Monday, 9 April 2012


(March 2012)

A Japanese master to be ranked alongside Haruki Murakami.

This is what it says on the back cover. Tellingly it doesn’t say who this Japanese master is. I have a hard time believing it’s the author of this book, and this is meant to be his ‘masterpiece’. Maybe they weren’t ranking writing ability but some other skill-set. Ballroom dancing perhaps, or maybe speed-eating.

“Kosaka Tokita lumbered into the Senior Staff Room.”

This is not the most auspicious of opening lines. I’ve seen worse, but this is pretty laboured and clunky. It’s why I’m going to list translators as well as authors from now on, when appropriate. For the other books in translation I’ve read, I’ve shied away from commenting on the quality of the prose a little. Didn’t seem fair, somehow. This way at least both the original authors and the translators can stand or fall together, and take the credit or blame as appropriate.

It’s mainly blame here. I almost gave up on this book after the first few pages. Take this beauty from the third page of the story –

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.” Torataro Shima, the Institute Administrator, stood before them with a frown. “Our two top candidates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, fighting over a lunchbox?!” he said with a hint of sadness.

Seamless plot and character development, I’m sure you’ll agree. I especially like how the prize category is given in full, despite the fact it’s already been made abundantly clear this is a psychiatric institute and these people are psychiatrists. Were it not for this awkwardly lengthy clarification I may have come to the erroneous conclusion they were up for the Peace or Literature prizes instead. The words and punctuation are also disconcertingly at odds. A ‘hint of sadness’ is how a vet sounds when putting down a family pet. An exclamation mark doesn’t really convey that, and an interrobang certainly doesn’t.

“I know it’s hard Mr Rogers, but Skipper had a good life. There’s nothing more we could have done for him?!”

Pretty soon after making us swallow this awkward lump the institute holds a press conference, which conveniently/clumsily allows for an even greater slug of exposition and back-story to be forced down our still raw and tender gullets. It did make me want to gag a little.

We’re also repeatedly told how beautiful and clever and beautiful and talented and beautiful the protagonist is. Every single male character wants to either fuck her or rape her, or both, sometimes at her own insistence (the raping, not the fucking. I know consensual rape is an oxymoron, but there it is).

The only exception to this is the lead antagonist, largely because, as a member of the global homosexual illumiati, he's one of them evil gayers. And even he has a bash by proxy when he orders her rape (which she finds frustratingly unfulfilling). Tsutsui might just as well have cut to the chase and called her Suu Meeri.

Still, I’ve read other books recently that blossomed after unpromising starts, so I stuck with it, thinking it might improve or have other redeeming qualities.

It doesn’t.

You may have noticed that I enjoy, or at least appreciate, pretty much all of the books I write about here. Obviously there’s a fairly strong selection bias at play. As I’ve got older I’ve got better at judging my own tastes. I’ve also become more willing to drop books halfway if I’m not getting anything from them. I do read some bad stuff, but it generally doesn’t get finished, so it doesn’t get commented on. Frankly I’d have stopped reading this after the first fifty pages if I hadn’t quite fancied the thought of writing it up here and giving it the trashing it deserves.

The characters are so thinly drawn and one-dimensional they could comfortably hide behind a short queue of hydrogen atoms. The dialogue is painfully unnatural and unreadable, and exists not to develop character but to drive the plot. This might be forgivable were the plot not also mundane, tedious, and instantly forgettable. Something about cars and office politics, I think. This is all served to a continual thunder of homophobia and misogyny - with a hint of anti-semitism to taste - and in prose that is just awful. Teeth-achingly, bowel-voidingly, eye-bleedingly awful. It is impossible to overstate this point.

There’s lots of stuff about using technology to see other people’s dreams, and some of these sequences are mildly diverting. But frankly they’re dreams; you could make up any old shit and it’d fly provided it was suitably surreal and trippy. If all I wanted was half-baked psychoanalysis of too-neatly contrived subconscious meanderings I’d talk to the crazy lady who runs the ‘healing’ crystal stall in Camden market. Her efforts to repair my cracked aura might point to a personality that doesn’t quite mesh with the real world, but at least she has one. Tsutsui could have killed off every single one of his characters halfway through and replaced them all with animatronic meat-puppets and I would have neither noticed nor cared.

The cover’s quite nice though.


  1. You know there's a not bad anime of this. Not sure how much the plot diverges, as I have not read the book; however, the film does include the usual amount of inappropriate sexuality to mark it as Japanese.

