Thursday, April 27, 2017

Japanese Noir, Painted in Precise Detail, from Fuminori Nakamura

The newest "Japanese noir" crime novel to arrive in the US from Fuminori Nakamura, THE BOY IN THE EARTH, begins as a slow, precise meditation by the protagonist (an unnamed Tokyo taxi driver who narrates all of the book), as he releases himself into being beaten and perhaps killed by a gang of motorcycle riders whose antagonism he has deliberately sought. Sentence by sentence, we sink with him into a crystalline awareness of the situation:
If they kept kicking me, if they beat me to a pulp, I might vanish into nothing, I might be absorbed by the earth, deep underground. It was terrifying. I felt robbed of my strength, and my heart raced painfully, although the twitching that ran up and down my spine was not unpleasant. Little by little, this fearful trembling was transforming into something else entirely, like a feeling of anticipation. Despite my terror, there was the definite sensation that I was patiently standing by. I experienced a moment of skepticism, but then it no longer mattered.
These precise details of sensation and taste-tested emotion make up an intricate portrait in motion, perhaps a dance -- each movement wrapped in hesitation and conflicted emotion and thought.

Our narrator, we soon realize, is an orphan -- or at least grew up in an orphanage, but also had devastating experiences in foster care. As if we were inside the core of a sociopath, a character on "Criminal Minds," an unfathomable criminal from yesterday's newspaper, we share the shiver of both disgust and realization.

So it is that this very short novel -- 147 pages as translated by Allison Markin Powell and published by Soho Crime -- blossoms in parallel to one of Nakamura's earlier meditations on crime, The Gun. Nakamura presents the small sharp fragments of injury that lead to a mind or soul ready to perform extreme acts. What THE BOY IN THE EARTH offers that differentiates it, though, is the delicate and repeated experience of holding back from action -- what the 12-stepper recognizes perhaps as "looking through the glass" to experience a moment of the future before taking a step in the present.

I found myself caught up in the dance of language and the intimate actions of the book. Dark, yes, and twisted, and deeply sad -- but it's also a book I'd recommend to adventurous readers who appreciate art and insight. There's nothing ordinary about it at all. And that, in the long run, becomes a remarkable experience in crime fiction.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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