‘Netsuke’ by Rikki Ducornet

Back when I was in my 20s, and before 9/11 made saying such things tacky, one of my friends used to refer to the systematic dismantling of ones life as “Crashing the plane.” When we engaged in some sort of horrific behavior, using erratic means to quickly thrust a relationship status into critical condition, when we did something passive aggressive at work that caused the loathing to show throw the seams, any sort of rash bad behavior that would implode on itself, that was crashing the plane.

The main character in Rikki Ducornet’s novella Netsuke is definitely trying to crash the plane.

When the story opens, the world’s least ethical psychoanalyst is out for a run. He exchanges glances with woman on the path and a few seconds later they are rutting in the woods. This sparks some inner monologue about his dual nature: The doctor with a practice in an office on his property, married to an artsy perfectionist who collects netsuke, Japanese ornaments. But he is also a bad, bad man. Bedding a parade of store clerks, strangers, and patients including a cutter and a cross dresser. Back at home the psychoanalyst takes his daily hour-long shower to wash away the debauchery and become the man his wife believes him to be.

Meanwhile, he wants to get caught. Flimsy alibis, taking her to restaurants he shares with lovers, telling her details from sessions to give the relationship seedlings of doubt and mistrust. Sometimes just saying the word “woman” aloud to her gives him a thrill.

When she begins to shift into frustration over his busy schedule, or she starts to sense something is amiss, he makes empty promises about getting away together soon. In the later part of the book, Aikio is given a voice and a reader finds that she knows more than she thinks she knows.

There is some wonderful writing here, although better if you read the book in one sitting. Coming back to it dulls the flow and makes it sound a little overly pretty and self conscious. The psychoanalyst in particular has this sort of manic and brainiac-ness to him, like a Poe character, with shifts between first and third person that really seal him as this sex addict slash narcissist. Reading it feels like stumbling on an indie film you’ve never heard of starring Ben Kingsley.

Plotwise, there isn’t a lot to hold on to here. It is a lot of the same, a rolling boil of conflict that doesn’t escalate quite enough. His relationships never getting beyond the physical. And when the story shifts to include perspectives of his lovers and wife, the voices aren’t really distinct. Even a moment when two of his patients discover they are both getting special treatment is a sort of gray area that lacks tension.

This review was originally posted May 25, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Book review: ‘Popular Hits from the Showa Era’ by Ryu Murakami

I think I have read enough Ryu Murakami at this point to safely call myself a connoisseur without sounding like too much of an asshole. This Japanese horror writer always manages to tickle my gag reflex or give me school bus giggles. He is lurid. He is inventive. He is hilarious.

However, if I wasn’t a Murakami-sseur, I’m not sure his novella Popular Hits of the Showa Era, most-recently translated to English, would inspire the sort of “supple undertones, oaky aftertaste” style of fandom I’ve developed. In fact, I’m not sure I’d bother following his career. Luckily, I count his novel In the Miso Soup among my favorite books of all time and was appropriately stunned at the first sentence of Coin Locker Babies so I know how to sift out the moments of gold in this sort of crudely-drawn semblance of a story well enough to consider it a fine read.

The story stars two dueling factions: A herd of 20-something misfit boys who hang out on Saturday nights and watch the neighbor lady get naked, have Rock/Paper/Scissors contests and then jet off for the finale: A fully costumed and instrumentally outfitted go-round of karaoke; A herd of late 30-something women known as The Midori Society, a faction of divorced or otherwise single women united by the same last name, although not related.

One of the boys commits a random act of fatal violence against one of the women, and the other women find a clue to the killer’s identity at the crime scene. They kill him back while he’s mid-stream in public urination. A junior college girl — who is the butt of most of the story’s humor because of the grim effect she has on people (“It seemed as if even her voice were sprinkled with disease dust …”) — witnesses the second crime and soon Team Boys and Team Women are trying to off each other in new, exciting, bigger and badder ways.

One of Murakami’s trademarks is the barf-inducing death scene where a throat is slit and spills blood the color of soy sauce or a crazed fiance goes Pampered Chef on a guy’s Achilles Tendon. There is so much back-and-forth death in this book that the descriptions are visually dulled, only once really going crazy on the way a bullet hole can rip into a face (“twisting the face like a wrung rag”). He seems to replace it with humorous set-ups to the deed: The women meeting with a military specialist. The boys renting a helicopter.

So the premise is good. The story is a little random and frequently veers into a silliness that doesn’t seem to translate. But there are these two-to-three sentence gushes, quintessential Murakami, that make Hits of the Showa Era worth reading. But only after you’re already a fan.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on February 10, 2011.