Today’s transgression is tomorrow’s in-flight magazine. For every taboo-busting work of fiction that’s retained its capacity to shock or disgust (American Psycho springs to mind), there are acres of one-time controversy courters that now seem quaint, or else have assumed the flatulent tediousness of a washed-up old rocker losing the battle against incontinence in a retirement home. And that’s only the ones that are still in print.
When it was first published in 1993, Rieko Matsuura’s Oyayubi P no Shugyo Jidai (The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P) caused a bit of a sensation, winning its author the Women Writers’ Prize and going on to sell more than 300,000 copies. Looking back, though, it wasn’t exactly what you’d call an epochal work, and bets are off as to why Kodansha International has decided to publish an English translation now, a full 16 years down the line. Whatever their reasons, they haven’t skimped on any details: the book comes in a handsome hardback edition, with Matsuura’s prose rendered in breezy, eminently readable English by frequent Banana Yoshimoto translator Michael Emmerich.
The “P” of the title refers to the penis that the novel’s heroine, Kazumi Mano, inexplicably sprouts on her big toe following the suicide of her friend and work colleague, Yoko. Naive, sexually inexperienced and a bit dim, Kazumi is understandably nonplussed by this new acquisition, worrying that it will jeopardize her future with drippy long-term boyfriend Masao or—gulp—make her gay.
In fact, it does a lot more than that, propelling her off on a series of sexual escapades that leads her to the doors of the Flower Show, a traveling troupe of performers with bizarre sexual abnormalities. Among their number are Yukie, a woman with teeth in her vagina; Tamotsu, whose own member is blocked by the lower half of his Siamese twin brother; and Yohei, whose eyes pop out when he climaxes.
Gross-out comedy? Sexual allegory? In fact, The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is neither. Despite having gone through a teenage obsession with the works of Jean Genet and the Marquis de Sade, Matsuura is no kink merchant, nor is she a sexual liberationist—well, except in the sense that she thinks we shouldn’t get so hung-up on all that sweaty bumping and grinding.
There are hints of this early in the novel, when Kazumi describes dreaming of her first toe-penis orgasm: “The climax came sooner than I thought it would. And it didn’t feel as good as I thought it would, and the pleasure had hardly begun to spread through my body when my toe-penis started to shrivel up. I couldn’t believe it. … Is that all there is? That’s all the pleasure men feel?”
Even once she has been endowed with the ability to please members of both sexes equally, Kazumi reaches the alarmingly straitlaced conclusion that the true pleasure is to be found elsewhere. “Poking around, trying to find the most sensitive and responsive parts of a person’s body was a lot like trying to figure out how a video game worked,” she observes passionlessly at one point. Even in the heat of the moment, she’s only moved so far: “I found myself being engulfed once more by the pleasure—even though I didn’t think it measured up to kissing and hugging.”
Perhaps this wasn’t such a transgressive novel after all. Beneath all the layers of titillation lurks a story about nothing more morally unorthodox than the importance of friendship and love. Once every possible position has been tried, it’s these two things that win out—a surprisingly pat denouement for what had the trappings of a pretty extraordinary tale.