Title: The Apprenticeship Of Big Toe P
Author: Rieko Matsuura
Review by: Captain Clo
Verdict: surreal, definitely different, wtf-inducing, a must. 4 stars
Trigger warning for: rape, sexual abuse
The set-up of this book is simply amazing. A normal, average, straight (but not for long…) woman wakes up one day to find that her big toe has transformed into a fully functional penis. The surreal, unexplained change sets into motion a journey of self-discovery that inevitably involves a lot of strange sexual adventures. It sounds like the set-up for a bawdy novel filled with gratuitous sex scenes… which The Apprenticeship Of Big Toe P isn’t. It’s surreal and elegant, and definitely not for easily-scandalized minds.
If you’re looking for:
- surreal, semi-magical realism fiction
- an unconventional journey of queer self-discovery and sexual awakening
- a cerebral outlook on sex scenes
this book is for you.
The protagonist, Kazumi, at the start of the novel is trapped in an unhappy life. Her best friend, Yoko, recently committed suicide, and her boyfriend is an asshole. She has no friends left now that Yoko is gone, and even her work is in jeopardy, since she was a partner in an agency Yoko herself had created. Most of all, however, Kazumi is tormented by the idea that Yoko was in love with her, and that she killed herself out of a misplaced desire to have Kazumi notice her. Kazumi is introverted and quite cold in her affections, to the point that she herself sometimes doubts she loves anyone in her life. She definitely doesn’t love her boyfriend, but she can’t admit to herself whether she loved Yoko or not, either. She has very little insight in all of her feelings – and that’s something she’s forced to deal with when her big toe changes into a penis. Her boyfriend is disgusted by it in a violent way that she doesn’t understand. More than anything, she finds it something curious and to be explored, if a little disquieting.
After leaving her boyfriend, Kazumi sets forth in a journey of sexual self-discovery that lands her first in the arms of a blind bisexual pianist, Shunji, and then in a drama-filled freak show that employs “sexual deviants” (some of them with conditions as surreal as Kazumi’s, others more medically plausible). Not everything she experiences is pleasant; more than one character treats her like an object, a wonderful toy and a monster, not like a person. But in the instances where her experiences with sex are pleasant, the scenes are elegantly-written, very detailed in a cerebral way that fits well with who Kazumi is: a woman detached from her feelings, who is just allowing herself to derive pleasure from sex, to put herself and her desires first, and to admit she’s not really straight after all.
It’s never really clear why, exactly, Kazumi is like she is, so cold and distant, to the point of being emotionless; she never recounts any traumatic experience that made her so withdrawn from human connections. The reader can come up with their own interpretation. I’m inclined to think Kazumi has been lying to herself for a long time about her sexuality and feelings, and that not even allowing herself to admit she’s bisexual and very attracted to women resulted in her locking away all her feelings – it was easier to not think about how she didn’t love her first boyfriend if she didn’t let herself love Yoko, because like that, she didn’t have anything to compare her feelings to. The emptiness she felt for the boyfriend was the same she felt for Yoko. This, however, is my personal interpretation.
For all that the book is very long (the Italian edition I read is 500 pages), I inhaled it. It’s definitely not a reading for weak stomachs though. Some situations described are quite disturbing, especially once Kazumi joins the freak show, and most characters are deeply flawed in some way. You can either see it as a point of realism – people with such conditions, rejected by society, certainly can have some issues – or as a flaw that dehumanizes them. Personally I don’t mind my characters a little fucked-up, but if you’re looking for queer characters represented in only a positive light, this book isn’t for you. Shunji, for example, is a – very strange – example of the unfaithful bisexual, but he’s not the only bisexual in the book, and his behaviour definitely falls into the pathological… yet he’s also a very lovable character. A lot of other characters are similarly flawed, sometimes to the point of being unsympathetic. All of them, however, serve their role in challenging Kazumi, especially her strange, detached view of human relationships and her internalized heteronormative ideas.
I’m not giving it a full 5 stars-score only because I found the ending a dissatisfying return to the status quo, in which Kazumi leaves her new girlfriend to go back to Shunji. Shunji isn’t so bad, but Kazumi’s lover goes back to her abusive, pathetic waste of space of a boyfriend too, moved by a displaced sense of responsibility to help him, since he’s a manchild. I’m used to Japanese Literature having “soft” endings, without the world turning upside-down as I would expect, but this was really a disappointment.