On the surface, the intense and unavoidable map of Fuminori Nakamura's college-student protagonist in THE GUN says exactly that. In the midst of an unremarkable and boring life, where classes are easy to sleep through or avoid and the biggest challenge is getting laid with new women on a regular basis, this student, Nishikawa, suffers the accident of finding a gun next to a dead man under a bridge. When he yields to impulse and seizes the weapon for himself, in Japan's gun-empty climate, he moves from ordinary to extraordinary in one swift choice.
From here, the movement of the plot zigzags between suspense -- how will the student keep his discovery private, how will it overtake his mind, who may intrude on his private world and challenge his possession -- and inevitability: when will he yield also to the gun's own design and purpose and choose to fire it, and at what? Where? Why?
It sounds almost simple as a premise. But the steady pounding of the existential narrative acquires, in Nakamura's hands, a frightening force. At the same time, the gun itself becomes a love interest, far more possessive than the women weeping and having hook-up sex with the young man.
This is actually Nakamura's prize-winning debut novel, although Soho Crime released three of his others in earlier translations: The Thief, Last Winter We Parted, and Evil and the Mask. It's not clear why this one was delayed. But it has the force of many a debut novel, where the press of a contract hasn't yet forced the author to hurry -- each phrase, each scene cuts a precise step toward the book's conclusion.
Beyond the premise of a machine that begs for being used as designed is another layer of cultural critique, as the author makes it clear that Nishikawa associates the gun with America: a place where life involves more surprise and variety, at least on the surface, than in Japan. Tickling at the edge of this awareness is a lecture given by his professor:
"What is so powerful about American culture" -- he got this far and then sneezed once, loudly -- "however, is America's diversity itself. The Americanization of Japan is nothing new, but I would hate to think that it demonstrates a scarcity of Japanese culture. Yet the longing for American culture has existed since our defeat in the war up through the present day . . ."Nishikawa's only half listening to the professor -- his thoughts are already wound around his secret possession. "I led a boring life. It stood to reason that the gun would act as a stimulant within such tedium. ... I could think only of it causing injury, of destroying life; it had been created expressly so that a person could commit such deeds."
The gun becomes a symbol for more than cruelty, more than precise intent: It carries away the possibility of sane and loving life in community.
I live in a gun-welcoming culture, in rural Vermont, where a gun is hardly more lethal, and no more focused on cruelty, than a pipe wrench. (You probably don't want the gruesome details of what happened near here with a pipe wrench a couple of years ago.) It's more complicated than that here, though -- you can't access a "long gun" (at least, for legal use) until you acquire a certain age or standing (such as taking a hunter safety class, in order to get your deer hunting license), and for many youngsters, receiving a gun of their own is as potent a sign of "adulthood" as a first beer or a car.
And I don't for a moment believe that the device itself turns someone into a killer. Nor do I think Nakamura is proposing that ... although the steady poisoning of his student's mind is fully believable.
But I do think the role of firearms is one of the crucial results of the difference between Japan's island-based culture and the American "Manifest Destiny" and wildlands. A small personal story here: A couple of decades ago, my teenaged sons and I enjoyed our first Japanese student guests in our home. I think it was the second one who, upon arrival, looked around the cozy country kitchen with fear and asked, "Where are the guns?" When we said we didn't have any, he asked, with even more fear, "Will there be guns at school on Monday?" Looking back, our quick response of "No, of course not!" was naive and innocent -- the dailiness of gun killings in 2015 has been one of the most terrible shocks of the year. We could have seen it coming.
No, THE GUN isn't a cultural critique. It's a short, intense work of suspense and increasing madness, really. It moves with long paragraphs, little dialogue, a constant first-person view without much inner forethought, and with a rising tide of horror. Framing it around "the student" places it parallel to The Little Prince and several works of French and German philosophy-in-fiction. It's a good read (if you can handle "noir").
But it's also more than that. I tip my hat to Soho Crime for providing it (release date is January 5). And of course to the author.
THE GUN is a book I'll never forget. What I'll do with that, I'm not quite sure. Yet.