My mind is on the brink of exhaustion. And yet, it searches for more work. If I have a minute to spare, I know I haven’t done much. Sometimes, I wonder if I should purge my mind of these thoughts.
It is as if I keep writing on this diary for that reason: not to record but to purge everything into one place and forget it. Is this why diary writing part of therapy? I think it is sad.
This was a little observation I had after reflecting on Sylvia Plath’s emotionally drenched journals. How awful it must have been to be this intelligent poet who finds herself in a continuous battle between her ego and self-deprecation. In her poem “Dialogue Between a Priest and a Ghost”, the priest tells the ghost to let itself be judged by the heavens for wandering around. But the ghost, from the pale mist, whispers, “There sits no higher court / than man’s red heart.”
Man’s red heart. What a cute, sharp phrase. The mind is overstimulated by man’s red heart. Wandering aimlessly like that ghost, it seeks for more stimulation — more meaning in life. Its lust is amplified when overwhelmed by grief and loss. He or she is expected to break down as theatrically as possible and at some point will undergo catharsis — the process of purging one’s repressed emotions.
That is how man, that chattering mind, is portrayed in the dramatic structures of plot according to Aristotle. Readers, especially the ones who read literary fiction, want to see protagonists suffer. The relief of pain comes through because, once the conflict is resolved, they can feel it too in their red heart. But the relief is temporary. Nobody’s story ends the way most novels’ end. They continue suffering in other ways after the page; they are just not recorded by the author of the work. And so do the readers who see no salvation for themselves either. Hence, they look for more books to read and read to feed their hunger. A never-ending cycle of stimulation begins and the mind becomes the victim.
I have been chained by man’s red heart. I thought this would be the end of me. Until I found SeaBed.
Sachiko and Takako have always been together since kindergarten. They share a love for traveling in exotic locations like San Francisco. But Takako disappears. Stricken by grief, Sachiko hears and sees Takako in her everyday life.
With the help of her psychiatrist Narasaki, Sachiko realizes her mind is cluttered from all her work designing logos and the grief caused by Takako’s disappearance. She decides to visit Nanae, an acquaintance who she met in Venice. The story finally begins when Sachiko stays in Nanae’s antique hotel.
That is how SeaBed begins if I have to write a synopsis on the prologue. But like all synopses, this is inaccurate in conveying everything else but the sequence of events.
Interspersed in the prologue are various events most readers will find unexciting to read. Sachiko and Takako vacation in several places (never referred by name but they are obvious from the background pictures and description) and that’s all to it. There are instances where Takako observes Sachiko in deep contemplation over the Alcatraz jail cells, but there is nothing beyond that superficial fact. The narrators describe the world around them in a plain way, much like a tourist walking around an art gallery. This is the most “interesting” part of the prologue. Later parts include Sachiko eating lunch with her coworkers in the break room, Takako asking Sachiko where they should travel next, and other mundane activities that color a working adult’s life. Sometimes, we get a glimpse into the love life between Sachiko and Takako throughout their life. Rarely do we see Narasaki intervening to manage Sachiko’s life.
This continues through the actual game. The first chapter puts Takako in a clinic, a world familiar to her but unfamiliar to the readers. She has auditory hallucinations and it frightens her. Mayuko, a nurse, takes care of her. She also visits Sanae, a bookworm who lives on her bed. Takako is gradually losing her memory of Sachiko who she loves, but she spends her time recounting when Sachiko and she went to San Francisco. She also kills time by making small talk to Mayuko who is planting some flower seeds in the garden bed outside the clinic.
Nothing happening will be a problem in most types of fiction. Even the Aria series, the great purveyor of nothing happening, is eventful; characters grow and the worldbuilding fleshes out the setting. Its arcs resolve just like any type of good fiction: it calls out for catharsis. But in SeaBed, scenes involving details like character secrets unfold the same way as Sachiko’s fishing trip by the hotel or Takako’s radio exercise routine. Its depiction is unblemished by any strokes of the pen. The novel becomes more peculiar when one realizes that the ending will be inevitably bittersweet, but any sort of tension or buildup dissipates without any flair whatsoever.
But I subject and adjust myself to the pacing. Six hours pass. I find myself reading unamused and unmoved. Yet, six hours has passed.
I am in a trance indescribable by any form of language. The atmosphere created by the music and the plain descriptions somehow push me to read more and more. It is almost like I am subjugated by Narasaki’s hypnotism. And I wonder if this is a personal thing. I cannot imagine most people in such a trance as deep as mine. Much like actual hypnosis, SeaBed seems to only work on certain mindsets. And much like meditation, every time I close SeaBed my mind is clear and empty. The existential troubles I have vanish completely. SeaBed has actually made me smile and ponder about the events that have passed.
