Translated from the German by Sheila Dickie
(New York, NY: New Vessel Press, 2014)
Taguchi Hiro is sitting across from an older businessman who wears a necktie, a “salaryman” as they say in Japan. They are strangers who find themselves at the park every day, bench to bench, watching each other in glances. Taguchi is wary. The salaryman is patient. He gets up to leave and Taguchi says, “Goodbye.” It’s the first word he’s spoken in years.
This wasn’t something he expected to happen. He hasn’t been outside since he was a teenager. “I can no longer,” were the words that came to mind when he locked his bedroom door and boarded the cracks of light. Away from parents, away from pressure, away from the image of his childhood friend lying dead on the ground after jumping from a window.
Taguchi is a twenty-year old hikokomori, the Japanese term for a young shut-in that literally translates as “pulling away, being confined.” Hikokomori meet expectation with silent defiance. They turn catatonic in their parents’ homes, refusing to “make something” of themselves. They don’t move out or get jobs or play the corporate game. They refrain from interaction, from speech and emotion. They see no other way out of the commercial maze, from a world that is rife with competitive companionship and the bullies that are born from it. They “can no longer.” Taguchi explains:
I avoid thinking of the big picture. If I think: Society. Then my head spins. Too big. What is that? I can’t see it. What I see are details. That’s what I want to stay with. With small things.
The question remains: what draws Taguchi outside again? The man in the necktie would say, “It was a decision.”
But as for society, Taguchi can fathom more than he admits. Weighing in at one hundred and twenty-eight pages, I Called Him Necktie reads like a commentary on the casualties of the global marketplace, illuminating the “decisions” that sit at the root of every circumstance. Dialogue unfolds, sans quotation marks, into a sensory, sensitive novel from Milena Michiko Flašar about the dangers and benefits of interpersonal connection—and the larger forces that govern our perspective.
The story moves with simplicity, told in jolts of savory detail. “He ate slowly, chewed each bite ten times,” Taguchi says of the man across from him, who eats from a bento box. He is sensitive to the brightness of the outside world, to the meaning of a glance, to the wind that blows the man’s cigarette smoke towards him. Before the two are formally introduced, Taguchi simply calls the man “Necktie,” thinking, “It is the tie that wears you, not the other way around.”
Necktie pulls a bento box out of his briefcase for lunch every day, a meal that his wife, Kyoko, wakes up early to make for him. When he introduces himself with his real name, “Ohara Tetsu,” Taguchi’s impulse is to retreat. But he stays to hear that the salaryman has lost his job and has not yet told Kyoko. He spends business hours at the park and returns home to eat with her, as if nothing has changed.
At this point, parallels emerge. The characters are friendly foils who, from the hours of 9 to 5, belong nowhere. They are defective products—they do not perform. After different decisions, they are in the same place, and what advice can they give each other? “We are marked, after all,” Taguchi says. “We have a flaw. What if it is not forgiven? What if society…won’t have us back?”
The narrative intersects at points of speechlessness, when the characters are at their most silent. Taguchi’s presence reminds Ohara of his son, and Taguchi sees a child in him, caught in the rain. “I felt the need to cover him,” he says. “A natural desire to protect him somehow from harm.” Every interaction is a step into a life that Taguchi has been trying to shut off. He does not want to be in any more memories. He does not want to feel (or cause) any more pain. But still, he finds himself a part of Ohara’s story. “He had thousands of memories, thousands of images, and now, since he noticed me, I was one of them.”
It’s the danger of being born in the first place that seems to hit Taguchi hardest, and he is born twice—first from his mother, and second from his choice to reemerge. From there, he sees little hope: “…growing up is a loss,” Taguchi says. “You think you are winning. Really you are losing yourself.”
Taguchi suffers from a poignant depression—one that rings like a bell through his system. But as Ohara reminds him, “It was a decision.” He speaks:
Be careful what age you end up. It sticks to you. It seals you shut. The age you choose is like glue, it sets around you. This wisdom is not mine, you know. I got it from a book. A movie. I’m not sure. You notice things. It’s incredible. Your whole life you notice things.
They are relative, Taguchi and Ohara. They are balancing beams in time. They have pieces of what the other needs but they do not heal each other—they can’t. They listen to the stillness around them, to the air between words. Their days have been widdled down to a Beckettian-like nothingness, a silence so sweet and painful that every movement threatens the web they’ve woven around themselves. This time they need to remerge with the world they live in. “I should learn that nothing stays as it is, and yet it is still worthwhile being in the world,” Taguchi says. “I am still learning that.”
I Called Him Necktie is a strange coming of age tale that hones in on the cogs in the wheel, the mindsets that move an economy forward. Unlikely vehicles drive this complex, symbolic narrative—a stationary park bench unveils two painful stories, a bento box illustrates belonging and place. Like everyone around Taguchi and Ohara, the sushi is where it’s supposed to be, wasabi and ginger walled off from the greens. But what happens to the characters who cannot stay in one place—who, like Taguchi’s friend, “recognized that nothing is perfect and he was too young to draw the right conclusions from it”? In a world that loves perfection and performance, what happens to the old, the useless, the damaged, the unwilling?
No answers are provided. There are more questions at the end than there were at the beginning. The question of Taguchi’s future is the largest. Who will he become? What will he discover? After the wormhole of analysis and suffering he’s survived, will he do something good for the world? The hope is in the either/or. There are decisions to be made. There weren’t before. That’s more important than the answers.
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Gloria Beth Amodeo’s short fiction, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Helping Orphans Worldwide (H.O.W.) Journal, Carrier Pigeon,Publisher’s Weekly, NY __________, and elsewhere. She is the first place winner of the 2011 H.OW. Journal fiction contest, and she is an online editor for The Literary Review.