Japan Conquers the Galaxy by Kirsten Alene Pierce is bizarro at its best; humorous, surreal, and poetic. It was odd though as I began reading, the story seemed familiar, until I realized I’d read about it in Eddy Rathke’s Monkeybicycle Interview series where he talked with the author about the book. This part of her interview illuminated my reading:
“My favorite bizarro stories are the ones where the strangeness trickles in from the side, rather than being the main focus of the story. There’s a thing people say, that you should write what you know. I don’t know much about Japan, but I know about feeling awkward, so Japan Conquers the Galaxy is more about feeling awkward than it is about Japan.”
I haven’t been to Japan myself (aside from a few layovers in Narita Airport), but this felt like a love letter to Japanese pop culture, imbued with Pierce’s own creative sense to tell a very original story. It’s a wild ride from beginning to end that involves the new appointed “Grand Emperor Prime Minister of the Parliament,” Hirotashi, hatching a plan to launch the entire island of Japan into space. Ironically, the cure for obesity (developed by the Japanese) is also intertwined with their discovery of anti-gravity. Hirotashi “distilled the essential hormone of buoyance. He distilled it from a pure and perfect source.”
Much of the book is told from the perspective of an American businessman, Alexander Peliman. We view much of the strange world from his eyes and it helps ease readers into the shock of the world. He feels alienated, taken aback by how different things are. Part of Pierce’s talent is juxtaposing the relatively normal with the absurd, producing a comedic effect by the oddity of the situation. Extremities push the boundaries of what constitutes “normal,” as in this sequence describing Alexander: “He had killed over thirty-five plants, over a hundred and fifty insects, three possums, one raccoon. He had possibly poisoned a squirrel by feeding it American cheese. He had wrecked a car, maxed out a credit card, and accidentally flooded the apartment beneath his by leaving the shower running for seven hours. But in all that time he had never been chased by a shark-headed man.”
Aquatic creatures, mutations, and huge shrimp factor heavily into the plot. But as creative and interesting as those are, one of my favorite parts is when a young companion tells Alexander why people cry, a fact I had never known: “It’s because when you’re a baby and you start screaming for something you choke yourself. Like, your throat closes up and then oxygen starts not going to your brain and then your eyes water.” Upon aging, the physical association between sorrow and screaming results in tears formed during babyhood.
Most of the pages are vibrant, full of action, interspersed with moments of reflection. It’s a philosophically explosive journey sandwiched between pornographic sashimi shaped into genitalia and huge overgrown monsters. Again, getting back to what makes her writing stand out, it’s the mundaness of the monstrosities that emphasize the weirdness: “Giant monsters did tend to wreak havoc in their old age. It was important to retire them before they reached a stage of derangement beyond recovery. But that people should be forced to surrender them for mandatory retirement seemed an infringement upon their basic right to make money. One circus Godzilla wracked in over a hundred thousand dollars over the course of a year. Circuses needed that kind of income.”
I’ve been reading lots about Japan and Japanese literature in the past year to prepare for a book I’m currently working on. Japan Conquers the Galaxy is unlike any of them, campy, but deep, funny, but also sad. The book’s climax and final speech is full of hope, despite the ridiculousness of what has just transpired. The fact that I could believe it, believe in that alternative universe, means Pierce has not just conquered the galaxy, but me too.