In 2013, I visited my brother in NYC, where he’d moved to pursue a career as a chef. I was a lifelong Midwesterner, and I imagined that the New York City subways wouldn’t be much different than the Red Line in Chicago. But this was fundamentally different. Before the pandemic began, nearly 5.5 million people rode the New York City subway system every day. That’s 22 times the population of Madison, Wisconsin, where I live. The extreme density, massive scale, and indecipherable motion in those tunnels were humbling, overwhelming, and disassociating. On one hand, it was electrifying; on the other, it made me feel microscopic, transient, and powerless.
I was reminded of that feeling when I read Ben Arzate’s new novella Music Is Over!, whose characters get lost in the Tokyo subway system. Pre-pandemic, the Tokyo subway system hosted almost 7.8 million riders each day. It’s a perfect backdrop for a book about power and powerlessness; identity and incongruity; existence and oblivion.
Arzate’s protagonist is a cross-dressing experimental musician named Juntaro. He begins the book in a despondent state. Things he used to enjoy—like seducing salarymen in love hotels—have lost their charm. His creativity is stumped, and he’s grieving his boyfriend’s recent death.
Early in the book, Juntaro meets Kotono, a woman whose face is scarred from an encounter with a ghost. They bond over their malaise:
“Have you ever had that happen? Things that you used to enjoy just became a routine?”
Juntaro thought about the salaryman’s naked body.
“Yeah. I know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Within a few pages, Juntaro and Kotono are ushered onto a mysterious subway car that takes them to an abandoned industrial zone sparsely punctuated by a few signs of civilization: a bar, a police station, a doctor’s office, and a hotel. Juntaro and Kotono just want to get home before morning. Instead, they find themselves fleeing from an American serial killer, and when they finally make it back to where they started, they discover that ten years have passed since they left.
A lot of Music Is Over! invites comparisons to Murakami: the Japanese cultural elements, the dream-like setting, the juxtaposition of the surreal and the mundane, the terse narration, and the laconic dialogue. But I feel like what distinguishes this novella is how Arzate blends these ingredients with elements from folklore, science fiction, horror, absurdism, pornography, and, most extensively, bizarro. In many ways, Music Is Over! is a compact ecosystem of literary forms typically labeled as experimental or fringe.
This experimentation makes sense in the light of the fact that the novel’s protagonist, Juntaro, is modeled after Juntaro Yamanouchi, an experimental musician who did disappear from 2001 to 2013. The work of Yamanouchi and his band The Gerogerigegege could be described as “anti-music,” ranging from unbridled cacophony, to ambient soundscape, to unclassifiable artifact (one release was a metal box filled with blank cassettes).
There are references to the real Juntaro Yamanouchi throughout Music Is Over! The novella’s opening scene echoes the title of Yamanouchi’s final release before his disappearance (Saturday Night Big Cock Salaryman). The chapter titles reflect Yamanouchi’s interest in The Ramones. The novella’s setting is a nod to The Uguisudani Apocalypse, a Gerogerigegege LP described as a soundtrack to the least-ridden and deepest line of the Tokyo subway system. And the title Music Is Over! is a reference to a quote from Yamanouchi, evidenced by one of the book’s three epigraphs: “Fuck compose. Fuck melody. Dedicated to no one. Thanks to no one. ART IS OVER.”
But there is also a large difference between the protagonist of this book and the persona Yamanouchi cultivated on stage. The Gerogerigegege’s on-stage antics include rolling in urine, eating feces, and masturbating, but the Juntaro of Music Is Over! is gentle and polite. For example, when Kotono uses her flip phone as a flashlight, he reacts with authentic encouragement. When Juntaro asks two men at a bar for directions: “‘Excuse me,’ he said as he bowed to them. ‘I’m very sorry to interrupt you …'” When a bartender refuses to help them find their way, the strongest insult Juntaro can conjure is: “Your beer tastes like shit.” Later, he shields Kotono by hiding the severity of their ordeal. “Juntaro felt a little bad about lying to her, but … he wanted to reassure her.”
