One of our favorite works so far this year is Dempow Torishima’s Sisyphean. It’s an incredibly unique work that defies categorization. It’s weird for even weird fiction as it blends elements of science fiction and strange biotechnology. It also features illustrations by the author that might fit into a H.R. Giger or Zdzisław Beksiński exhibit, and familiar but strange protologisms to describe a remote and far-flung future. We sat down with Japanese author Dempow Torishima to ask him about his book, his influences, and what he’s working on next. Special thanks to Daniel Huddleston, translator of Sisyphean, for also translating this interview. We’re also featuring an excerpt from Sisyphean which we urge readers to also check out.
WFR: What kinds of fiction or stories did you read and watch growing up?
Dempow Torishima: As a child, I liked stories with illustrations, like Doctor Doolittle, René Guillot’s Un petit chien va dans la lune, works by Edogawa Rampo, and so on (I was enthralled by the things that rose up between the words and the pictures), and I think that is also related to my present style of writing.
In my teenage years, I got really into strange, unique works of Japanese fiction, such as Kyusaku Yumeno’s Dogra Magra, Mushitaro Oguri’s Murder at Black Death Mansion, Shozo Numa’s Yapoo: the Human Cattle. In particular, I was strongly influenced by the word-plays, images of body modification, and so on in Yapoo: the Human Cattle.
After that, I started reading a variety of novels from a variety of countries (regardless of genre), and as you might expect, I really liked the ones with strong conceits and high levels of the absurd. These days, I like Can Xue, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Seth Fried. I’m also drawn to authors like Yoko Tawada and Yuko Yamao, who are very particular about the words they use. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Hisashi Kuroma’s translation style shocked me with its copious use of kanji neologisms and ruby text.
(In Japanese books, ruby text — tiny phonetic characters printed next to kanji characters — is sometimes used to indicate the pronunciations of difficult kanji. I use it to create wordplays, double-meanings, and so on. Still, from the time I was first published, I’ve been told those effects are impossible to replicate in English. )
As for movies, I like directors such as David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jan Švankmajer, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but even within that group Cronenberg looms large, and has influenced me strongly in terms of both visuals and speculation.
WFR: What writers or storytellers do you look up to the most, in regards to setting models for your own writing?
DT: So many names come to mind that it’s hard to narrow it down. For every work I write, I’m inspired by a different author. I’m drawn to authors who draw as well as write, like Edward Carey. As for contemporary Japanese authors, Toh EnJoe and Yusuke Miyauchi are always stimulating.
WFR: How would you describe your personal aesthetic in your own words?
DT: To the extent that it’s possible, I try to put myself in a state where my perceptions of beauty and ugliness, and right and wrong, are a blank slate, and write using only the subjective viewpoints and knowledge of the beings that live in the world I’m writing about. Just as novels with a contemporary setting don’t include explanations about refrigerators, as much as possible I try to use only descriptions to show the things that are self-evident about them. My ideal is to write something like a translation of a novel written in another world.
If I use pre-existing nouns to express various things in that world, somehow the impression just doesn’t gel, so I use the meanings and shapes and sounds of kanji characters (with ruby text) to coin terms appropriate to the appearance and content of those objects (and sometimes I’ll also cram a completely different meaning into a pre-existing noun). To me, neologisms are like sets, props, and special makeup effects in film art.
WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? If someone tells you something you’ve written is “weird” is it usually a compliment?
DT: At the time Sisyphean was released in Japan, I was told it was untranslatable, and the fact that it can now be read in English is itself “too weird,” which makes me very happy. I’m truly grateful that thanks to the long, hard efforts of translator Daniel Huddleston, this has become a reality.
“Weird” is of course a compliment as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes I see comments like, “It’s too gross; I can’t read it,” or “I feel sick at my stomach,” but at times like that, I try to remember the words of John Waters, who said, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”
WFR: Sisyphean is incredibly original and surreal. Can you tell us how it came together? When did you start working on it and where did you get the idea for it?
DT: I started writing “Sisyphean,” the title story, in 2010.
