I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar, translated by Sheila Dickie
To better understand this elliptical, exceptional novel, allow me to elucidate a growing cultural phenomena trapping Japanese young people. According to a glossary entry at novel’s end, some 100,000 to 320,000 hikikomori exist in Japan. They are self-made prisoners in their parents’ home, usually hidden away in a bedroom, and emerge as necessary (bathroom, food) only when human contact can be avoided. “The main cause is believed to be the huge demands to conform and achieve on school and society,” the glossary entry adds. While predominantly found in Japan, hikikomori populations in other areas – Korea, Europe, India, even the US – are growing. [For a stunning, unforgettable American hikikomori debut novel, don’t miss Jeff Backhaus’ Hikikomori and the Rental Sister.]
Taguchi Hiro is such a hikikomori. After two years of self-imposed isolation, he is slowly venturing beyond his parents’ walls. His first interaction develops slowly with an older man who arrives at the same time, sits on the same bench, eats lunch at the same time, in the same park where Taguchi has chosen to attempt to reenter society. Silent observation soon turns into genuine conversation, transforming denial into an unexpected opportunity for connection and understanding.
Ohara Tetsu is a lifetime salaryman who, after more than three decades, has been replaced by younger, hungrier, improved versions of himself. Ashamed to have been so unceremoniously discarded by a company to which he was loyal his entire adult life, he’s been unable to tell his wife – who continues to rise at 6:00 to pack him a delicious bento meal as she has done every morning of their marriage.
The two men – Taguchi who should be in the cusp of an exciting new life, Ohara who should be enjoying the fruits of his long labors – recognize each other as kindred spirits, sharing an intimacy as neither has ever done with anyone else. Taguchi speaks of two friends whose lives were destroyed … and his silent complicity in their violent suicides. Ohara, too, shares his involvement in negating the lives of the two most important people in his life – his wife whose rebel spirit he suffocated and their son to whom he could never offer even a moment of tenderness. By baring their souls to each other, each is strengthened to embark on a path of substantial change. Even after tragedy strikes, a seeming miracle intervenes to rebalance a hopeful future.
Originally published in German by hapa Japanese Austrian Milena Michiko Flašar and set in Japan, that Necktie arrives Stateside in translation after winning the 2012 Austrian Alpha Literature Prize reflects a universal resonance which emanates from the slim novel. Taguchi and Ohara could be any-names, any-genders, meeting on any-bench anywhere. Written in 114 vignettes over a mere 128 pages, Necktie is both warning and prophecy about the future of our media-numbed society. In today’s less-than-brave new world in which sincere human interaction is disappearing even as the numbers of so-called ‘friends’ are multiplying, Necktie is a piercing reminder to acknowledge, nurture, and share our humanity: “perhaps it really is this reaching out, this reaching towards someone else, that’s needed most of all.”