Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Death Sentences

(January 2017)

Death Sentences is, at least as far as plot goes, about a poem that causes anyone to read it to die. The blurb suggests that this conceit is shared with The Ring, but for me the obvious comparator is Monty Python:

Obvious not only because I'm British, but also because this book has a bit of a hardon for surrealism. In as much as there's a main character, it's André Breton, who Wikipedia tells me was one of the main figures of the movement. Marcel Duchamp and various other people I'd actually heard of before also make cameos. This English edition of Kawamata's Japan SF Grand Prize winning novel was released by the University of Minnesota Press, and comes loaded with scholarly couple of essays, none of which I did much more than skim, so at least some people clearly believe there's depth here. I guess they're right, but that doesn't make the actual story any easier to read.

The plot starts in near-future Japan, with a detective performing what appears to be a drugs bust. It quickly becomes apparent that the proscribed substance is the aforementioned poem, which prior to death causes its readers all kinds of not undesirable experiences. We then flash back to the post-war New York, in which Breton acts as an unwilling mentor to the mysterious Who May, who comes to write The Gold Of Time, and the surrealists start dropping like flies. Flash back forward to near contemporary Japan and the finding of Breton's archives, and the translation and publication of the deadly poem. Then back to the policeman, Mars, and time travel.

As with much (translated) Japanese SF, it's not a particularly effortless read, focusing once more on concepts at the expense of character, plot, and style. It’s a fairly obtuse meandering on the power of language—not for nothing does one of the translators get a twenty-page afterword—that in all honesty reminds me of nothing so much as Neal Stephenson's reframing of language as an ancient Sumerian virus in Snow Crash. Stephenson writes better fight scenes, though. It's not an uninteresting novel, but it does feel a bit too much Haruki Murakami on one of his more indulgent days: an author waxing a little too florid about one of their pet subjects, while everyone coos about depth which is, I would suggest, largely in the eye of the beholder. But then the death of the author is a fairly literal concern, as well, so there's that at least. Kawamata's genuinely trying to explore something of worth, but it's not a quest he ever really convinced me was worth taking in his company.

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