Sunday, June 16, 2013

In The Miso Soup

             Okay, the rundown is as follows. This is a good, atmospheric book that explores a large number of themes in a very strange way. It's at once a meditation on violence, a discussion of buddhism and redemption, a possible metaphor for cultural invasion of Japan from the West, and even a minor commentary on the culture surrounding the sex industry. That it juggles so many concepts in under two hundred pages is a feat in and of itself, but the fact that it does it with enough style and atmosphere to keep me interested makes it a great novel in my terms, and one that makes me wish it got into more people's hands. The descriptions are excellent, and the mounting dread leading into the single cathartic moment in the book is handled very, very well.

           However, the downside is that this is a novel more concerned with its underpinnings than the actual plot. Divided into three acts, one for each day during the New Year's celebration in Tokyo, the first act leads up to a catharsis in the second that starts to meander by the third. While the book's unnerving atmosphere continues, and in fact takes the book stranger places in the second and third sections, the lack of a definite ending and the partial abandonment of the plot halfway through could be jarring for some. It's best to think of the book not as a thriller, but as a kind of bizarre meditative piece involving violence, discussion of food, some Buddhism, and sex. That said, if you're looking for a thriller, this isn't the book for you. It's more American Psycho than Psycho, delving into the philosophical and psychological rather than aiming for flat-out horror.  

More, as always, below.

Kenji, what's wrong?
- Frank

           I picked up this book because of Audition. Most people know Audition in its most-publicized form, a movie by the great and very twisted Takashi Miike. I found it on the bookshelves in the Hawaii State Public Library in Honolulu, and decided to give it a miss, since I already knew what the major twist(s?) were (Let's face it, most of you know one of them, and the other can be disputed but never proven...but that's another article). But I was interested in what else the author, Ryu Murakami, wrote. Especially when I found out he'd also written a book called Coin Locker Babies, infamous among the people in the dorm when I was out west for the first paragraph of the book, which featured something I'm refusing to talk about on here*. So when I heard he had a book involving the sex trade, serial murder, and a sort of "Japan-by-night" noir feel to it, I picked it up immediately

           And it was not what I expected, I can say that much. Where I expected a creepy horror novel with psychological and actual grotesqueries, this was not, in fact, what I got. What I got instead....well, what I got instead was an intense and psychological book about a man who is able to commit intense acts of violence and at the same time wonder about the nature of redemption. It unfolds as a window into the thoughts and actions of a monster, who may or may not be something of a metaphor for invasive cultures in general, and indeed the sometimes twisted world he ends up inhabiting. With heavily-stylistic violence and a sense of mounting dread. 

              In The Miso Soup is the story of Kenji. Kenji is a young man who serves as a tour guide for a very specific section of the Tokyo underbelly, specializing in taking tourists through a personally-guided journey through the sex industry of the city. Kenji is contacted three days before New Year's by a huge, morbidly-obese American man named Frank. Instantly, he knows something is wrong about Frank-- the man moves as if his parts are put together differently, he has an odd sort of face he makes, and he tells contradicting stories about his past. But he's paying Kenji to the tune of ¥60,000-- money Kenji needs both to support himself and take his teenage girlfriend Jun out on dates-- so Kenji doesn't completely mind that Frank is creepy and cold to the touch.

And then things get weird.

                It turns out the answer is nastier than Kenji realizes, and after a scene in the exact middle of the book, a scene of brutal, cathartic violence that, while expected, is still a little sickening and overindulgent, the dynamic shifts. Kenji is no longer the guide, but must make a journey through Frank's own view of the world, and a final meeting with the bells on New Year's. And he will definitely be changed by his endeavor, but the question is, how will he and in what way?

                   I have to praise the book on its atmosphere. It starts out in a very neutral place, and then just keeps piling on the dread. You know something is going to happen, and you know at a certain point that things are going to go very badly. That much is obvious from the description of Frank onwards. What you don't know, and what keeps the book fresh, is just how far down the rabbit hole things will go, and between that and Murakami's tense prose it goes quite far. The thing is, even in the quiet moments, even during the falling action**, the dread keeps up. At the end of the book, it feels like nothing's been resolved, that while things have stopped, they haven't ended. And, despite this, the tone remains intriguing rather than exclusive. It drew me into this world quite effectively, and it should be praised for the creepy atmosphere.

                     Next, the narration is brilliant. Kenji starts the book as one person, and through his interactions with Frank (there are minor characters, but really, the only two who matter are Frank and Kenji). The reader is given no other viewpoint, no way of identifying with anyone else, and this does add to the book. In the earlier sections, it helps increase the atmosphere as Kenji gets more and more involved with the grotesque American, and in the later sections, when he starts to listen to his nighttime companion****, the things he and Frank talk about become more identifiable, because the book brings them into a focus that allows you to identify with the normally abhorrent ideas even a little, makes them a little more human. As Kenji begins to identify with Frank, so do I. Even though looking back on it out-of-context I know that Frank talking about viruses and the human condition in relation to him are horrible, the comfort of the dark tone and the words being said sort of makes it easier to take.

                    Lastly, Frank is one hell of a character. Both human and inhuman, savior and tormentor, depending on the time of day and what he's doing. He's supposedly lobotomized, numbed from accidents and god knows what else, but no one can really trust him. Murakami makes him move less like a human and more like a monster in human skin, and this fits. Frank isn't human, he's a symbol of something. He can be an ugly American in one moment, and a cypher in the next. An inhuman tormentor of the innocent, but at the same time strangely respectful of the culture he's invading and tormenting. In the later sections of the book, when he begins to hypnotize people and read Kenji's mind, he gets both more monstrous and more human, something that sounds difficult on paper, but works quite well.

                    However, there was something I mentioned at the beginning of my review. This is a meditation. It moves at its own pace, unconcerned with everything. The brutal, gruesome scenes are disgusting, and in the end, the book does just stop instead of actually ending. Nothing is really resolved, but at the same time, things can be understood from the denouement. But it's an exploration of the psychology and forces involved, not any kind of actual thriller. If you can get behind this, and behind that it's a very literary story involving violence and gruesome details, good. If not, chances are this is not the book for you. 

                    But in the end, I recommend it. A lot. It's one of the few lit-fic books I can stomach, ironic considering that scene in section two. Find it. Take it out of the library. Give it a try for a little. You may like it, you may find it a little meandering, hell, you may find it pretentious as all get out. But it's a book that deserves attention. So please give it some. 

Go Mutants! by Larry Doyle

The People of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes


*I wanna go right up to the line, people. Over it only happens when the book is bad. 
** That's the bit after the climax. Or as I like to call it, the "pillow talk" section of the narrative arc.***
***Dammit, I had ONE JOB...ah, well, it's a book about sex clubs in Tokyo. Maybe a little saucy talk is what's needed.