Review: Monkey Business: Volume 2 (2012)

Why haven’t you bought this already? It’s great!

Monkey Business: New Writing Volume 2 (2012)

If you haven’t been hanging around Junbungaku lately and missed all the times that I’ve brought it up, Monkey Business International is a yearly literary journal dedicated (mostly) to contemporary Japanese literature in translation. It’s a spin-off of the now sadly defunct Japanese literary journal Monkey Business, which exhibited a somewhat eclectic, avant-garde sensibility, or at the very least, represented an alternative to the old-guard world of the other traditional literary journals (they had an entire issue devoted to Paul Auster, for god’s sake).

Lucky for us English speakers, the torch is being carried by original founder Motoyuki Shibata, translator Ted Goosen, and the people at A Public Space. The first issue, which had work by (I’m just going to go with English style name order here, sorry for the inconsistency) Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami, and a really, really long interview with Haruki Murakami, was a solid, hope-kindling first issue. But I have to say, volume 2 is even better.

To start, volume 2 is slightly longer in page length, and without the 60-page Murakami interview, it just feels a whole lot fuller and more diverse. Basically, if this venture is successful, it’s going to be like getting a yearly Monkey Brain Sushi or Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs, and just the very idea of that is fantastic. And in a way, it’s even better than those two books, because we also get the bonus of poetry, essay, interview, and manga.

Although I would say the content is quite diverse, it definitely carries on the original Monkey Business spirit, as most of the fiction and manga lean on the experimental or fantastic. That’s right up my alley, but if realism is more your thing, well, Keita Genji’s “Mr. English” is a great story, as is Tomoka Shibasaki’s “The Seaside Road.”

I’m not going to go through everything in this year’s volume, because frankly I wanted to post this less as a review and more as a response to reading it, if that makes any sense. Each individual part of Monkey Business isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, but looking at it as a whole, this is exactly what I want: a diverse, contemporary-leaning selection of Japanese literature that I can’t get anywhere else.

Because looking at it realistically, it seems to me that a bizarre story like Masatsugu Ono’s “I Chase the Monkey and the Monkey Flees From Me, the Monkey Chases Me and I Flee From the Monkey” would have a hard time finding a home anywhere else. Even if Ono was an American writer, a story like that (i.e. sentences that last for a page at a time with an expressionistic dream-like narrative) just doesn’t have mainstream appeal. Now translator Michael Emmerich has gotten just as strange things published (I don’t know how he does it; I imagine every publisher dreams for a Murakami success story when they pick them up) but none of them are cash cows. But in the confines of Monkey Business, it makes perfect sense—and not just because it involves a monkey.

For me, Monkey Business Volume 2 is important because it was my introduction to Toh EnJoe. About a year ago he came into my radar, and now after winning the Akutagawa Prize in January, he’s starting to get some mainstream attention as well. And while my curiosity and mild enthusiasm was mainly based on hearsay and general plot descriptions, I now have first hand experience reading his work (in translation), and I can say with just a little more certainty: Toh EnJoe might be the next big thing in Japanese literature.

“Meditations on Green,” the story showcased here, is not the first of EnJoe’s work to be published in English —Speculative Japan 2 nabbed him first as far as I can tell, and he has another story in the very recent The Future is Japanese— but as an introduction to an author, it’s damn near perfect. The story, about a scientist performing experiments on single-celled organisms as a means to play with evolution, combines philosophy, science, and sentiment in a meaningful, readable story that touches on something profound in a big way. It’s a story with lofty ideas, but there’s a beating, living heart to it as well. This is pure literature, folks, make no mistake. It’s impossible to judge EnJoe purely on this one story, but the news that his debut Self-Reference ENGINE might be coming out from Haikasoru in January is thrilling, to say the least.

Not that anyone’s asking, but besides the aforementioned revelation, I most enjoyed Keija Jin’s “Bridges,” Mimei Ogawa’s “Sleepyville,” Keita Genji’s “Mr. English,” and the second part of Hiromi Kawakami’s “People From My Neighborhood.” I especially enjoyed Keita Genji’s “Mr. English” and Mimei Ogawa’s “Sleepyville” because they aren’t contemporary, because hey, I like diversity in that way too, and they also step out of the comfort zone of using only work that was previously published in the original Monkey Business. I’m sure getting English language rights is easier that way, but I hope it means they will be open to other submissions…

I feel like there’s something for everyone here, and frankly, I want to see this project continue, so can you all just go out and buy it already?

___

Originally published May 25, 2012.

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