Trying to review Sisyphean is an annoyance for me, because no matter how I describe it it will be like nothing you have ever read.
In 2011, Dempow Torishima published his short story Sisyphean, a horrifying vision of a future where bioengineering has transformed humanity into bizarre, monstrous forms. The story gathered some acclaim, appeared in the collection Phantasm Japan (where I first encountered it) and Torishima followed it with a series of stories set in the same universe and now, a novel.
The book is structured as a series of connected fragments, following some of the denizens of this future earth and the stratified society that they try to navigate and survive. Torishima wallows in the cyclopean fleshscapes and monstrous lifeforms of his world and his dense, tactile writing takes us through the sights in nauseating detail. Because- make no mistake- the title is apt. This is a world where post- human lifecycles are unspeakable horrors of birth and putrefaction and everyday life is a gore and ichor- splattered struggle.
The effect is disorientating at first, but gradually Sisyphean reveals itself. I suspect that there is a select contingent out there that will appreciate Torishima’s ability to describe endless permutations of biological grotesquery and his affinity for body horror (Torishima provides a number of disturbing illustrations that drive the point home). I am tempted to start tossing out terms like “Cronenbergian”, “New Weird”, “Bizarro” and so on, but none would accurately convey the tone of this thing. In fact, the endless, gruesome metamorphoses can get old pretty quick and were not what sold me on the book. The true genius of Sisyphean is Torishima’s focus on the worker drones, the sceptics and the slaves of this society. The most horrifying aspect of Sisyphean for me was the sense of fatalistic acceptance that some of the characters exhibited towards their world. It is a political book.
Was it necessary for the short story to be expanded to novel length? Not sure. The original story’s impact was considerable and it could be argued that the point got across in that format. But, as a novel, Sisyphean acquires the hypnotic, dense feel of Naked Lunch, or Andreas Embirikos’ Megas Anatolikos (all 10 volumes of it). Which is to say, sometimes you need to take the maximalist approach. In grappling with biology in ways that science fiction rarely dares to and exploring a non Homo sapiens viewpoint so effortlessly, Sisyphean proves that there are still surprises to be found in genre fiction. I have no idea whether you will like this. But I can guarantee that you won’t know what hit you.