I think the misery of having to work for a long time at a company that had bad working conditions, coupled with all the turmoil I’d been bottling up because of my commercial illustration and design work, just broke out all at once, like the Great Dust Plague. The barrel burst. And when I looked around me, I saw lots of people suffering from outrageous demands of their jobs, and thought that by using the techniques of SF and fantasy novels, I might be able to make that present situation apparent. So I set out to create a work where the novel itself would function as a work of installation art on the extremities of labor.
Up until then, I had created stories and pictures as separate things, but it kept feeling like something was half-baked about both of them, as if something very important was missing. Before I started work on “Sisyphean,” I realized that by putting both of those things together, I might be able to achieve a synergistic effect. It was a vague idea, but at that point I intended to put greater weight on the illustrations, and produce a work that was like a visual story.
At first, I made a lot of sketches and expanded the image in my mind, and then after drawing a number of illustrations, I started writing. Prior to “Sisyphean,” I had experimented with writing a surreal dictionary-novel that was just a string of annotations upon annotations, sort of like a hybrid of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, and that technique came in handy for describing the world of “Sisyphean.” I was going back and forth between words and pictures, completing both with one another, and while I was writing, I started giving more and more weight to the sentences. (Rather than me writing it, it felt like I was excavating fossils buried in deep underground strata, or weaving it together from fragments of the excavated fossils as I turned them up, down, left, and right.) In the end, I went way over the page limit for the short story competition, and I believe my efforts to condense that text, paring multiple lines down to one, must also be connected to my present style of writing.
After that, using the overstuffed setting of “Sisyphean” as a base, I wrote the other stories going backward through the ages, changing things up with each one, until at last in 2013, I was able to bring it all together in one book.
As for ideas, the idea of the “Descent From Heaven” in “Cavumville,” for example, came to me while I was watching a scene of snow being removed from roofs on TV once, and imagined what it would be like if all of those snowflakes were bugs. Most ideas sneak up on me quietly, at unpredictable times and from unpredictable directions. I get a lot of ideas by attaching plausible explanations to wordplays. When I’m doing that while writing, I sometimes feel like I’m going on and on trying to keep some lies I’ve told consistent.
WFR: In terms of your artwork, what artists and artworks have influenced you? Have you been influenced by manga at all?
DT: Hieronymus Bosch, Arnold Böcklin, Odilon Redon, Max Ernst, Max Klinger, Léon Spilliaert, and Zdzisław Beksiński…when I start listing fantastical painters I like, there’s no end to them. In terms of direct influence, though, I’ll say the paper architects, Brodsky ＆ Utkin and Albín Brunovský.
I’ve read a lot of manga, but that’s influenced me more in terms of content. As for patterns and designs, I’ve always been enchanted by those drawn by Daijiro Morohoshi.
WFR: What’s next? Is there anything you’re currently working on?
DT: After Sisyphean was published, my collection of materials on the setting was released as an e‑book. Aside from that, I’ve mainly been writing novellas and short stories.
There was a jailbreak story about a prisoner who’d been sentenced to have his body changed into an earthworm-like form, a story I contributed to an Ultraman anthology about a special cleaning company that disposes of all the monsters Ultraman defeats, one for Tsutomu Nihei’s BLAME! anthology about people who live in a building that keeps falling forever through a multilayered city, and one that describes daily life in a Japan where pseudoscience is a fact of life.
Presently, I’ve got an illustrated story called “One Hundred Views of a Hallucination” being serialized in Hayakawa Publishing’s SF Magazine. I’m also in the process of revising my first long-form novel, which I’m aiming to have published sometime this year. The story begins in the age that follows the human race’s extinction at the hands of murderous organisms, which are defensive weapons of formerly free-floating celestial bodies which the human race had colonized. Having lost their sense of purpose, these killer organisms have staked out turf like yakuza, and are living their daily lives when an inexplicable change begins to occur in their society, and they come to understand the human race’s scheme — it’s that kind of story. I hope everyone will be able to read it someday.