Arzate’s decision to depict his protagonist this way distinguishes this book from others like it. Celebrity protagonists and antagonists aren’t uncommon in bizarro. See Lee Widener’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Headcase, Jeff Burke’s Shatnerquake, Charles Austin Muir’s story “Naked Liam Neeson Gets WOKE,” Mandy De Sandra’s Kirk Cameron & the Crocoduck of Chaos Magic, or the anthology Blood for You: A Literary Tribute to GG Allin. Typically, in these examples and others, celebrity protagonists and antagonists are amalgamations of the traits for which they’ve become famous. These characters serve to highlight the artifice of public persona, or to scrutinize the qualities they project and venerate, or to recognize the celebrity figure’s influence. Music Is Over!, on the other hand, goes beyond caricature in its depiction of Juntaro Yamanouchi. Not to disparage the above examples, but Music Is Over! feels genuinely curious about its characters’ humanity, which in turn makes the book more engaging and reflective. The contrast between the real Juntaro’s caustic on-stage persona and this fictional Juntaro’s soft-spoken personality doesn’t feel so much like a severing of the connection between art and artist as much as a complication of it. Maybe it’s a statement about the function of art as a safety valve for culture. Maybe, when surrounded by the mundane, Juntaro introduces balance by creating chaos on stage, but, when surrounded by chaos, he responds with tranquility and understanding?
Working successfully within the constraints of the novella form, Arzate paints settings with precise, simple strokes, evoking a concrete sense of place throughout, while also establishing a prevailing sense of dreamy oddness at nearly every moment. All of the settings are well-done, but, for me, the most indelible is a hotel whose wrongness is indefinable. “It was like walking through a vague memory. Halls would pass by them like they were walking on a treadmill and the walls were part of a set for a play being moved by unseen stagehands …. There were a few moments where he felt like he had walked away from himself and was now watching Kotono and himself walk from a distance.”
By the book’s end, Juntaro and Kotono are changed by their experiences, probably for the better. But the change doesn’t seem to be the point. Juntaro and Kotono spend a relatively brief time riding the subway, but it feels like they never leave the tunnels. When you enter a subway car, you’re whisked from destination to destination by forces beyond your control. The scenery during the trip is a homogenized blur. When one exits subway car at a station, it’s a little like stepping from an elevator, or waking from anesthesia. Juntaro and Kotono move from location to location in this book in much the same way. They make few decisions regarding their fate. Instead, they are caught in the tide of events around them, carried, driven, or pursued from location to location until they arrive back home in a somewhat different state of being than they were in when they left.
This is part of Music Is Over!’s appeal. One of the greatest falsities of fiction is that life moves forward because of the choices we make. Fiction like Music Is Over! can challenge that fallacy, depicting worlds where events are beyond control and beyond understanding, and where change that does occur is, to a certain extent, random.
Since I visited NYC in 2013, my life has been repeatedly demolished and rebuilt. My brother died in 2019, unexpectedly, from complications after a surgery that should’ve been relatively minor. My dad died, too, that same year as my brother. A madman was elected president. My spouse and I had two children. A pandemic happened. These events changed me in ways too big and deep for me to actually understand, and they have little to do with my choices (and while, yes, the birth of my two children was a result of a conscious choice, their existence has changed and contorted and complicated my life in ways I could’ve never predicted and cannot control). Life since 2013 has felt like being carried through tunnels by a subway train, whooshing from station to station, occasionally stopping to assess the conditions of my existence. It doesn’t feel like this ride will end soon. I suspect I’m not the only person who feels this way, and a book like Music Is Over! provides some reassurance when it confirms those suspicions. Not only that, but it gives some hope that we might at some point emerge from these tunnels with some of our empathy, creativity, and humanity intact. Considering how many of us are now thinking about climbing to the surface after a plague-riddled two-year hiatus underground, that message alone makes this short, esoteric, deeply weird book very much worth reading.
Music Is Over! by Ben Arzate. Malarkey Books, February 2022. 124 pages. $14.00, paper.
Carl Fuerst’s novel The Upright Dog was released by Alien Buddha Press in February of 2022. His short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including F(r)iction, Entropy, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a fiction reader for Reservior Road Review. He teaches reading, writing, and literature at Kishwaukee College, and he lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Find him on Twitter: @fuerst_carl.