Depression has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in fiction. It presents a peculiar set of problems, in that if a piece of writing is to be effective it must grab the reader. It has to do so with energy. Some form of sustained momentum is necessary to propel the reader through the text. An aspect, any aspect, must engage them, and invite them to stay, chapter by chapter, line after line. And what makes this so difficult for writers who choose depression as their subject is that it is an affliction characterized largely by a subject’s inability to summon a feeling of interest.
To the depressed person, nothing is of interest. Nothing manages to grip them. The sadness they feel doesn’t manifest as a sharp pain or sorrow, but a flatness, an absence. An all-encompassing lack. The body is there, held in place, going through its day, its motions, and that numbness just swirls away inside them. The question for the author writing about this tragic, unbelievably difficult state of being is: how do you do the concept of such emptiness justice, when your only option is to fill blank pages with a pile of words?
This is the task Osamu Dazai set for himself in his novel No Longer Human. It is the story of a deeply sad, self-conscious person. Someone whose every action is lorded over by their own overwhelming shame and fear. Having finished it, I’d say Dazai achieved what he set out to do. But it’s hard to know where to go from there.
I can attest to the novel’s skillful execution.
I can testify to the quality of its prose.
Yet it’s a book I hesitate to recommend. This is a difficult read, all things considered. Not because the language is obtuse—it isn’t, Dazai has a very straightforward prose style—or the subject matter is in some way exploitative. It’s just that it’s a boring, often frustrating reading experience. But that’s the point. That’s exactly the book Dazai intended to write.
The structure of the novel was something I found interesting. It’s broken into five sections: a prologue, three “notebooks,” and an epilogue. The notebooks comprise the novel’s bulk, the “autobiographical” writings of a man named Yozo. They detail interludes from his childhood, late teens, and adulthood. Dazai’s choice to present the novel as a found text is an interesting one. The epistolary novel has a long literary history, especially in the Western tradition, which pairs nicely with a subtle theme of growing Western influence on early twentieth century Japan, running like an undercurrent through the novel, paralleling Yozo’s own struggles with self-doubt and self-destruction.
Each notebook covers a relatively short amount of time, but the prose goes into such extreme detail where the character’s inner life is concerned that the effect seems to distort time itself. The reader spends entire pages covering only a few seconds of real time, as Dazai takes us deep into Yozo’s thought process. It’s a perspective marked in equal parts by narcissism, contempt for others, and a simultaneous need for their approval. His point of view is bleak and extremely self-conscious. Every thought is followed by a counter-thought about how another character or the reader might be perceiving him at any given moment, followed by how they might perceive his perceiving their perception, etc. On and on. As I mentioned above, all strong writing must generate momentum in some way, and it’s through the viciously self-involved mental spiraling of his narrator that Dazai fuels No Longer Human—a title which, by the way, does not refer to any external judgment, but simply to how Yozo sees and perceives himself, so deep is his self-loathing. The effect on the reader of processing this aggressive amount of self directed hatred is at once dizzying, off-putting, and boring as hell. As Yozo’s character flaws lead him from one bad choice to another, squandering any advantages his family’s social privilege provided, ruining the lives of the women unfortunate enough to attach to him, settling ultimately into a life of addiction and wasted potential, his depression looms continually larger in the narrative. By the end of the third notebook, I felt it had grown to the point that the text had taken on a kind of flatness. The carousel was spinning, but there was no one on it. And it was on fire. There was simply no hope left in the character, no way to escape the life Yozo found himself in. His existence is a miserable one, all the more so because he has decided for himself that there are no alternatives to it, because he is the kind of person who deserves it. Even the label “human being” is something he doesn’t deserve.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on this novel, well maybe that’s true. This has been a difficult review for me to write in that I respect what Dazai attempted—and ultimately succeeded at—so much. One of the great things about literature is that it allows you to step outside the confines of your own relatively narrow viewpoint. It grants you a fleeting glimpse into another psyche. You turn the page, and slip into a facsimile of a mind that’s not your own. Sometimes this is simple escapism. Other times it’s something less instantly gratifying. It might not be especially fun to spend two hundred pages in the shoes of a sad, narcissistic, self-hating drunk, but who says every book has to be fun? There are plenty of sad, narcissistic, self-hating drunks in the world. Their stories are real. Their experiences are valid. And perhaps seeing the world through their eyes for a brief moment might allow us to step away from it with an ever-so-slightly wider perspective. Maybe you’ll resolve to read this book, the whole thing, cover to cover, and when you put it back down you’ll find there’s just the littlest bit more empathy inside you. A touch more compassion when you face the world outside.
Just be aware it might taste a little bitter on its way down.
I believe a certain literary masochism might be required if you wish to ride this ride.
Bob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent. He currently lives in the Netherlands. He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June, Man Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts. He likes what words and pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.