I completely understand if SeaBed is not for most people. At most, a reader who doesn’t get hypnotized like I did will say he or she has appreciated the direction. But I have a more personal stake on SeaBed as you may have guessed, my silly diary.
Engulfed in a battle of writers, readers, and critics, I find myself the odd man out. I look to my left and see people arguing novels should be more fulfilling, more human, more soulful. To my right, the other faction says that the world is already heavy on our shoulders. Why have a novel you read for fun weight on them even more?
And I say to myself, “Who knows?”
This war of the words sounds pointless. But I find myself leaning to a third party; I look up and see the people indulging in the delicious irony of being human. They say, “It is not about the art or our humanity, you poor blokes. It is our pathetic selves we revel in when we see art. Art encourages us to go beyond sarcasm and satire: it is our incomprehensible mind that it draws attention to! Read any book, especially the Modernists, and see their exploration of the mind. And then, see them utterly fail. Isn’t our intellectual suffering more commendable and respectable than the everyday struggles of other people? Tis’ the nature of our human condition in art.” Their national anthem is a quote from Doestovsky’s Notes from Underground:
“I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.”
Man’s red heart. The human condition. Oh, the humanity.
To read books of infinite jest, they tell me, is to become honest to yourself. When you deprecate yourself to the point of no return, you begin to see the honest truth that the world sucks and everyone is deluded except you and the other readers. These are the enlightened folk. Our suffering is far more real than socioeconomic struggles of the disenfranchised because it deals with the philosophy of the self. It gives us a wicked grin.
But then, how do I explain why SeaBed has touched me more than any postmodernist book to date? How could a tradition that swears “that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness” look more artificial than a yurige that seems to dwell in nothingness?
Everyone is aware of the plot pyramid because we have been drilled by our teachers this is how plots should work. There are deviations that change the shape, but all of them rely on this structure of rising and falling action.
But SeaBed doesn’t let its tension rise or fall beneath where it is. It stays a straight, flat line. Even the climax in the final chapter becomes a regular phone conversation. Characters don’t grow to be rounded, they remain flat. What changes these characters have are minuscule at best. At most, SeaBed’s story becomes a story of accepting one’s weaknesses and flaws. It is a story unsuitable for literary consumption.
And yet, I remain convinced that I see well-developed characters who I as a reader share a personal journey together.
First, I must investigate what in the world is SeaBed. It is probably best described as an experience, tangible in every form possible, as long as the reader realizes this is how the narrators perceive the world in their own way. Time, space, the conscious, the subconscious, memory, presence, future, emotions, repressed emotions, love, undying love are all laid out on a space as flat as the ocean floor.
With so many elements in this one-dimensional plane, the reality the narrators perceive should be chaotic. In a fiction consisting of the chattering mind, it will be labeled as denpa by the Japanese visual novel subculture (like Sayonara wo Oshiete) or psychological horror (like any Lovecraft novel) by others. The mess provides the shock and entertainment value.
But that is not the case with SeaBed. Hallucinations, dreams, and sometimes even the metaphysical are given the same light as the normal mundane events the narrators face in their lives. They learn to adapt to what they consider different the same way a Westerner who knows he or she feels out of place in China but has to learn how to use chopsticks. But the Westerner must never forget he or she is a Westerner in China. Likewise, Sachiko and Takako must remember that, while worlds apart, they love each other.
To live as yourself is the conflict.
It is not conflict in the traditional sense where characters want something (an item, an identity etc.) and will do anything for it. Its conflict is remembering who you are.
This idea goes against Aristotle’s poetics on catharsis, a rule that says there can only be one reality and that reality is objective, and the belief in some strands of psychiatry that the mentally ill will recover when they can conform to society’s standards. You are supposed to purge out any repressed memory that brings you down as a human. Or you will never be born again and adapt to society as a normal human being.
But SeaBed says such an act is unnecessary and possibly detrimental to one’s health.
Most readers would believe at first glance Sachiko is mentally ill. Her grieving has gone so long she seems to find Takako in everywhere she sees. Likewise, Takako’s selective amnesia should be the central issue as you would expect in a yurige, but it is tangential to her life routine. She is forgetting the person she loved the most and even admits she has grown a liking toward Mayuko. Such an attitude would be considered crass and mean.
