Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Mass Killings, Cultural Collapse, or Just Murder ... in CULT X from Fuminori Nakamura

Japanese noir can finger the dark and dangerous side of urban life deftly -- a long-term slide from the twists of culture and despair that William Gibson's Neuromancer laid out for us in (the real) 1984. It's the obverse of the playful simplicity of manga's wide-eyed images. And because Japan's imperial drive toward domination remains bottled up inside today's imposed regimen of gun scarcity and forbidden military action, there's an aspect of sharpening blades for action that can be terrifying.

Fuminori Nakamura (the pen name of a Tokyo author) showed in The Gun his capacity for binding emotions around a small symbol until the pressure to act -- and act violently -- can't be restrained. In his newest novel, CULT X, set for release by Soho Press on May 22, he's chosen to probe an appalling moment of recent Japanese history: the 1995 sarin subway attack in Tokyo. That attack was the second to rip news headlines, preceded by the 1994 sarin poisoning that took place in Matsumoto City, Japan.

As in his earlier work, Nakamura moves toward the criminal actions in increments rooted in damaged lives.  Toru Narazaki can hardly believe it when he learns that the woman who disappeared from his life -- hinting at suicide -- has been seen alive. His desire to rediscover this woman, Ryoko Tachibana, pulls him out of his ordinary life, into exploration of what he thinks at first is a religious retreat group. The sleuth who's informed him that Ryoko is alive gives us a window into Narazaki's soul as he reflects that Narazaki "looked like he'd lost something he needed to go on living. Yet his gaze was terribly powerful, and had a strange radiance."

It's hunger and necessity gleaming at the surface of a life that's been ordinary until now. In fact, when Narazaki first visits the retreat building pointed out to him, and a middle-aged woman's voice inquires who he is, his reply is revelatory:
"My name's Toru Narazaki. I'm ... I'm not really anyone."
Although he's unaware of the force of his desire, Narazaki presses forward, trying to find Ryoko and make sense of her abrupt departure from his life. Long before he locates her, though, he's trapped in the power of his own longing for attention, sex, human contact in the most basic and childlike (although orgasmic) ways. His quest thus originates from almost pure physicality -- the exact opposite of what he'd imagined a religious process would involve.

It's not long before Narazaki realizes there are double undercurrents to what he's experiencing. On one hand, he's welcomed into a cult that's based in both philosophy and modern physics, with an engaging lecturer for its revered leader. And on the other, he's made himself into an ideal victim for the cult's enemies.

Sorting this into waves of external action, the book twists adeptly toward a horror-laden plot of mass destruction. Is Fuminori Nakamura suggesting that Japan's soul is a match to this protagonist's? I dread the notion, as the missing woman finally appears to greet the seeker, and Narazaki is intensely humiliated by the way she finds him:
When reality ultimately punctured one corner of his consciousness, the violence of his desires came rushing out. That's why I came here, Narazaki thought. To make my own real life seem like a fantasy. Out of contempt for my life ... No, contempt for the real world. But Narazaki couldn't say that to Tachibana. [...] Why am I like this? Why is my body like this? Narazaki's eyes began to tear up -- tears no one could sympathize with. Anger rose up to replace his embarrassment -- ugly, inappropriate anger.
Is that why the sarin poisonings took place? Out of an ugly anger rooted in abiding humiliation? In that case, what does the suspense here threaten, for all of us?

CULT X is a dark crime novel, published by Soho Crime (Soho Press). But it's also, like Nakamura's earlier books, a deliberate and painful fingering of old and new wounds. Horrifying, yes -- but worth confronting.

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


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