A Personal Matter is an eerie slice of life book about what is in fact a number of “personal matters” that are not treated especially fantastic. The author, Kenzaburo Oe, doesn’t try to romanticize the main character or romanticize his predicament, he just matter-of-factly expresses the reality of the events that transpire. I am guessing this is likely because the story is to some extent autobiographical. The subject matter is highly understandable and relatable in a gritty and dark manner that many readers will not want to admit is relatable. You get the complexity of the thoughts running through the main character’s head but they are highly repulsive in their implications and manifestations.
The main character is Bird. A man whose wife is going through labor complications resulting in the birth of his child. The child is born with what in the book is referred to as brain hernia. Basically the child’s brain in partially outside of the skull. Or the skull did not fuse properly. I can’t remember the exact details. Bird then goes through this sordid journey of self-realization and de facto redemption without actually going anywhere. I say de facto because I don’t view it as redemptive. But the mere fact that his behavior changed makes it technically redemptive I guess. I don’t know. The name “Bird” is apt to the character because like any bird, in the event of personal danger he wants to just fly away. At the beginning of the book, while his wife is giving birth, the reader finds Bird in a bookstore buying maps of Africa, a place that he has always dreamed of going. He sees the coming child as the end of his dreams and I take it that just buying those atlases is his way of preserving that dream. He also has a number of mid-life crises misadventures. One of which involves him quitting his job because he expected to be fired after coming to work hung over and throwing up. But through the majority of the story he holds up with Himiko, a recently widowed old girlfriend of his. They basically hideout together in her apartment and wait on news about his child. He has with Himiko a strange relationship that at times he admits is more natural than the relationship he has with his wife. But his time with Himiko is just another form of shirking his responsibilities and trying to run away from life.
The incredible thing about this story that occurred to me when I finished it, is that although the writer only focuses on Bird, there is another narrative playing out in the background of the story. For the most part, Bird has been selfish, childish, skittish and frankly a down right dirt bag. He all but totally neglects his wife as she recovers from the difficult birth of their child, holding up with Himiko and only visiting his wife seemingly out of obligation. Then he waits for what he thinks is the inevitable death of their child. And he and Himiko even go so far as to take the baby to a back alley abortion clinic that will do away with the child. Also, if I remember correctly, I think the hospital that the child was born in suggests to him that they can humanely perform a late term abortion by plugging the child up to a sugar water IV and let the infant slowly starve to death. Either way, he seriously considers both and does take the child to an abortion clinic before later regretting it and retrieving the child. The thing that made me aware of the other narrative in the story is what his father-in law says to him when everything turns out relatively alright. He essentially tells Bird that he is proud of him. He says that it seems Bird has grown up a bit. That’s ridiculous for the reader to hear but if you think about it from the perspective of the father-in-law or any other person who is not privy to our insights into the story then it really does seem like Bird manned up a bit. All the father-in-law or anyone else would see is that Bird took his child to a second hospital after the first hospital gave the child very little chance of survival. Furthermore, Bird, who has a history of alcoholism is so heartbroken that he gets drunk on Scotch that his father-in-law gave him and lost his job. Totally understandable for a father in distress. He visits his wife enough to keep up appearances and so who would think of him as someone who was derelict in his matrimonial duties. He would have appeared to have been waiting patiently and quietly for good news about his child as no one knew he was held up having an affair with an ex-girlfriend. And in the end Bird retrieves his child from the abortion clinic, takes it back to the hospital and chooses to go ahead with the surgery which turns out successfully. So, without the reader’s insights into the events of the story, Bird would seem none the lesser of a person.
I have heard a lot of people psychoanalyze the crap out of this story. I personally think the only thing that holds up in terms of analyzing Bird is that he is a bird, flying away at the slightest hint of existential danger to himself. That was his motivation. His fear of what things mean for him existentially. What things mean about his personage as compared to how he would like to perceive himself. I think the child was a threat to his manhood in various ways. Fighting with a gang of youths was his way of testing his perceived manliness. Running to an ex-girlfriend and sexing her up again was a way to replenish a bit of testosterone. A way to replenish his idea of a more youthful and promising version of himself. In a way, I view his decision to give the life of the child a chance as also running away. After talking to his old friend Kikuhiko and a few other people prior to that, he finds that it would hurt his imagined self more to give up on the child than to work to keep it alive. So that he didn’t necessarily come to his senses, but his selfishness was redirected.
At the beginning of the book, I was glued to it because of the subject matter and the disgusting honesty held within the book. I cringed at how I could somehow relate to the thought process of Bird. Don’t get me wrong. You know Bird is struggling. I don’t find the character vile or anything. I found the character honest and his thoughts understandable. Even carrying out some of the stuff made him feel dirty. He was unsure of himself through it all. Bird is not all bad. And a lapse in judgement and fear of major life transitions makes no one the worst kind of person. But it is just hard to admit that you can understand what he did. That is what good narratives do though. They encourage exploration of yourself through the events of others either imagined or real. And this book, A Personal Matter, is a good narrative.