Inhabitation is disappointing because one wants to engage with its themes, but the novel never rises to the occasion and the characters are not sympathetic enough.
When we meet Tetsuyuki, the college student at the center of Teru Miyamoto’s Inhabitation, he’s down on his luck. He’s failing his classes. His father has just died, leaving behind debts. To avoid creditors, they live separately, Tetsuyuki moving out of Osaka to its suburb, Daitō. Arriving to his new apartment, rented from an indifferent landlord, he finds the electricity has not yet been turned on. Assured it will be there the next day, Tetsuyuki starts unpacking in darkness. His first order of business: he decides to hang up a hat, a gift from his girlfriend Yōko. Fumbling, he drives a nail into a pillar and goes to bed. In the morning, he finds another stroke of bad luck: the nail had pierced into a small lizard. And to Tetsuyuki’s surprise, it’s still alive.
This event is the inciting incident of a philosophical novel that never really quite hits the nail on the head. The lizard survives despite the nail through its abdomen and becomes central to the novel, even as Tetsuyuki goes on with his new life in Daitō.
He finds a part-time job at a hotel as a bellboy. He calls his mother to let her know he’s doing fine even though he’s not. He sleeps with Yōko, a daughter of a middle class family who sees such a relationship detrimental to their status. And all this time, Kin—the name Tetsuyuki gives the lizard—becomes an obsession: “Maybe it’s waiting for me to come home,” he thinks, “‘Pull this nail out! Please pull it out!’ It seemed as if he could hear the lizard screaming.” What’s a man to do?
To Tetsuyuki, the decision isn’t easy. “The lizard’s internal organs had probably already knit with the nail, which has thus become part of its body,” he reasons. “By pulling the nail out, he would be opening a large wound that had finally healed.” At the same time, he can’t just leave the lizard there. While Tetsuyuki decides what to ultimately do with Kin, he feeds it chestnut weevil larvae, spoons it water, and monitors its temperature. Inhabitation is at its most tender and quirky in these caregiving moments. In one scene, as Tetsuyuki traverses a thicket of weeds to find Kin a cricket for a snack, “clouds of mosquitoes, flies, and other nameless flying insects” rise up to attack him. He remains a relentless and odd figure outside his apartment complex that easily elicits the reader’s sympathy.
In a complex world where our actions, intentional and unintentional, can have numerous effects, Inhabitation asks what do we owe each other and what responsibilities do we have in the aftermath of our actions? To take this question further: what are the consequences of our actions beyond our own lives, after we have died? Miyamoto places this moral puzzle within a Buddhist framework, pondering questions about the meaning of life, death, and karma. That Miyamoto centers this novel among working class characters seems to suggest that these questions becomes even more significant, with higher stakes, through a distinctly Buddhist viewpoint. As Tetsuyuki’s coworker declares at one point, explaining the reasons behind his own unlucky life and his working class status: “So, I died carrying various debts and then, just like waking up from sleep, I was reborn. But the debts haven’t disappeared.” One’s actions in life, according to Buddhism, carries weight into the next.
These are, of course, big questions that require deliberate concentration that the episodic structure of Inhabitation cannot sustain. As Tetsuyuki encounters scenarios that bring up philosophical and religious questions—the heart problems of a coworker, the workplace politics of the hotel, the appearance of two German tourists who meet clandestinely in Japan—everything seems to be touched upon but never effectively explored. Like Tetsuyuki, the third-person narrator of Inhabitation seems indecisive about what to say. And Tetsuyuki, when he does say something with force, sounds more like the author’s bullhorn than the character’s truly felt convictions.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Inhabitation, written by a man in 1984, has not aged well. The women here are either pure or defiled. Of Yōko, Miyamoto writes: “She possessed a sort of class, purity, and gentleness that is rare these days, and none of that had changed during the nearly three years they had known each other.” In several chapters, after mulling over his girlfriend’s possible infidelity (which is very much only in his head) Tetsuyuki concocts plans for revenge which loses any sympathy he may have had for readers.
The dated nature of the text is perhaps why translator Roger K. Thomas chose archaic wording: “he would probably expire before morning” and “he felt loath to part” are just two examples. As accurate as the translation might be, the prose falls flat. Even in matters of life or death, the text never achieves the level of danger and excitement necessary. A fight scene ends with a man thinking (not even speaking aloud), “Hey, hurry up and kick the bucket!”
Ultimately, Inhabitation is disappointing because one wants to engage with its themes, but the novel never rises to the occasion and the characters are not sympathetic enough. Still, this is an early novel in a long career and one can’t help but wonder what Miyamoto’s later works are like. This is the author’s fourth book to appear in an English translation since 2007, so publishers seem confident he will find a following in the English-reading world.