Any topic, no matter how disturbing, is potential for a short story. It all depends on how well the said topic is executed, and if executed well, the story succeeds. If executed poorly, it fails. Then, there are topics that when shoved together within a single collection don’t always work. Topics like cannibalism, incest, animal cruelty, S&M, masturbation, transsexuality, and any additional form of emotional cruelty may not work if there are more than, say, two of these topics within a tale. Reason being, the writing then runs the risk of becoming too melodramatic, too self-conscious with the writer’s desire to “shock” just for the sake of shock alone, or just not believable, and ultimately the literature is lost. Yet the debut collection of short stories in I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, by Justin Isis, not only touches upon many of these “troubling” topics, but the stories do contain wonderful moments of lyricism — the best collection of short fiction I can recall reading from a first time writer.
First, I don’t want readers to be put off by this collection simply because it contains subject matter that might seem “upsetting” to some. Because here’s the catch: Isis shows us that something like cannibalism or cruelty can be used as an effective metaphor, for the tales themselves are dreamlike. While one can see influences from Japanese writers like Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, Isis has an approach that is all his own. By using just the right amount of emotional detachment, Isis is able to accomplish what few writers can: he actually crafts beauty from violence.
In “The Garden of Sleep,” here is how the narrator describes his lover’s fingernails: “That day you had gone to a nail salon in Omotesando, and now your hands were beautiful jeweled claws, ornamental and useless, the hands of an empress: each inch-long silver nail encrusted with plastic gems and tiny pink roses. As always you sat with your back perfectly straight.”
Note the spare yet poetic writing style, how there is just the right amount of description present. Isis’ prose is the result of both an observant eye and ear, for he knows just the way to describe his characters, giving them the added insights needed, while also structuring the scene with the distance necessary to obtain full effect. In his title story, “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like,” we are given two troubled teenagers: the male is a writer and the female is, well, disturbed. (Both are, actually.) While in a park together, the girl notices a dog and decides, after picking it up, that she wants to kill it.
Hidemi walked over and picked the dog up. Its head and tail drooped over the sides of her arms. It struggled, but her short arms held it to her chest.—You think maybe it belongs to that old man? Check the collar.
—I want to kill it, she said, and walked off in the direction of the toilets. He walked behind her and reached a hand around her waist.
Following the killing, “Let’s go get ice cream,” she says. Little is spoken of the incident afterwards. What makes the tale so effective is not only the way Isis presents this disturbing scene, but he leaves enough ambiguity so that we are left wondering if this is just a dream or not. After reading this tale, I felt saddened even though I knew it was only fiction.
One of the best tales in the collection is “The Quest For Chinese People,” and it is somewhat different in approach from the rest. Kenji, the owner of a pizza restaurant, suddenly becomes fascinated with the Chinese because he learns there are 1.3 billion of them on earth. He begins to think he is being left out of a club, and the tale is an excellent exercise in fantasy, for while this tale is not as dreamlike as some of the others, it involves the ideas of fantasy as pertaining to identity, and reading it is ultimately an existential experience. It also is one of the more character driven tales.
In the final novella-length tale, titled “A Thread From Heaven,” here is the wonderfully poetic way the narrator describes an otherwise violent accident on a train: