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Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009

Kafkaesque tale for the new porn era

THE APPRENTICESHIP OF BIG TOE P, by Rieko Matsuura. Kodansha International, 2009, 448 pp., ¥2,730 (hardcover)

As Kazumi Mano awoke one morning from a troubled dream, she found her big toe transformed into a monstrous penis. So it starts — Kafkaesque but oh so Japanese. First published in 1993 as "Oyayubi P no Shugyo Jidai," Rieko Matsuura's "The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P" is a novel about sexual transgression, love and friendship.

A best-seller 16 years ago, "The Apprenticeship," lithely translated by Michael Emmerich, is neither de Sade nor de Beauvoir. Well-written sex scenes (it won Matsuura the Women's Literature Prize) vie for narrative space with subtly humorous set pieces. Despite its subject matter, the book is not shocking. Is this because in 2009, readers, anaesthetized to transgression, are blase about the mediatization of pornography?

In a novel in which a woman's "apprenticeship" is in the various combinations of male and female sexual intercourse, why is the most outrageous scene the torture and death of a kitten?

The story line: After discovering the suicided body of her friend and boss Yoko, Kazumi Mano dreams that her right big toe has turned into a penis. Confessing this to the narrator M., Kazumi realizes that the dream is real. But is the toe-penis a curse, a gift or a riddle?

Her boyfriend, appalled and fascinated by Kazumi's new appendage, attempts to emasculate her, so she leaves him for his next-door neighbor, a Freudian/Oedipal blind musician called Kendo Shunji. While in Shunji's orbit, Kazumi undergoes a series of sexual experiments and encounters including autofellatio and rape. After falling in love and becoming engaged, she meets the Flower Show, a touring troupe whose members have special sexual organs and proclivities. This group of hermaphrodites, mutants and Siamese twins watch animal snuff movies, go to wrestling matches and play slapstick games with dildos.

There are dispositions on sexuality, human development, lesbianism, homosexuality, video games, and the novel directly asks: What is normal and what is abnormal? The remaining narrative concerns itself with the relationships between the members of the troupe as they travel around Japan performing their bizarre show to an audience of businesspeople, politicians and gangsters.

If "The Apprenticeship" is an allegory, it is an understated one. Its meta-fictional qualities (within the book, the narrator M. acquires the rights to the story from Kazumi) are playful and well observed. As in Will Self's "Cock and Bull" — two connected novellas in which a woman grows a penis and rapes her husband and a man grows a vagina behind his knee — "The Apprenticeship" has elements of satire in its questioning and exploration of the mutability and elision of gender roles in the postmodern world. That it does not preach and moralize are pluses for the reader; that it grounds an absurd situation in the everyday is an added bonus. There is no why, there is no back story, there is no explanation as to how Kazumi came to have a toe-penis, and so the novel embodies Coleridge's dictum: "To transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

Rieko Matsuura delivers a "Metamorphosis" for the age of pornography, a novel that, although not shocking, destabilizes our view of "normal" society and relationships. Kodansha International has done a fine job in packaging this book — it is jacketed in "Sex and the City" black and pink. Ovid and Franz Kafka would have heartily approved. So would Candace Bushnell.

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