Review: Piercing, by Ryu Murakami

>>Published (in Japanese): 1994

>>Published (in English): March 2007

>>Finally got around to it: April 2012

Ten nights ago. He was in the bathtub with the baby, having just finished washing her. He handed her over to Yoko, who was waiting with a fluffy bath towel, and then he leaned back in the tub, leaving the pebbled-glass shower door partially open. Yoko was murmuring to the baby as she dried her, and he was aware of himself smiling at them. And then, with no prelude or warning, a thought came percolating up into his brain and he felt the muscles of his cheeks twitch and freeze.

I wouldn’t ever stab that baby with an ice pick, would I?

***

Kawashima Masayuki is a successful, seemingly normal graphic designer with a loving, fantastic wife, and a newborn baby at home. At night, however, Kawashima finds himself stalking his own child, peering at her as she sleeps with an ice pick in hand and an almost overwhelming desire to use it. To ease his inner turmoil, he concocts a (relatively) simple plan: hire an lady of the evening well versed in S&M, take her to a hotel under and assumed identity, and murder her with an ice pick. Along the way, details of his past will be learned and various levels of psychosis explored.

Yup, this is that Murakami. The other one—the one who sets karaoke gangs against one another in bloody turf wars and fetishizes the slicing of Achilles tendons. Not the spaghetti-slinging, jazz loving purveyor of magical realism and cat-populated universes. This is the Murakami of Audition and Takashi Miike fame. You know, the I-hope-this-writing-calms-his-inner-demons Murakami.

Piercing is in many ways a precursor to the more well known Audition. Where Audition was about one man’s misleading quest for love and the psychopathic, dangerous woman that turns the tables on him, Piercing is about one man’s lust for murder… and the psychopathic, dangerous woman that turns the tables on him. Also, both reference Murakami’s borderline fetishistic lust for the spring-loaded slicing of the Achilles tendon. I won’t lie—it’s more than a little unnerving.

Like many of Murakami’s previous works, Piercing is a novella-length experiment—an opportunity to explore the dark and depraved depths of a singular concept, with little more than a two-dimensional idea to guide the narrative’s path. That’s not to say it’s devoid of all merit—some of Murakami’s descriptive work is suitably distressing and will linger for hours after turning the final page. However, taken as an independent study of one man’s lust for murder (and a potentially thinly veiled commentary on postpartum depression from the perspective of the Y chromosome) it leaves something to be desired.

Had I come to this title before Audition I might have felt more of its impact. As it stands, Piercing feels more like a blueprint of an idea later executed upon in full. In the end, it lacks the tension and fear that might have been found through more in-depth character development.

Review: Lost Everything, by Brian Francis Slattery

>>Published: April 2012

The war, the war. There was no Fort Sumter, no Pearl Harbor, no moment that we all understood at once that we were fighting. No one to tell us things had changed. There must have been a first shot fired, perhaps two men—it must have been men—arguing over where one’s land began and another’s ended, a first bullet flinging a ribbon of heat through the air. Another one shot back. But I have to believe they did not know what they were starting. If they knew, why would they have shot? An army was raised, a resistance arose. By the time Charlotte, North Carolina burned, nobody was asking what it was about anymore. It was about territory. It was about food and water: who had it, who did not. The old fights, the ones we had fought since we got here, the ones our ancestors brought with them when they came here, all those bitter old things becoming new again. it was about how much we had done to the planet, and the way the planet, at last, had turned its great eye to us in anger. You have done enough. The war was about everything, it was everything, and the question of where it came from was meaningless. There was only the question of how to live through it.

***

A little bit of McCarthy’s The Road married to the Ship of Lost Souls segment from the “Kidney Trouble” episode of The Simpsons, Brian Francis Slattery’s Lost Everything is a soft-focus post-apocalyptic journey north through the Susquehanna River and a war- and nature-ravaged vision of America. Focusing on the relationship between Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim, who seeks only to be reunited with his lost son Aaron, Lost Everything is, given its subject matter, a surprisingly quiet, introspective tale detailing less the actions that led to America’s downfall, and more the prevailing moods—anger, resentment, suspicion—that have since dominated.

Alluding only to a far-reaching, almost faction-less war, and an accompanying onslaught of vicious end-of-the-world-style storms, Lost Everything offers more melancholy and ambiance than plot, and it is stronger for it. The Carthage, the ship that ferries its wayward crew and passengers north, is the most identifiable protagonist—a skeletal, almost Galactica-esque vessel whose time and purpose is limited in a world no longer certain to survive beyond the end of the week, let alone years and decades into the future. The vessel-as-purgatory conceit is nothing particularly new, but it offers Slattery, via an unnamed omniscient narrator who doubles as a chronicling spirit of sorts, the opportunity to open windows into the destruction of his America via small, intimate pockets of death and misery. At times the book feels like a series of side stories to larger narratives, as if their journey north is taking the multitude of lost individuals aboard the Carthage through the tales of families and lives not covered in the main stories of The Road, or The Hunger Games.

Though Slattery’s lack of detail and concrete explanations may frustrate some, I found this restraint incredibly effective at conveying and sustaining an overwhelming and realistic sense of unease. The factions in his war and what they do or do not stand for are irrelevant; the nature of the storms on continuous deadly approach—be they biblical in origin or the result of severe nuclear fallout—does not matter. It is the never-ending sense of conflict and the strength by which the various external crises mirror the internal demons of the Carthage’s passengers and crew that gives Lost Everything its due gravitas.

I was surprised at how drawn in I was by the end of this book. On paper, it’s presented as a rather conventional post-apocalyptic narrative. However, Slattery’s employment of subtlety and restraint prevents Lost Everything from being boiled down to its barest essentials. Highly recommended.