First Sentence: Toh EnJoe | Granta Magazine

First Sentence: Toh EnJoe

Toh EnJoe

‘I think that the thing called thought can be viewed as rooted in the very real phenomenon of neurons firing.’

Translated from the Japanese by David G. Boyd

For the First Sentence series, we have asked authors to revisit the opening sentences of their stories or poems. Here, Toh EnJoe writes about the beginning lines of ‘Printable’.

‘Sometimes I set stories in San Francisco because I have friends who live there.’

That’s really all there is to it. In other words, I’m telling the truth – and telling it straight – but, strangely enough, no one ever believes me. Writing it straight doesn’t change anything. And I find the constant incredulity incredible. Why so little trust? It’s not like I have some other way of writing at my disposal . . . I don’t. Believe me.

Sometimes I think about why I can’t get people to take me seriously. Apparently, what I see as reality doesn’t look all that real to others. As someone who writes science fiction, I often write stories about things like the end of the human race. There’s no way that sort of thing is real . . . right? Personally, I’m not so sure. At a minimum, within the reality in which I live, it’s possible for me to imagine something going on even though mankind has met its end. You might reply: But imagination isn’t real. Oh, really? Then what exactly is my imagination? It’s terrifying to imagine that there’s something inside my head that doesn’t belong to this world, to the real world. But imagination isn’t real, right? In the end, I sometimes feel like I’m the one who isn’t real.

I think that the thing called thought can be viewed as rooted in the very real phenomenon of neurons firing. You’re free to think otherwise, of course, but that’s one possibility. The way I see it, my eyes see electromagnetic waves and my ears hear vibrations in the air. It’s possible to regard the human being as a collection of chemical reactions. Matter and the way matter interacts is rather real, and it’s hard to make the case that it doesn’t exist. At the same time, I think of my eyes, my eardrums and my skin as fiction generators. My eyes neglect to inform me of the existence of infrared and ultraviolet rays. But, if I use a special camera, I can see them. I can’t see why I can’t think of that camera as an extension of my eye. The human ear captures a certain range of pitches, the high end of which fades with age. In fact, I think there’s a machine that emits a high frequency for the sole purpose of scaring off kids. Some teenagers must have figured out how to communicate using that register without adults ever catching on. My sensory organs supply me with all sorts of reality-based fiction. Our bodies are built in a way that, if so inclined, we can easily add other fictions to the mix.

But if our senses are providing us with nothing but doctored fictions, then it’s actually reality that’s missing from the picture. Does that mean there’s no such thing as reality? That position strikes me as a little extreme. As we gather our fictions and make them make sense, why can’t we use the word ‘reality’ to describe the parts that seem to stick? I tend to think that’s how this world works.

At least that mindset lets me think about reality. The sky’s blue. I also see it that way. But I’m sure it’s purple to some. People influence one another. We want to be on the same page. But what happens when you go to see a movie in another country? Everyone in the audience is laughing and crying at the scenes where you least expect it. This gap exists on a different scale – it might even be an entirely different species – than the sort you experience in your own country. You find yourself wanting to ask: What kind of reality is that? But no good comes of asking. Because no one is capable of expressing their reality to another person.

If ‘reality’ is too strong a word, I have no problem putting it like this: I can only write what I’ve seen. I can only write what is possible to imagine within this universe. I wish I could write something truly unimaginable. Yet, at present, I have no idea how one would go about writing such a thing. I’m seriously bothered by the fact that I can only see what I can see. I can’t stand that only the possible is possible. Still, I can’t even recognize that I haven’t seen what I haven’t seen, and the impossible could never take place. I guess that’s how it has to be for reality to go on existing.

I have friends who live across the sea, in San Francisco. I can write that because that reality is possible. And I’m happy I can write it. Something in this world makes that possible, makes it possible for me to say to you: They really do exist . . . ?


Photo by Cryon

Toh EnJoe

Toh EnJoe holds a PhD in arts and sciences from the University of Tokyo. His writings include Obu za besuboru (Of the Baseball) and U yū shi tan (As If). In 2011 he was awarded the Akutagawa Prize for keshi no chō (Harlequin's Butterfly). Self-Reference ENGINE, translated by Terry Gallagher, is nominated for the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award.

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Translated by David G. Boyd

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