Tokyo, 1994. Japan is now well into what observers will later call the “lost decade,” a downward spiral triggered by the Japanese central bank’s bursting the speculative bubble of the 1980s. The seemingly inviolable climb of the Japanese economy—and society—has reversed.
Triangle, the 2001 novel by the respected Japanese writer Hisaki Matsuura released in its first English edition by Dalkey Archive Press (233 pages) this month, is an attempt to transform the Japanese downward spiral into a metaphysical thriller. But novels—even literary ones—based on conceptual ideas rarely work.
This one, in the English translation by David Karashima, is unsuccessfully grounded in Tokyo’s dark underside circa 1994—seedy neighborhoods, fog, derelict storefronts, and sewer canals. Our guide is the disaffected thirty-something Otsuki, a recovered heroin addict who lives in a lightless, “six mat” apartment in a neighborhood so hot and humid “it’s like a basin.” Otsuki has gotten himself out of the worst of Tokyo’s dead zones, like Sanya, “an area that would shock most Japanese,” but about 45 pages into the book he’s headed back there. Danger looms.
Much of Otsuki’s trouble is self-made, of course. He’s both streetsmart and naïve (the source of his clichéd narrator’s voice), addicted to sex and incapable of intimate emotional connection. “The best moments with a women were not when she arrived at your door, or when you were undressing her, but when you watched her face in the window of a taxi disappear as it drove off,” he tells us almost immediately. The distance in his voice is supposed to give the novel a hard, dime store sound, to make the book bristle, to enable the reader to feel Otsuki’s—Japan’s—pain.
The pain emanates from a mini-cell of perverse, Gothic monsters led by the calligrapher Koyama. Their perversity reminds me, in fact, of the first widely read American Gothic novel, The Quaker City, about a secret sex and drug lair in Philadelphia in the 1840s run by a classic misanthrope named Devil Bug, just as the U.S. was coming off its most brutal economic depression (that novel, too, was a metaphor for a nation gone wrong). Koyama uses drugs and sex to draw Otsuki into his trap. But what for? What do they want from him? Ostensibly, it’s to finish making a film. But can this be real? Otsuki isn’t a director or cinematographer. This is slim pretense, too slim for the reader, just enough, apparently, for the narrator. His questions lose narrative power (all reversals in the plot are fleeting) as he’s sucked into their weird, rococo drama. The underbelly is lurid, titillated, violent, and worse—rationalized by metaphysical nonsense. And since the book hinges on this nonsense, Triangle can never be taken seriously.
On the face of it, the nonsense is interesting. Says, Koyama, about what he calls the “natural spiral” of the universe,
“It goes to show how little our lives really mean. We have to accept that fact…graciously, without making a fuss about it…If we accept the spiral, if we can give ourselves to it, it will become much easier to endure life, aging, and death.”
Matsuura personifies the spiral in a character, Tomoe, an alluring teenager who Koyama uses to lure Otsuki. Tomoe is a spiral shape; three tomoes together make the forceful mitsudomoe, the Bermuda Triangle of the book’s title. The author extends the metaphor to the counter-clockwise method of writing the symbol for tomoe. “We are all born within tomoe,” says Koyama. But what if some dastardly, devilish fella wants to reverse direction, put “a crack in the order?” This is Koyama himself, who takes the narrator on an underground, clockwise, chase through Tokyo.
Here, symbol is everything, and that’s shaky novelistic ground. What about the story itself with its layers of feigned intrigue (none of which seem real), its veiled explanations, its final revelation? They drift away once the metaphor is revealed. Otsuki’s transformation is slight.
A book doesn’t have to fail if it’s based in a metaphor, but it’s more likely to if it also gives into the easy fetishizing of lurid sex, of the young female form. This is a shame because Matsuura is skilled at dialog and sensitive to the way we feel our bodies as extensions of our emotions. Here’s a sweet sampling:
My body melts, mixes, dilutes, spreads endlessly, shrinks endlessly, becoming endlessly smaller, becoming sperm and egg, no, even smaller and smaller into lukewarm nothingness, to a place where I am not me nor anyone, a place with no color, shape, smell, or taste.
But just as Otsuki is trapped by his own inadequacies and then, later, the villainous cell, Matsuura (and by extension, the reader) is trapped by his choice of the first person narrative form. Otsuki isn’t compelling enough to carry the story. An omniscient, or even playful third person narrator may have better handled the metaphor by contextualizing the act of calligraphy, giving it both historical meaning and grace. Moreover, if the author is really interested in social commentary about the state of Japan, a more detached narrator might have built this aspect of the metaphor more carefully, with greater nuance. The third person may also have given Matsuura a way to reveal some of the story’s secrets to the reader without having to clue in Otsuki, who spends the book thinking he’s being duped, but to no conceivable end.
—Nathaniel Popkin, author of Lion and Leopard, 2013<
excerpt: As I was telling Hiroko about the night with Koyama and Sugimoto, I suddenly remembered how, while I was in something of a hypnotic state, at the exact moment that there was a close-up of the moon on the screen, outside the glass conservatory the clouds parted to reveal a real full moon. I got the eerie feeling that what was happening in the film dictated what was happening in the real world. But because I found it difficult to put this strange experience into words, I decided not to say anything about it. I put out my cigarette and began to make love to her again so as to fill in the absence of conversation, but that dark sky with the its twin moons hovered. I even imagined that the two moons overlapped and became one just as I experienced a long, intense ejaculation–smelling Hiroko’s slightly sour breath in my face.
The vision left me feeling stifled, guilty, but I didn’t understand why. As soon as I’d sent Hiroko on her way again, another close-up vision of the moon came to mind, except that this time the moon was reflected on the surface of a lake. It was an image from the final scene of the film, that had faded into nothing. It brought with it a frightening vertigo–a feeling of falling, flailing, into the void. But there was no way I could know whether this fragment of memory was real or not, and the irritation of this uncertainty burned inside me.
That night when I lay down to sleep, I was overcome by the desire to watch the film one more time–not to look at the naked Tomoe having sex, but to take a closer look at the final image of the moon. It was a desire that wouldn’t leave me, that kept sleep at bay as I tossed and turned into the night.