Man goes from grief to guilt to a world without questions

  • Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 1:41 p.m.
'Hikikomori and the Rental Sister,' by Jeff Backhaus
'Hikikomori and the Rental Sister,' by Jeff Backhaus

“Hikikomori and the Rental Sister,” by Jeff Backhaus. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2013. 246 pp. $23.95.

“Hikikomori and the Rental Sister” is a strange little novel, full of self-indulgence, illicit behavior, deep guilt. But it is a story that creates a mood, a sort of not-in-my-experience lull that keeps the reader intrigued and curious.

The debut novel by Jeff Backhaus was panned by the New York Times as stretching the limits of disbelief, of being forced, of taking a deep-rooted Japanese concept and contorting it into an American story.

Hikikomori is the Japanese word for people who have turned completely inward, shunning the rest of the world, due to some insult or grief. In Japan, it is a state that is accepted by friends and family, who protect the hikikomori and patiently wait for them to emerge. Sometimes, they employ a “rental sister” to help bring people back to the world.

Thomas Tessler of Manhattan, N.Y., has become a hikikomori. For three years, he has bolted himself in a bedroom of the apartment he shares with his wife. His guilt, larger than Mount Fuji, is that their son is dead. He blames himself.

His wife, Silke, whom we learn very little about, has been patient. She goes to work every day, talks to Thomas (that’s Toe-mahss) through the door, though she gets no response. She has tried everything she knows to coax him out. We see her only through Thomas’ limited vision, so she is as much sound as anything. Her heels click in the hallway. She sobs. She watches TV.

We never learn how Silke knows to go to the Japanese sweet shop, the wagashi, to find a rental sister, but she hires young Megumi to work on Thomas.

Megumi has experience with hikikomori — her brother, who, like her, is half Korean and half Japanese, is dead after a long period of self-exile that stems from his mixed heritage. Her parents subsequently divorce and Megumi escapes to America.

One could say that her brother and Thomas are mentally ill — at least severely depressed. Their anger and grief has consumed them so that they are no longer functioning members of society.

With Megumi, the story begins its slow, misty trip to a conclusion.

Of course at first, Thomas will not even speak to Megumi on the other side of the door; he pushes back her peace offering of an origami penguin. But there comes a day when the bolt slides back. Entering the room, Megumi feels she is in a strange new place. She sucks up his emotion like a sponge, filters it, alters it; they are transformed.

Silke gives Megumi a key and limitless access to their lives, but Megumi mostly avoids the wife. And she doesn’t start by asking Thomas questions.

She’s something of a question mark herself, telling the reader how she made money to help her brother — she sold her panties to, well, perverts. For her, it’s simply a business transaction, with no emotional involvement. Her views on Thomas start out as strictly a business deal, too.

Megumi is complex and unformed at the same time. She seems to exist only as a tool. Backhaus uses a narration technique that always keeps the reader at arm’s length. Silke has only a voice that comes through Thomas’ third person narration. Megumi, too, has a third person narrator to tell her story. But those third persons are limited, kept close to the author’s vest, as it were.

While Silke diligently works, Thomas and Megumi create their own world — it’s progress for Thomas to let anyone in, in any way. Megumi responds to his reawakening in the way she seems to know best — with her body. How Silke does not suspect this, why she is content not knowing what is going on, again challenges belief. The rental sister — no sister at all — creates a new world for her hikikomori, and he’s relieved to find an escape.

Their deep ties do transform him. He at least comes to see his guilt for what it is — self-indulgence, a small thing that does not matter to the world. “I used to think that people were frightened by my guilt, that their fear was what kept them away,” he says, “but now I know it’s much worse. Guilt isn’t frightening — it’s irrelevant. The world is indifferent to guilt.”

What never happens, though, is an honest conversation. So much is held back or is fantasy. It’s a world spiraling inward in many ways, despite Thomas’ climbing out.

Again, Backhaus is the deus ex machina in creating a situation for a tidy ending that is all too convenient and stretches the reader’s credulity.

Who is healed? How do they all go on without acknowledgement of what happened, three years ago or three days ago? Obviously that’s not what the author intended. There is no end, no wrap, no future. There is only now, this minute, and that’s all anyone can stand.

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