But aren’t we all like that? Aren’t we all remembering and forgetting everything that is important to us?
Even with her hallucinations, Sachiko is not mentally ill. She is grieving in her own way. She is human. And who is to say we should judge her for being mentally ill from hallucinations when we think we see a yellow cab in the horizon but it is actually just a car? Her consultations with Narasaki in the prologue don’t amount to much either. Narasaki even says her hallucinations don’t bother people and until they do, she is perfectly fine. It is a normal process.
Takako, on the other hand, is learning how to move on as she will be unable to be with Sachiko. For her, it is the dilemma of remembering who you once love while loving someone else. Their perception of reality and their morality are no less valid than any one of us. Everyone’s perception of reality is informed by not only what they see but what they remember and feel, consciously or not. When Sachiko hears Takako on the way to work in the prologue, that is not a sign of mental illness. It is a sign of her love, that she still loves her even if Takako is not in this world anymore. It should not be seen as irrational but as a pinch in her heart. This is how we all grieve when we lose a loved one.
The mind in fiction is constantly tortured with thoughts. It is warped and it needs to be relieved by catharsis. But that is not at all realistic. We see the world much like Sachiko. We don’t see the world like a camera would. When we take pictures outdoors, the pictures may appear blueish or orangish. This happens because light is “colored” by the temperature. Our eyes adjust themselves to the temperature and the “colored” lighting balances ours. We don’t constantly think about the changing color of light during the seasons, but we do think about the people who we have met and loved. People color the world.
And so do our beliefs. Houdini doesn’t believe in magic nor miracles, but his good friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thinks he really can make rabbits appear in his top hat. Houdini explains the magic tricks and Doyle does not believe every ounce of truth he says. But there is nothing morally wrong to have Doyle’s stance. Doyle wants to desperately believe that his wife, brothers, and son have not died in vain. He finds solace in spiritualism, sometimes going off to the silly end like when he believed fairies existed. But there is no harm done to other people and himself, so he lives to be a happy man. His last words to his wife are, I think, magical; he says, “You are wonderful.”
That is the ideal mind. A mind which knows when it is stressed, it will rest itself. Unbounded from any notion of self-deprecation.
No one has a chattering mind much like in protagonists in literary fiction. We all follow the same ebb and flow as Doyle and, to return to SeaBed, Sachiko and Takako. We don’t find ourselves being snarky at every little ironic detail; we merely live. There is no doubt the world looks different from someone who has encountered a shocking event. Any difference in perception after a shocking event is negligible to mental health in the long run. This difference becomes a part of us. There is no reason to use catharsis to purge out something that defines us.
Because they have become part of our routine of mundane activities. Loss and grief are part of that routine. When we accept that, we accept SeaBed’s approach to storytelling.
This is why the events are flat and the narrators refuse to add their own thoughts into the narration. The narrators merely talk about what they see and that is all. To them, this is normal. And we readers must accept that normalcy and move on.
And this is also why there are scenes where the dramatic tension ceases after a few lines. Because that’s how the characters see drama.
The structure has to be this flat line. The rise and fall in dramatic structures are unnecessary and may even destroy the whole idea. This is what makes Sachiko, Takako, and Narasaki admirable; they are reluctant to dramatize their suffering. They treat any unique event not as something to learn or as a tool to purge their emotions out but as any ordinary event. It is in a way anti-fiction. As a result, these characters become more lifelike than the “human” characters/chattering minds in literary fiction. They obviously struggle, but they don’t show it much like everyone else. They obviously tear up, but they rarely show that. And they obviously need help, but they would rather vacation on a cruise trip.
It is not human at all and unhealthy to consistently think about one’s sufferings for a long period of time. But it is human to wonder where we should go for vacation after this project.
To remain the same, to become more of ourselves, to never excise the identity we already have — what an ideal life that is so opposite of everything I have learned from reading books.
Maybe I have known this all along and that’s why I find SeaBed so engagingly personal. When I write anything, I pour out everything inside me onto the pages of this thumb-worn diary. Then, I read it again to absorb everything of myself back in like a sponge. Writing, not reading, reminds me of who I am.
Even SeaBed is not as personal as this diary I keep in my backpack. But I wonder what the reactions people will have if they ever find this probably embarrassing diary entry of mine. Will they connect to it as much as I did with SeaBed or will they just think it is some dusty diary better forgotten in the attic?
My mind is slowly drifting away. It begs me to sleep. So I will. Goodnight, my little diary. I shall read you again and remember who I am.
April 16, 2016