An abridged version of this article appeared in the April 2017 print edition of Metropolis.
“Is this book a novel trying to do philosophy or is it philosophy masquerading as a novel?” This was the question I found myself asking over and over again as I made my way through Kazufumi Shiraishi’s Me Against the World. Right from the opening page, Shiraishi’s work seems to deliberately confuse genres. “The Publisher’s Forward” is actually a fictional introduction to “K,” the recently deceased salaryman whose philosophical musings make up the bulk of Me Against the World’s one hundred or so pages.
This foreword gives the impression that Shiraishi has literary ambitions for the book we are going to read. A book based on the words of a man who is already dead seems to be a reference to Kokoro, a novel by Japanese literary giant Natsume Soseki, whose face once graced the surface of the one thousand yen note. The final section of Kokoro takes the form of a suicide note from an older man, known only as Sensei, to our younger narrator. And if this similarity wasn’t enough for the reader, Shiraishi heavy-handedly hammers it home by having his deceased character, “K,” bear the same name as Sensei’s rival in love. Yet despite its literary pretensions and perhaps a preoccupation with death, Me Against the World bears very little resemblance to Soseki’s masterpiece.
First and foremost, Kokoro is a novel with a plot. It follows a series of characters through various parts of their lives. And while it certainly raises philosophical questions through doing so, I would never really call it a work of philosophy. Me Against the World on the other hand is a book without a plot. Beyond the “Publisher’s Forward” which briefly details the events of K’s life, nothing really happens. K is the only character who is ever named (well, except for his cat Hachi). And the only events that K describes to us are a series of hypothetical situations which he uses to illustrate his philosophical viewpoint, including a particularly graphic one involving a father taking his revenge on the man who raped and murdered his daughter.
And while there is nothing wrong with mixing genres, these hypothetical situations and a series of powerful metaphors—which Raj Mahtani does a good job of translating, such as one that compares humanity to uncontrollably multiplying cancer cells—still don’t constitute a story. Instead they are being used by K to espouse his philosophical argument. And the philosophy of Me Against the World leaves something to be desired.
K’s ramblings often lack a certain degree of philosophical rigor, and I found myself constantly disagreeing with his claims. Early on in the book he talks about the existence of the soul. He says that it would be ridiculous to doubt the existence of the soul, but that even if we do it shouldn’t change anything. Elsewhere, much of K’s discussion revolves around the idea of death: What does it mean to die? What happens to us after death? What would happen if people lived forever? Yet his discussions about death are all based on the assumption that we have a soul. K never addresses the counter-argument, in this case whether or not we even have a soul, and this failure to anticipate an objection is not the mark of a strong argument.
These moments in the book infuriated me. This was no Socratic dialogue; K had no interlocutor to push back against his often totally left-field claims. Furthermore, in the foreword our editor has already asked us for forgiveness over the often shocking things that K has chosen to write about. This feels like a weak excuse to allow the author to get away with bad arguments by saying, “Well, it’s not really me saying this.” Shiraishi uses the form of the novel to allow him to get away with some rather weak philosophizing, with K as his mouthpiece.
Yet, as it turns out this isn’t an entirely fair characterization of what Me Against the World is doing. By the end of the book I began to see how it was more like a novel than I had given it credit for. The book didn’t suddenly shift into meaningful plot but Part II of K’s writing served as a sort of climax to the work. There is a sudden shift in topic, moving from a discussion about death to one that is focused on love. Without revealing too much the move helps bring together some of the more absurd things that K has written. I’m still not sure whether to call Me Against the World a novel or a work of philosophy, but I would recommend it to someone who is willing persevere through its frustrations.
Kazufumi Shiraishi, trans. Raj Mahtani. Me Against the World. Dalkey Archive Press. English, 120pp. $15.00.