiba island to Kabuki-cho by way of Ginza, the Slaughterhouse Boys battle speed-tribes and gangs of teenage pimps — a high-speed, otaku-version of "Romeo and Juliet" played out in a destroyed megalopolis whose literary architect is J.G. Ballard.

In "Tokyo Supernova" — a flashback to the time between "Sodom" and "Slaughterhouse" — Angeliko and Junko (with the help of teenage twins) plot to destroy China's economy by bombing its major cities, the missiles fueled by and carrying a toxic payload derived from the semen of surviving members of Yukio Mishima's Shield Society. One cannot accuse Barber of not having a vivid imagination.

An interest in the glossy paraphernalia of Nazism, fascism and neofascism, and references to "necessary ethnic cleansing," a wish to "Return to Zero," and the construction and use of a bio-contaminate called "Zyklon-C," make political obfuscation problematic. Barber forces the reader to re-examine ideas of ethics and morals in a world in which corporate greed and environmental negligence have become the new battlefields.

Yet Barber's fictional apotheosis of Hitler, Stalin and Shiro Ishii does not always work. These "characters" create a confused exploration of the perceived gap between politics and ethics. Politics equals power and subjugation and therefore equals pornography. Ethics, even a negative ethics, an individualistic ethics, circumscribes politics (however radical). The portrayal of Nazi and fascist characters, an attempt to manifest capitalist societies' worst fears, is an attack on the machinations of corporate power and a means to overthrow it; yet, the novels come very close to romanticizing genocidal regimes — such as the Khmer Rouge — and read more like works of fascistic hagiography than studies in political relativism. The separation between author and subject is not as clear as it might be.

Despite these reservations, writers such as Stephen Barber are necessary. With a nod to Georges Bataille, a curtsy to Kathy Acker, and a bow to Bizarro literature, Barber accosts the reader with rapid images of sex, torture and violence. He subverts our "cosy" view of politics, eroticism and the city.

Indeed, his postcataclysmic/orgasmic portrayal of Tokyo, and his vision of Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo as contemporary Cities of the Plain, fuse Walter Benjamin's theories of the city as body and as metaphor with a Foucault-like discourse on sex, power and desire.

Based in Tokyo — and using Shinjuku (postmodern sex, neo-economies, the pornography of architecture) and Ginza (old money, nostalgia, empire) as metonyms for the polarity of Japanese society — the "Trilogy" explores ideas of social compliance and sexual transgression. The "Tokyo Trilogy" is not obscene; the descriptions of sex are unerotic, and after a few pages perfunctory.

Barber uses pornography as a mirror-image of late-stage capitalism — the repetitious construction of images/representation/commodities to produce a pre-perceived consumer consummation. In the case of "The Tokyo Trilogy," the result is a studied consideration of the condition and fate of humankind.



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