“I realized this morning,” said my friend Leah, “that this is who I am, here in Tokyo. I am a person who waits.” We were, at that moment, 23rd and 24th in line at Fuunji Ramen, surrounded front and back by locals and tourists, part of a neat queue that snaked out the restaurant’s entrance to the curb, where it broke for the tarmac only to pick up again in the grassy park across the street. Every few minutes, the noren curtain hanging in front of the door would twitch, discharging bodies into the Tokyo dusk, and we would steadily shuffle forward. To pass the time in this line, Leah was telling me about another: her wait the previous morning at Sushi Dai, the legendary morning omakase restaurant and sushi bar at the Tsukiji fish market, where even showing up at 3 a.m. may not be enough lead time to guarantee a first-round seat when the restaurant opens for breakfast at 5:00.
A dreamy otherworldliness haunts these pages, and will, I wager, haunt you, as it did me, long after you finish this slim and masterful mood piece. I dare you to make it to the final, piercing line—which I won’t spoil here—and not feel as if the world you live in has been irrevocably changed.
In the fiction of Schreber’s madness, every person is, as he puts it, a “plaything of the Lower God.” In the reality that Schreber lived, the mentally ill were playthings of the “well,” children were playthings of adults, and minorities were playthings of the state. It is this economy of cruelty — not repressed homosexuality, as Freud suggested in an essay on Schreber’s memoir — that is the seed of Schreber’s suffering. Pheby illustrates this point with compassion and subtlety in “Playthings”; the book’s hybrid position between the historical and the fictional makes it all the more potent.
The last 50 pages of the book read like a hasty after-action report, and Andrei should be pretty miffed with his author for imposing on him a denouement, and diminution, not only rushed but, in part, difficult to believe. Yet even here the novel manages to offer hard-won insight into an impossible place. I don’t know if “A Terrible Country” is good fiction, but you won’t read a more observant book about the country that has now been America’s bedeviling foil for almost a century.
But if you ignore the fluff, here’s a clear and frequently interesting survey of Aristotle’s thought on everything from virtue, work and friendship to the natural world, God and the good death, together with biographical snippets and personal reflections, from an author who has clearly read Aristotle well and thoughtfully and many subsequent philosophers to boot. So, as Aristotle would certainly have asked had he been writing this review, why should I be a kuminopristes about it?