[REVIEW] The Boy in the Earth by Fuminori Nakamura

nakamura

Soho Press , 2017

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

Fuminori Nakamura is one of Japan’s most talented contemporary writers. Besides the critical acclaim and translations of his work into various languages, he was won a plethora of awards including the ?e Prize, Japan’s largest literary award, the David L. Goodis Award for Noir Fiction, and the Akutagawa Prize. Despite these accolades, the reasons to read his work are easy to explain: he approaches noir from a multiplicity of unique and seldom-explored angels and injects his dark narratives with a distinctive combination of ennui, melancholy, philosophy, and classic elements of crime fiction. In The Boy in the Earth, his latest novel to be translated and published by SoHo Press, Nakamura turns up the dial in terms of ennui and melancholy to construct a haunting story about a man whose death wish stems from unbelievable trauma.

The Boy in the Earth follows an awkward, disengaged unnamed narrator who drives a taxi around Tokyo for as living after quitting his sales job at a company that produces educational materials. The narrative kicks off with the man picking a fight with a group of motorcyclists and getting a beating for no other purpose than the beating itself. The idea that lead to the scuffle was just one of many the man has been having lately, and they point to a warped frame of mind. At home, he only interacts with Sayuko, a former work colleague. She tries to take care of him after the brawl and they end up in bed, but she is emotionless during their encounter. Later, the man receives information about his parents, who abandoned him 20 years earlier. His mother has died, but his father is still alive. That knowledge forces him to ponder the linger effects of his childhood and how different his life would have been if he had been nurtured. As the narrative movies forward, the man’s past is revealed, and the darkness it holds explains a lot about the nature of the man.

Nakamura always deconstructs violence and explores the relationship between human nature and brutality, both that which we inflict on ourselves and that which we inflict on others. The Boy in the Earth is not different, expect for the fact that the thirst for self-inflicted violence is a mystery to the narrator and reconnoitering the spaces where those thoughts are born and where his need for violence festers becomes a crucial elements of the narrative. This contemplative state begins early and is expressed well after the beating that opens the novel as the narrator thinks back to his childhood, a time in which he murdered lizards:

Grasping a lizard that had already lost its tail or an unsuspecting frog, I would thrust my arm through the fence and suddenly let go. This living thing would fall, and although it wasn’t dead yet, surely it would be a few seconds later. Watching this happen always evoked anxiety, but for some reason, I found solace in that anxiety. In the midst of my agitated emotions, I felt a clear awakening as nostalgia tinged with sweetness spread within me. When I did this, I would also be thinking about “them”—the ones who had tormented me. This habit was persistent in its cruelty; it was almost as if by what I was doing to those lizards now, I was validating what had been done to me in the past, as if I were exploring the true nature of it.

Coming in at 147 pages and with short chapters that make it a very fast read, The Boy in the Earth is one of Nakamura’s darkest, gloomiest, most emotionally draining books. The narrator suffered horribly as a child, and the result is a detached man for whom tedium is a way of life. In that regard, this is a narrative that pushes past all the boundaries usually associated with the genre to enter a unique, obsessive realm where violence, alienation, suffering, the impossible weight of memories, and self-loathing coexist in a maelstrom of pain, shattered innocence, and a very flimsy will to continue living.

Although Nakamura does many things well here, perhaps his greatest achievement in this novel is that it holds a giant secret until the end and reveals it only after showing how the putrid thing at the core of the story corrupted the soul of the protagonist. The writing is fast-paced from the star, but once the visions from the past start appearing in the third act, the lines demand to be read even faster because they reveal the kind of truth that’s simultaneously hard to look at and impossible to look away from:

Beyond the sound of the shovel digging of the earth and the beam of a flashlight feebly illuminating the darkness, I had a hazy vision of their expressions as they spoke hurried Lee to each other, their faces twitching as if they were frightened. I laid there, looking up at them asked, shovelful by shovel for, the earth was heaved on top of my small body.

The time to call Nakamura merely an outstanding thriller author or a very talented Japanese noir master is over; the man has demonstrated time and again, and does so again here, that he is one of the best crime novelist working today.

[REVIEW] The Kingdom by Fuminori Nakamura

 

Soho Crime, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

While most contemporary crime writers attempt to breathe fresh air into the tropes of the genre, Japanese noir wunderkind Fuminori Nakamura is writing some of the most unique noir narratives by leaving the tropes and expectations of the genre to the side and tackling it from a plethora of different angles. In The Kingdom, which he describes as a companion novel to The Gun, he places a woman at the center of the action and replaces guns with the human body and criminal intent with a secret agenda that has more to do with emotional distress and love than with becoming rich or exacting revenge. The result is an emotionally gritty and surprisingly fresh story that is as dark as its sister novel but occupies an entirely different space.

