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Dive into the lower depths

by Stephen Mansfield

PIERCING by Ryu Murakami. Penguin Books, 2007, 185 pp., $13 (paper)

While his wife sleeps contentedly, a father hovers over the crib of his baby daughter, a penlight in one hand, ice pick in the other. Pressures are banking up inside the nervous system of a man who gets goose pimples while soaking in a scalding hot bath. Something is terribly wrong. Fast-forward to a call girl who sits on the edge of a bathtub, gouging her thigh with a Swiss army knife. Welcome to Murakamiland.

In the time-honored manner of the psycho-thriller novelist, Ryu Murakami constructs an edifice of harmony and contentment, only to savagely deconstruct it. Murakami’s ideal home in this novel is a place of chemical wholesomeness, a TV studio kitchen interior where every surface has been swabbed and treated, every alien cell annihilated by pleasant-smelling toxins.

Touching the sensor plate to exit the apartment, the author’s main subject, Kawashima Masayuki, notes — with a touch of irony given his own defects — that Tokyo’s erosive social acid is lapping up to his own doorstep: “Not long before, someone apparently disguised as a delivery man had burgled one of the apartments; kids had been known to spray-paint graffiti on the lobby walls; and some jerk had once melted the intercom’s plastic number pad with a lighter.”

There are those who are reassured, even comforted, by evidence of Japan’s increasingly dysfunctional society, who see in the accounts of unspeakable crimes proof that the Japanese city is not so different from all the other insane asylums around the world. This violent and visceral novel is one that lends credence to that view.

It is a terrain we have visited before with Murakami and somehow survived, emerging from the experience a little shaken perhaps, but game, after a suitable period of rehab, for more tales as far removed in their orbits from the subtle traditions of Japanese literature as Mars and Venus.

If there is poetry in Murakami’s work, as many have claimed, it is verse from the lower depths, tales in thematic line of descent from previous works by the author: the freaks that step out of “Almost Transparent Blue,” the lost souls in “Coin Locker Babies,” the cheesy night clubs of “In the Miso Soup.”

Murakami’s characters seldom short-circuit their senses without warning signs, however: “It always starts with the sweating,” Kawashima notes, “followed by this smell of charred tissue. Then a sudden sense of utter exhaustion, and finally that indescribable pain. As if the particles of air were turning to needles and piercing him all over.” Is this how we experience derangement, the descent into the kind of visions, the worst trips provided by psychotropic drugs?

Murakami’s world is an unremittingly ugly place where people gather in dingy rooms and garbage-strewn alleys to savage each other, but the author shows how it is possible for the disturbed to rationalize the steps toward a planned atrocity in such a way that it exists beyond the confining realm of morality. In order to save his own daughter and his marriage, to rid himself of his demons, Kawashima, according to his own reasoning, must expedite an unspeakable crime against a stranger, an expendable female. Murakami’s characters may coexist with their alternative selves, deftly analyze their own symptoms and causes, but cannot set themselves free.

The utter failure of Kawashima’s attempt to confront and quell his demons sets in motion a series of events that are beyond his control. Murakami is a sufficient master of suspense to leave the question “Will it, or won’t it happen?” dangling in the air until the final pages.

Murakami’s work may not touch the heart of the reader, but it never fails to assault the nerve endings.