Justin Isis. He’s like Jonathan Franzen if Jonathan Franzen was better looking and could write. Like Paul Leppin meets Kawabata in an empty brothel with cold tile floors.
His just-published book, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, is plastic romance at its best—something sure to cause anger and distress and be gripped by lonely housewives at 2 a.m. while their husbands are in the backyard digging holes. This is neo-decadence for the unincarcerated—the book that will keep you up at night until your lips grow numb mouthing the words. So, cover your cheeks with glitter, paint a big pink heart on your depilated chest and read the following interview, because the price of food has just gone up again.
Brendan Connell: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Justin Isis: The ability to send messages to my past self, like “Don’t go to that party at Alfredo’s house because the microwave is going to blow up and permanently scar your ankle,” or “Invest heavily in the startup company your friend Edmund’s cousin just founded, because it’s going to take off globally,” or “Heather from your third grade class is actually in love with you and waiting for you to do something, but won’t have the courage to say so until fifteen years later on Facebook.” I’m sure in practice the laws of physics would fuck this up somehow by creating an endlessly ramifying series of parallel universes on the basis of the altered decisions, which would mean multiple (or endless) versions of myself would have to keep sending different messages to different past selves, similar to having an inbox full of millions of unopened e-mails to reply to. X-Ray vision would be easier, probably.
What do you think is the message of your book?
I don’t think there’s an explicit message to the book other than for it to be an ornament, but I’m aware that people might want a message, so I think the message should be, try to have a good time if you were born in a first world country. Most of the conflicts in this book are based on psychological and/or existential problems that, however debilitating, are not as bad as extreme poverty or being ethnically cleansed. Every time I feel depressed in real life I usually think “I own an iPod” and then I feel better. I think the iPod is a reliable source of existential meaning, or that my life is more insane than Napoleon’s because I can listen to the same song indefinitely and get pork buns from the convenience store. Lawson is probably my favorite convenience store in Japan, but I also like Daily Yamazaki.
Why do you consider Lawson to be superior?
Generally higher-quality baked goods and meat buns, high-quality oden (broth with meat, eggs and pickled vegetables) in winter, etc. I think the real reason though is a kind of undefinable atmosphere or spirit. I like standing around in Lawson doing nothing, especially in the early hours of the morning, when usually hostesses, drunks, and other interesting people come in and you can have random conversations with them. There’s also a sub-chain called Natural Lawson, which sells organic and more health-oriented foods at unreasonably higher prices. They’re rare though and I never see anyone in them, so they have a different atmosphere, kind of like ghost convenience stores. They feel like they’re from the future for some reason too.
Are you single right now or are you dating someone?
The last girl I thought of as a girlfriend in the “girlfriend” sense was an ex-hostess who I lost to a Taiwanese plastic surgeon with much more money. It was pretty unfair because I had better clothes and dancing skills than him. So now I usually introduce myself as a lawyer or financial consultant. You can meet interesting people and girls by posing as a priest too—they often don’t believe you when you say you were just joking. The collars are easier to come by than you might think.
Is hierophilia common in Japan?
Probably not as much so as in Europe, although I did have sex with a girl behind a shrine once. A lot of these shrines are located in very urban districts and have open space in the midst of an otherwise condensed area, open pavilions with trees and minimalist architecture, atmospheric at night and during festivals.
I noticed that all of the stories in your book take place in Japan. After reading it, will I be better prepared to visit the country?
I think you’ll be prepared to go to Lawson, go to karaoke, listen to idol music, and maybe go clubbing or something in Shibuya. I wanted to keep everything on the level of what the characters would experience every day and take for granted, so a lot of the settings are kind of monotonous and not what the characters themselves would consider culturally interesting. I think I mention izakayas (combination eating and drinking establishments, often with all you can eat/drink deals) and karaoke in maybe every other story, since they’re a pretty big part of everyday life. There are even homeless people who live in karaoke or manga cafes, they just keep renting the same room every night, much cheaper than a hotel. Probably the book could take place in any first world country in the early 21st century, although there are some cultural references and in-jokes in it about Japan, like the list of gyaru fashion models from 10 years ago in one of the stories, and also a ridiculously obscure video game reference in the last story that no one has gotten so far and which I don’t really expect anyone to get.
That’s great. I didn’t get the obscure reference, but one of the characters was playing Minesweeper, and I appreciated that. Do you think video games make people more aggressive?
I don’t know, but I feel like playing them constantly from a young age, like four or five years old, possibly affects your unconscious somehow. My dreams always used to warp into pixellated landscapes after a while. I haven’t played anything for a few years though. Minesweeper may possibly subtly increase antisocial tendencies.
If I wanted to spend some downtime at a manga cafe, which one would you suggest?
The chain I usually go to is called Gran Cafe Bagus; they have fairly decent rooms. I don’t read that much manga, but I used to go there and rent rooms for writing purposes, because if I knew I was paying for the time I was more likely to get work done. About half of Human Flesh, especially the later stories, was written in various manga cafes around the Yamanote Line.
Some of the women mentioned in your book: Ayano, Miyabi, Shono. Are these real people or products of your imagination?
They’re mostly real people. Miyabi is called Miyabi in real life. The book I’m writing now, about a professional gambler, I’m using her real name and if you read the book closely and went to Hiroshima you could probably find her workplace. I used to tell people I was going to do this and they didn’t take it seriously, like “That’s not going to happen, I don’t believe you’re really a writer.” Their image of a writer is like some old man or university professor. Anyway, none of these people can speak or read English.
That’s good. Too many people can speak English already anyhow. But let’s talk about that book you’re working on. The internet has been abuzz about something called Girl Revolution with talk of a movie deal and so on. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
It’s essentially the sequel to Human Flesh. There’s another book I have to publish first, but Girl Revolution will pick up where Human Flesh left off and will be twice as long. I wanted it to be like 1000 pages, but I’m not sure I can write that much. All the stories are about hostesses, vomiting, and the Catholic Church.
That said, I actually do have a movie deal, the Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo is currently making a feature-length film based on one of my unpublished stories, which will be set in Tokyo and Malaysia. It has a lot of suicides and people doing inappropriate things to reality. There was originally going to be a film based on the story I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, Etc. that was being developed by graduate students at Waseda University, but they eventually lost funding. But it had gotten to the stage where they were trying to cast actresses from television dramas.
I have a lot more questions I’d like to ask, but people on the internet have really short attention spans. Anything you would like to add to this interview before we sign off?
Nothing to add other than that I hope everyone who reads this will buy at least five copies of the book and also consider sending me money, which will be used to fund drinking and buying new clothes. You know it makes sense.