Yurika works as a freelancer in Tokyo’s underworld. To the casual observer, she is just another upscale prostitute, but she targets powerful men for a reason. Instead of having sex with her johns, Yurika drugs them and takes risqué photographs in order to blackmail her targets. The images are turned into the men she works for, a shady organization whose inner workings she ignores. The money is a good and she can keep her identity intact, so she is satisfied with the working arrangement and has learned to do her job quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, a figure from Yurika’s past resurfaces, and that makes her realize that her secret agenda may not remain secret much longer. Before long, Yurika is caught in a deadly game of secrets, desire, and bad intentions where her past, her present, and her future seem to collide and fall into the hands of some of the most powerful and sadistic men from Tokyo’s criminal underworld.

One of the elements that sets Nakamura apart from his contemporaries is that his sharp, lean prose manages to deliver full, nuanced narratives despite that fact that most of his novels can, and almost demand to, be read in a single sitting. In the case of The Kingdom, he does this with a story that simultaneously occupies two worlds: that of Yurika’s memories and motivations and that of the evil men she works for and their victims. The way these worlds clash and interact makes The Kingdom a brooding existential thriller and allows its author to delve into philosophy, history, and an exploration of human nature.

While the cut-to-the-bone prose, ultraviolent imagery, and philosophical ruminations are all staples of Nakamura’s work, there are two new elements at play here, one that works very well and one that quickly becomes the novel’s only detraction. The first is that The Kingdom is steeped in a sexual atmosphere that bridges the gap between danger and desire. Nakamura hasn’t shied away from eroticism in his previous work, but it is so permeating here that it becomes a silent character that affects every other character in the book in various ways. The second element, the one that should have been caught by the editor, is the constant use of heat. Yurika feels heat in her mind and body and wonders about the heat inside her. This is not a sexual heat but rather a term that is used for everything from arousal to fear and from obsession to shame. By the last third of the novel, the repetitive use of the word in a never-ending array of contexts becomes slightly annoying.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this novel is its protagonist. Yurika is deep and complicated, but she’s also unlikeable and detached from the world around her. She is also obsessed with understanding desire and the ways it correlates with destruction. Most of the men who come in contact with her ignore the fact that they are victims, and when Kizaki, the underworld boss that changes her life forever, changes that dynamic, Yurika’s whole being is shaken up. However, before that moment comes, Nakamura allows the reader to look into the psyche of a woman who understands pain on a personal level but for whom chaos and uncertainty are a welcome way of life:

“I looked straight at him. He’s kindhearted eyes got me hot all of a sudden. If I entwined my legs with his under the table, what kind of face would he make? He mistook me for good-natured. I wanted to ruin him. He had been by my side since I was a child thrown out into the world without knowing anything. I wanted to dirty all of his beautiful memories. He would probably be depressed to know the woman I actually am, but in the end, he’d probably try to sleep with me. It would probably be all right to sleep with him. But which would be more intense? The heat when he slept with me, or the heat from making him obsessed with me, then betraying him, and ruining this good man’s life?”

The Kingdom is dark and strangely seductive. It explores the lives of a group of individuals who live outside societal norms and who possess unique moral compasses. As with all previous novels, Nakamura pushes against the boundaries of crime fiction here, and he does while pushing readers into uncomfortable terrain. Furthermore, the author’s ability to pull elements from other genres as well as his knack for filtering the worst side of human nature through philosophy make this a recommended read for fans of noir as well as for anyone looking to be mesmerized by a masterful storyteller entering the kingdom of nightmares, bad intentions in hotel rooms, violent sex, and broken hearts.

 

 

Literary Los Angeles: Los Angeles Book Club

Sorry I haven’t posted in a long time (I wonder what percentage of total blog posts on earth begin with the phrase “Sorry I haven’t posted in a long time”).  I will plead the excuse of having had an additional baby.  But now that I’m back for good I’d like to announce my idea for an informal*, web-based Los Angeles Book Club.  I’d love to start reading a book about Los Angeles every month, and I’ve love to hear your suggestions for titles.  Noir, of course, must be included, but also literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, you name it, famous or not, by authors living or dead.  Suggest away!

But, just to get the noir out of our system, let’s start with The Big Sleep.  Everybody, go read The Big Sleep, or re-read it, or try to recall it, or even in the worst case watch the movie and pretend you’ve read it, or watch “The Big Lebowski” and pretend you’ve watched “The Big Sleep,” and we will reconvene in two weeks! with an essay by me and comments and discussion by you all.

*Well, it doesn’t have to be informal.  We could wear top hats.