By Fuminori Nakamura

Soho Press, June, 2013 ($25.95)

ISBN-13: 978-1-61695-212-9

Reviewed by Sam Waas

In the seminal SF film Blade Runner, Eldon Tyrell explains why he is experimenting by embedding false memories into his replicants: "They are nave, only having a few years in which to store a lifetime of experience that we take for granted."

I often think the same about contemporary Japanese fiction. We in the Western Canon have a tradition of three centuries to draw upon, while Japan, formerly isolated and existing essentially within a feudal culture until after WW-II, began its creation of modern fiction from within, having virtually no infusion from the West and therefore evolving as a unique form.

This is not to disparage the Japanese people nor their rich heritage. But entry into the general world of the modern novel occurred fairly recently for this nation, and only a few Japanese novelists (Yukio Mishima, Yuya Sato, et al) have gained recognition from the majority of literary society elsewhere. From reading a number of contemporary Japanese novels, it appears to me that these writers have established their own tradition, a smattering of Western memes mixed with sturdy reliance upon a wholly Japanese structure. And this is as it should be.

This fusion of two disparate cultures does however occasion difficulties, particularly if one is attempting to assimilate a Japanese novel into the Western Canon, because it cannot often easily be done. Japanese novels tend to be very simplistic on the surface, using somewhat juvenile phrasing and narrative, with an apparently superficial story line that appears contrived or overly forced. Beneath may lie currents of far more mature themes but in a tradition that mirrors the formalistic conventions of Japanese culture, these are often suppressed.

EVIL AND THE MASK is such a novel. Any effort to press it into conventional categories will fail, and if the reader has pigeonholing as a goal, this excellent psychological fantasy will seem flat and enervated simply because it resists such labeling.

I describe this novel as a fantasy with some conviction. The book is a narrative of one man, Fumihiro Kuki, beginning when he is eleven. He is ushered into his wealthy, distant, and unstable father's study and told that he will soon be trained to become a "cancer" upon the world, to sow death and distress everywhere. His father's purpose is obscure and the next few years deliberately disconnected, as Fumihiro strikes out on his own, seeks personal resolution and solutions to life, and begins to act as a catalyst for evil, just as his father predicted. Whether spurred by genetics, culture, free will, or a combination is not revealed. This is left to the reader to evaluate.

Wealthy robber barons don't send their children off as knights errant in real life nor in realistic fiction, and realistic characters also don't fall to this behavior on a whim, so such concepts lie correctly under the label of fantasy, at least to some degree. The author knows this full well and is creating this slightly off-base and unreal situation as a means to provide the envelope of human introspection that he requires in which to present his theories on behavior and culture. And to further describe the plot is therefore unimportant within the greater context of the novel's premise and theme.

EVIL AND THE MASK is therefore a complex novel that's wrapped in a highly readable and slightly immature narrative style. The book is not opaque on the surface and therefore is an interesting, entertaining story. Some may however finish the book and ask for more, saying, "Okay, so this guy is weird and kills people. So what?"

Below this veneer lies the depth of Japanese culture and this is where the novel excels. For this is indeed Japanese society today. Many of the forms and rituals of the feudal system are still extant, the politeness, the patina of function and conformity. Layered beneath is inner tension, the rampant biological and evolutionary urges and drives that exist but are only hinted at in the narrative. That the novel's title contains Mask is not an accident.

Some may find this novel a disappointing read, searching for substance and instead finding only superficiality. They likely need to understand the dual-level style of contemporary Japanese fiction to appreciate the entire work, and this is not a commitment an average reader may wish to make. This is therefore not a book that I'd recommend to all. It requires a certain awareness, a separation from reality, a detachment from externals and focus on the internal tensions of the characters.

Not your average mystery, to be sure. But I liked it, and you may also. Just be prepared for a different tone from conventional genre novels.

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