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Ring trilogy spirals past science fiction

by Chris Bamforth

RING, SPIRAL, LOOP, by Koji Suzuki. Vertical Publishing, 2003-2005, each $24.95 (cloth).

One cinematic treat that 1998 turned out was “Ringu,” which was the rarity of a well-worked, intelligent horror flick that won broad appeal among movie fans who ordinarily look askance at efforts in the horror genre. Four years later, “Ringu” gave rise to an even rarer bird in the form of “The Ring” — the almost-unheard-of case of a Hollywood remake that didn’t manage to butcher the life and soul out of the original.

With the recent publication of “Loop,” the English translation of the trilogy that Koji Suzuki began with “Ring” sees completion. An international reading audience can now appreciate the novelistic underpinnings of the commercially and critically successful films.

In its basic story line, the first novel in the trilogy will be familiar to many: A visually disturbing video induces sudden heart failure in whoever watches it, exactly one week after the viewing. The two main protagonists, Asakawa and Takayama, who have seen the tape, need to solve the mystery of the video’s curse before their allotted time runs out, the stakes for Asakawa being so much higher since his wife and young child are also threatened. “Ring” is a fine, tightly constructed horror mystery that in itself is a perfectly satisfactory, self-contained novel, leaving the reader to decide for himself the outcome beyond the final page.

Though picking up the tale from “Ring” as a direct sequel, “Spiral,” the trilogy’s second volume, operates very differently in terms of pace, characterization and literary form. The play of events in “Spiral” is seen from the perspective of Ando — lugubrious coroner, and a duller creation in modern Japanese fiction would be hard to find. Apart from cutting up dead bodies, his main skill lies in solving codes and riddles, an aptitude he brings to bear in investigating the nature of the odd Ring “virus,” which was the agent behind those programmed deaths in Ring. By the end of the book, Ando has arrived at a grim understanding of the awesome power of the virus, leaving the reader just as unsettled at the turn of events as Ando. As a reader, though, you don’t need to be especially astute to guess that all will be resolved in the final installment.

Set in the 2030s, though not markedly futuristic in style, “Loop” is centered on brilliant young medical student Kaoru. Loop is a bold departure from what has gone before, and in this book Suzuki adroitly subverts everything we thought we’d understood about the events that form the narrative backbone to the first two volumes. As with his predecessors in “Ring” and “Spiral,” Kaoru has a complex mystery to solve, but this time the fate of the whole world, no less, rests on him getting to the bottom of things.

As might be guessed, the structure to the trilogy is essentially plot driven. Suzuki takes enormous care with his often elaborate story lines, though he tends to do so at the expense of other areas. Character development, which starts off well enough in “Ring” with intellectual reprobate Takayama teaming up alongside worried family-man journalist Asakawa, thins out drastically in the subsequent volumes.

While Suzuki is not drawn to character, what he is fond of writing about — sometimes excessively — is science. The endless detailing of molecular structures in “Spiral” would strain the patience of even the most biochemically inclined among Suzuki’s reading audience. Exasperatingly, though, what the reader is often expected to believe goes beyond science fiction into the realm of totally fictive science. In “Spiral,” Suzuki describes how a virus is able to “mutate” into a sperm cell, which manages to find its way into the host’s fallopian tube and fertilize an egg. A virus mutating into a spermatozoon is somewhat like a creature the size and complexity of a sea urchin abruptly “mutating” into a blue whale — and about as easy to swallow as either of those critters.

Despite its shortcomings, Suzuki’s ambitious trilogy does succeed, and it’s hard not to be impressed with his aplomb in turning a straight supernatural horror mystery around into a piece of pure science fiction. Readers may find their attention and interest flagging in the slower sections of “Spiral” and the first half of “Loop,” but with the denouement of the whole trilogy in “Loop” and the tying up of most loose threads of plot, they will most likely feel that the hours they invested in reading the whole thing weren’t wasted.