About Yayoi Kusama: “Well known for her use of dense patterns of polka dots and nets, as well as her intense, large-scale environments, Yayoi Kusama works in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance, and immersive installation. Born in Japan in 1929, Kusama came to the United States in 1957 and quickly found herself at the epicenter of the New York avant-garde. After achieving fame through groundbreaking exhibitions and art ‘happenings,’ she returned to her native country in 1973 and is now one of Japan’s most prominent contemporary artists.” – from the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Yayoi Kusama is known for her dots, lots and lots of dots. Not Dippin’ Dots, not ladybug dots, not bomb-dot-coms, but Kusama dots, although as a nonagenarian she may now have some liver spots too. Apparently these dots were inspired by the hallucinations she experienced as a child. I was anticipating seeing these dots in the flesh, if not on the flesh, during my visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in June of 2022. Even the banners inside the building advertised a Kusama pumpkin sculpture. Alas, the only piece I came across was a white chair furred with flaccid phalluses, which is hardly the style she is known for and not exactly her strongest piece even if it is a somewhat intriguing chair all things considered. Still, no “Infinity Mirror Room Fireflies on Water,” no “Dots Obsession,” not a single measly dotted pumpkin, just a cock-floppy chair with medieval-chic undertones. C’est la vie.
In addition to her famous art, she’s a writer. Her first novel, the autobiographical Manhattan Suicide Addict, was published in 1978 and later translated into French in 2005 (there’s no English translation thus far). The majority of her fiction output dates from the 80s and took the form of stories featured in the adult Japanese magazine S&M Sniper, including the ones from the volume under review. As it happens, Hustlers Grotto: Three Novellas has been out of print since its English publication in 1998. The few copies that crop up online now and then tend to go for around $500 or more. After several years of keeping watch, I managed to snag a copy for a reasonable price (it even has a MoMA price sticker on the back). Was it worth the wait? In a word, no. My experience with Hustlers Grotto seems to parallel my experience with her work at the MoMA, and reading it kept me as deflated as the organs on that chair. Writing isn’t what she’s known for and, although some aspects of these stories are intriguing, they’re far from anything approaching great art. Translated from the Japanese by Ralph F. McCarthy, the book contains the semi-titular “The Hustlers Grotto of Christopher Street,” “Foxgloves of Central Park,” and “Death Smell Acacia.”
The first story features an Asian woman who pimps out young male students who are addicted to drugs and strapped for cash, thus they resort to “renting [their] anus[es] to chicken hawks….” The other main character is a Black student named Henry. He needs quick money so he asks for some help. She hooks him up with a client who decides to pay for an extended lascivious visit at his home. What with the combination of drugs, feelings of dehumanization, not to mention Black fetishization, the exchange doesn’t go as planned. As if that wasn’t enough, Henry also has a distinct and projected hatred for homosexuals, fueled by the fact that he loans them his body despite being heterosexual. The climax of the story isn’t orgasmic, but rather murderous.
“Foxgloves of Central Park” is the most overtly autobiographical of the three stories and focuses on an Asian female artist named Shimako who has checked into a mental hospital. After suffering from the poor conditions of such an environment—“this infernal place,” and at the end of the same paragraph, “hell itself”—she manages to get transferred to a high-end rehabilitation center. That’s where she meets another artist, Neil, who suffers from acute melancholia: “‘I want to die, I just wanna die. I want to kill myself.’ But there was no discernible basis for these feelings. He simply wanted to die, for no apparent reason.” He falls in love with her but, despite having affection for him, she has accepted the fact that she’s broken and that two broken people don’t make a whole, refusing his proposal to get married and move to his father’s house: “The more love she felt for Neil, the less she wanted to burden him with her problems.” So while he is forced to move on without her after being discharged, she continues to live in this structured environment and thrive as best as she can, things being far less scary and unpredictable there than out in the real world. In 1977, Kusama herself checked into a mental hospital in Japan and decided to live there on a permanent basis.
The final story, “Death Smell Acacia,” is the most intriguing because it explores an extremely morbid subject: necrophilia. While horrific, there’s a sadness about it because the body this man loves used to be his wife. He continues to have sex with it despite its continued decay. Unfortunately, nothing much is done with this concept beyond the obvious and inevitable fact of his wife dying twice, as it were, when the maggots finally eat every part of her, “the rotting meat dried to powder, a speck of matter in the universe, returned now to the soil of the earth. All that remained were the acacia petals strewn over the ground and the swarms of insects digesting her rotted flesh.”
As can be gleaned from two of the three novella titles and the text just quoted, there’s a preponderance of floral, and more generally pastoral, imagery throughout the book. This isn’t too surprising considering the flowers and other plants featured in her work, but those hallucinogenic dots don’t translate into prose. Here’s an example of the kind of poetry you can occasionally expect from the stories, as well as more clunky redundancies like the ones quoted above:
A moth flew in through the dark window and landed in Henry’s coffee, scattering tiny scales—silver dust that fell from its wings as it scraped them on the white porcelain rim of the cup. For a moment the surface of the coffee turned from brown to a vivid silver. They thought it was starlight streaming in through a corner of the window. Surely that was what it had been—a silver falling star. It was as if the star had collided with their four pupils and disintegrated. Lured into the atmosphere by earth’s gravity, it had crashed, sprinkling its powdery silver dust in the men’s eyes before vaporizing.
It’s this kind of seemingly oblivious pleonasm that bloated Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling into a purgatorial 1,200 pages, but even less skillful and inspired. Mercifully, Hustlers Grotto is 150 pages with about double the font size. Aside from the ostensible poetry, some of the redundancies simply repeat basic information or even platitudes, as if those should be written even once let alone twice or thrice or more. Here’s one example of the original musings you’ll come across:
Youth […] was nothing more than a mirage.
Life, as well.
Being alive was but a momentary illusion.
And after that shining illusion was gone, the eternal stillness and emptiness of death; the final destruction of this brilliant but pitiful life.
And not much further in the same story, lest you forget, another memento boring: “Life is only a momentary flash of light, and Masao believes that the power of art is eternal….” Whether true in general or not, Hustlers Grotto is far from eternal. Hell, it’s barely clinging on to its mortal coil 20 years after being published in English. Assuming you can track down a copy in the first place, I would only recommend this book to diehard fans of Kusama.
Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media. For early access to literary content like this and other awesome benefits, consider supporting The Collidescope on Patreon.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.