    One reason I have given up studying written Japanese, along with sloth, is that I am not impressed with the literature. I've read (in translation) my Mishima, Kawabata, Murakami (Haruki and Ryu), Oe... but I just don't like it. It's probably a Eurocentric thing, but I need a plot with a point, and characters I do not want to put out of my misery. I'm inclined to think it is a peculiar sickness of Japanese literature, as there are interesting characters and plotting in live-action and anime movies, past and present.

    1. Yeah, I did a little googling after I'd finished this to if other people hated it as much as I did. Apparently the film stands up much better than the book -

      I like how this guy gets even more pissed off about the punctuation than I did.

      I know what you mean about wanting to put characters out of their misery. I read Kokoro a couple of years ago and just didn't get it at all. I've not tried any Kawabata, and the one Mishima I've read also left me non-plussed. I quite like both the Murakamis as stylists, but I have to be in the mood. I've had 1Q84 on the shelf for a few months now because I still haven't quite felt like it.

  2. I read the whole thing and thought 2 things...

    1. I got depressed reading a review about a book written by someone who got a deal because they are fucking someone or the child of a famous someone and maybe fucking someone too?

    2. I can assure you that I am going to Google "anamatronic meat puppet" and hopefully find a pic :)

    1. On your own head be it ;)

      That's an interesting idea, actually. if you tried both and, exactly what do you think the differences would be? I'm not sure how to translate it, and quite frankly I'm fine with not knowing.

  3. Are you sure you weren't Jack Kerouac's editor in a former lifetime or something 'cause that would be really funny considering you like to read so much and all especially since you get so worked up and even angry about punctuation?!

    1. And breathe...

      Not angry, per se. I've no-one but myself to blame for keeping on reading. It's just very bad writing. Have a look at the bit I quoted again; I defy you to read it aloud as written.

    2. Kerouac's most well-known book, all 120 feet of it, was written practically without punctuation. He also had a photographic memory, so he was able to 'turn it on' and 'put it to work'. I first learned all this from watching a play put on by a very talented, dedicated, and underappreciated actor in front of a random group of smart-ass college students. That's where the run on comment comes from. I should probably stop trying to be so witty as it all seems to get lost in the translation.

      Speaking of translations...

      I'm tempted to try imagining what the original Japanese might be like. Or better yet, I'll just have fun trying to rewrite it, "My,my,my..." On second thought, no, no, no. After reading it aloud, I suddenly don't feel so well.

      Looking forward to your next review.

      Until then.

    3. The run on thing is fine. I'm certainly not above it myself, but reading some things out loud and breathing are not always mutually compatible.

      On The Road? Here's the thing about On The Road, I know I've read it, but I can't remember a single thing about it. My memory certainly isn't photographic, I can say that at least.

      I tried back-translating some of this. But there are so many other problems with Paprika beyond the prose that it's easy to believe it's actually an excellent translation. If we take the task of a translator as rendering the original as faithfully as possible, then if it was awful in the original it'll still be awful in a second language. If not then it's an adaptation, not a translation.

  4. I have not read Paprika, but am planning on watching the anime in the near future. I've read some other Tsutsui, who I thought was alright, so maybe this was a bad day for him? I'll trade you shameless self promotions:

    In defense of Japanese writers, have you tried Tanizaki? I quite liked what I read of his.

    1. I could see that maybe short stories could work. There are a few not awful ideas here. But I'm afraid there's no way I'll be touching Tsutsui again, not when there's so much other decent stuff waiting to be read.

      No need to defend Japanese writers per se, I'm just becoming increasingly wary of male Japanese SF writers. If I'm being generous, I could say that the publishers putting these books out are targeting the stereotypical anime fan (nerdish teenage boys) and so choosing predominantly authors they think will appeal, so we get the equivalents of Heinlein or Card and all the issues they bring. Or maybe I'm just really bad at picking them.

      Still, Harmony's up soon enough and there's a Tanizaki somewhere in the pile too, I'm pretty sure.

    2. I have my suspicions about Viz Media's selections for Haikasoru. It seems like they get a few quality titles each year, then have to publish a bunch of anime-ish stuff to pay the bills. Could be wrong though. I'd love to interview Nick Mamatas for my blog and see how all that works. Vertical Press on the other hand, seems to get a lot of dregs.

      That said, my opinion of Japanese men is pretty low anyway; I suppose SF writers aren't going to rise that far above the median.

    3. Well, gotta make your money somehow, I guess. If the dross finances the good stuff I'm not going to complain, I just wish I could get better at picking them, is all.

      I've actually just finished a Vertical book. Not dreg-worthy, exactly, but also interesting for all the wrong reasons.