The Hippo


May 27, 2020








Hikikomori and the Rental Sister
by Jeff Backhaus (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 246 pages)


5/9/2013 - For anyone who has ever felt the urge to retreat to their bedroom, for a day or forever, there is an ironic solace: In self-inflicted solitude, they have lots of company.

The number of people who have completely withdrawn from society, living in a basement or bedroom at their parents’ largesse, is said to number between 700,000 and a million in Japan, and to be on the rise in the U.S. and France.
In Japan, they’re called the “hikikomori,” and they’re so numerous that the Japanese government is beginning to worry about what to do with this dependent class of hermits when their parents die off. The word “hikikomori,” which can mean either an individual or the overall practice of self-seclusion, literally means “pulling in” or “withdrawal.” It’s a phenomenon that appears to stem from anxiety, or a bull-headed refusal to assimilate.
It’s also the premise of an intriguing new novel by New Yorker Jeff Backhaus, who has created an American hikikomori, a grieving father who refuses to leave his room after the death of his son.
In Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, we first meet Thomas Tessler creeping out of his New York apartment in the middle of the night to buy frozen waffles, Saltines and canned peaches, things with which to stock his “pantry,” which is actually his bedroom.
Tessler has been living there for three years, for dark reasons we can only infer. His wife, Silke, is equally bereaved, but has managed to go on with her life, trip-trapping off to work in heels every day, and patiently talking to her husband through the door at night. On their anniversary, she sits outside his locked bedroom door, trying to coax Thomas out, then orders pizza, eats alone in the kitchen and toasts the date alone with two glasses.
OK, so maybe she’s not completely normal either. But she’s trying, and she desperately wants Thomas to recover, to resume living a life of gainful employment, or at least to move his woe-is-me act to the living-room sofa so he can watch a movie with her. She’s almost given up, but has one more thing to try: hiring a “rental sister,” a Japanese woman who has been earning a living in America by, among other things, selling her used panties to perverts.
The woman, Megumi, comes to Thomas’s door with her own history stained by hikikomori … in Japan, her brother had sequestered himself in his room before she came to the U.S., with an outcome not disclosed early on, but with hints of epic disaster.
The tension is three-fold and finely strung: What happened in Japan that drove Megumi away from her family? What horror sent Thomas to his room with a “deep remorse that starts at my core and eats its way to my skin, where it sits and chews, a constant, burning sorrow”? And, as the story progresses, what price is Silke willing to pay for  her husband’s return to normalcy? As the relationship progresses between a broken man and a rented woman, is Silke paying another woman to commit adultery? If Thomas ever emerges, will he and Silke still have a marriage?
It all makes for a gripping story in this sparse narrative that eschews the dramatic, but yet delivers with satisfying punch.  This is Beckhaus’ first novel. His biography is as sparse as his prose, saying only that he has been a cook, an art director and a professional pilot who has lived and worked in Korea. (His experience there lends authenticity to the novel, as one of the Megumi’s struggles is to overcome the scars of childhood torment related to a mixed heritage, her mother Korean, her father Japanese.)
As for the flaws in this book, it could have been longer, and the characters, while not skeletal, would have benefited from a little more heft. And there seems a certain hastiness in the progress that Thomas makes under the ministrations of Megumi. She’s pretty, yes, but he seems to have opened his door to make that discovery a little too quickly, and the abbreviated courtship, if it can be called that, seems almost Hollywood-like in its hurry to get past small talk to naked writhing bodies. 
But those are insignificant quibbles. It’s a lovely book, full of surprising pairings of words, and a rich, dark center of pain. “How easily shame comes. It must have slipped through the open door, loose inside my room, and now it devours me, sharp teeth and stickywet tongue,” Thomas says. If his musings seem overwrought, as they will at some point, it never takes away from their beauty. B+  

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