Review: I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like

By Simon J. Berman

Isis, Justin. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like. Chomu Press (January 12, 2011). US $16.00. ISBN-13: 978-1907681011.

The debut collection of author Justin Isis, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, is a meticulously crafted set of unsettling stories set in contemporary Japan. Isis is clearly fascinated with the alienation at the core of modern city life, the dulled sensations of the over-stimulated, and the sharp edges where those states meet.

The 10 stories of the collection are carefully strung together by three stories, each named with a variation on the book’s own title: “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Unauthorized Egg Cover Book Mode”, “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like”, and “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, Etc.” These three tales are clearly the loose vertebrae around which the entire collection is articulated. The three stories seem to be variations on a theme, an increasingly exacting attempt to answer the question of their titles. At no time does Isis directly answer it, although, in some cases, the act of cannibalism is more than alluded to. In the final of three, a pair of twin teenage girls raised as vegetarians begin to experiment with the taboo of meat. Following the tropes of western horror, one girl follows her new tastes to their logical extreme. The final culinary taboo she breaks is naturally incestuous.

This sort of taboo is a dominant theme in all of the author’s stories. His protagonists are damaged individuals, all of whom become fascinated with societal transgressions of one sort or another. Their pathologies are deeply rutted and follow relentless, if not predictable, courses. In the collection’s final story, “A Thread from Heaven”, the main character, Tomo, flits from one empty relationship to the next, carelessly toying with the emotions of his associations. Even the one object of his affection can only truly appeal to him when he considers her as a dead and dissected thing. An educated man, he knows that he can never truly even touch her, that all sensations are illusions, the product of invisible physics. In realizing this, he longs for a mingled death where his particles and hers could truly be joined:

“He knew that even if he were to sleep with Shiho he could never really touch any part of her, that even if he were to impregnate her he would only be acting out a farce. The laws of physics would not allow to objects to exist in the same space, which was what he wanted – to have every dream, every cell, every trace of his existence in time entangled with hers. The nervous system prevented any real communion; only an atomic weapon would be enough to smear their shadows together – ”

These themes of disassociation and transgression are deftly weaved throughout the collection with the author’s deft and exacting prose. Isis clearly plots his often-complicated stories with beautiful clarity. Isis has a gift for understated horror and what seems to be a thorough understanding of contemporary Japanese culture. I confess that, lacking that understanding myself, I occasionally found references to societal norms and innuendos that I could only recognize, but not comprehend. Although these stories are all set in modern Japan, reflections of their alienated characters will be easily recognized by any western reader who finds himself in a major city. Isis has clearly mastered the tone of personal horror available to residents of Japan’s pre-quake metropolises. Isis is a promising new voice in experimental fiction and it will be very interesting to see his reaction to the recent disasters that have struck Japan, both environmental and existential.

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