Review: I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like by Justin Isis

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On the outskirts of underground literature lives a strange creature, dragging behind its thin frame the noisy trappings of weird fiction, Japanese tradition, and less definite identities. Cannibalism is just one of its obsessions, part of a chemistry set aimed at blowing up old literary forms and making them anew. Its name is Justin Isis. In his debut collection just published by Chomu Press, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, Isis performs an exorcism against the demons of literary convention and demolishes the casing that binds taboos others are afraid to even mention. The book serves as an almanac of obsession, where paperdoll characters are drawn like moths to the simmering flames of their conscious and unconscious desires.

This volume of ten stories rockets into a borderland between the surreal and the ultra-lucid. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like is not weird horror, surreal literature, or Japanese fiction, though there are all elements of all three strongly embedded in each tale. If a noctuary written by alienated youths living in contemporary Japan were pieced together, it would look a lot like this book. It also functions as a masquerade of opposed elements, where pessimist philosophers, teen idols, and sexual deviants are encouraged to hit the disco floor, without fear of tarnishing their own reputations. Isis' ability to connect these elements through rich symbolism and unlikely scenarios is impressive, and all the more so since he wears a newcomer's badge.

Although the supernatural is used sparingly, or not at all, depending on one's interpretation, horror is generously employed throughout the collection. In “Nanako,” for instance, the narrator confronts the larger-than-life face of a classmate he has obsessed over. His grisly reaction is horrible, on one level, but also reveals the depths of his soul and everyone else's incessant will to dissect idolized mysteries. Meanwhile, Isis makes the spectral Manami of “Manami's Hair” into a strange and dreaded presence. When the unseen character finally shows up at the tale's conclusion, one senses a collective shudder run through the pages. For Manami is not just a curious shadow blinding the female protagonist, but a hinge inhabiting wraith who makes readers question whether anyone is living, not just sleepwalking, in this story.

Justin Isis introduces recurring haunts and characters who seem oblivious that they are breaking social taboos. When seen from a slightly different angle in each story, it lends the collection a distinctive flavor, not unlike the forbidden delicacy of the book's title. “A Design for Life” flips the passion of a college student for a student group's director into unlikely territory. This tale represents a rare case where one of Isis' characters fails to have his self-gnawing obsession realized. A dazed, shabby old man turns up repeatedly, providing light comic relief as well as enacting the story's final micro-apocalypse.

A Design for Life” nicely illustrates the way Isis drags strangeness on stage from unpredictable corners, and his effective destruction of self-hood – if his characters indeed possess an identity beyond their frenzied obsessions. “The Garden of Sleep” takes this one step further, as an older gentleman throws himself into bringing a teen transvestite’s gender transformation to fruition. This story winds down in a somewhat predicable betrayal, but Isis' prose has virtually mastered the art of rumination. His characters' strained meditations leave them singed, gruesomely exposed to the reader, yet simultaneously frozen as text-bound metaphors from an offbeat Zen parable.

Three other tales in I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like are even more blatant at communicating the hyper-original worldview of Justin Isis. “The Quest for Chinese People” begins when a pizza maker realizes just how many Chinese people actually populate the globe. This “Chinese epiphany,” besides being one more obsession, carries with it the sanity warping power of a Lovecraftian existential crisis. Surprisingly, the enormity of China and its denizens can be just as effective a mental splinter as Great Cthulhu's existence. This is the most extreme example of Isis' thought-play – turning the absurd into an idea with real gravity.

The Eye of the Living is No Warmth” reveals how Isis can string the most disparate elements into a coherent narrative. Here, one follows a duo of overgrown juveniles as they set out to defend the honor of a pop idol scandalized by the media. This almost Quixotic adventure reads like a conversation between the ideal outsider with normality, and references obscure female sirens in the same breath as a re-imagined Conspiracy Against the Human Race, without seeming ridiculous. “A Thread from Heaven” again takes us into the ethereal school system, where an artistic schoolboy idolizes an aloof Korean who spends his time enraptured in a carefully edited Bible. The novella length piece explores alienation, modernity's social chasms, and religion, among other themes, but seems charged with a tense, bizarre relationship between the two teen boys as well as emotional poles of boredom, longing, and terrific disbelief.

No less than three stories in this collection carry some variation of the book's title. “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Unauthorized Egg Model Book Cover” suffers from brevity and vagueness of purpose. The fragmentary story introduces a captivating classmate and an old woman who has her history re-made. Is the vignette an introduction, or mini-tale added as an afterthought, perhaps inspired by the book's cover illustration? Hard to say. This is a minor hiccup, though.

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like” centers on two self-absorbed youths who talk about art and commit a couple wanton cruelties – nearly as an afterthought. Almost, in fact, as a commentary on adolescent boredom and indifferent cruelty. Finally, “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Etc.” is an engrossing transition to the wonders of meat for two vegetarian sisters. Like a demented manga with endless mental visuals generated by Isis' measured prose, one sister's new found taste for flesh leads her toward a date with delicacy. Or is it destiny?

Reading these imminently re-readable tales the first, second, or tenth time often feels like a lucid dream. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like runs on otherworldly logic, and Justin Isis seems a backstage manager. Really, however, Isis is the architect – an odd, sometimes unbelievable role. With few errors or soggy concepts, he represents the rare author who shows up to the scene totally formed. This collection will be difficult to surpass with subsequent tales or novels, but then, its very existence proves Isis is a capable magician, with a talent for giving his unique headspace life on the pages and inside other skulls.

-Grim Blogger

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