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Big Brother is watching you

by Steve Finbow

REMOTE CONTROL, by Kotaro Isaka. Translated by Stephen Snyder. Kodansha International, 2011, 334 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

If you want an all-action, well-written and intelligent novel to read in 2011, then look no further than this excellent conspiracy-theory thriller.

“Remote Control” has the delirious historical thrust of Don DeLillo’s “Libra,” the compulsive storytelling of Stephen King’s “Running Man,” and the obsessive paranoia of Philip K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly.”

This novel asks serious questions about the individual in society and then runs with them at full speed through the apartment blocks, freezing nights and storm drains of a very-near-future Sendai.

What would you do if the police, the media, and even some of your friends thought you were responsible for assassinating your country’s prime minister? What would you do if police had evidence that you blew up the prime minister’s car? There are photos of you flying a remote-controlled helicopter, records of you working with explosives in a fireworks factory, images of you on the new hi-tech Security Pods and details of incriminating phone calls. What if you knew you were innocent but could not prove it?

The novel opens with two women having lunch in a soba shop near Sendai Station. One of the women — Haruko Higuchi — is an ex-girlfriend of former deliveryman Masaharu Aoyagi. Two years before the events about to unfold, Aoyagi had his 15 minutes of fame when he rescued a female celebrity from an attacker. Being handsome, Aoyagi attracted the attention of the media and appeared in newspapers, on TV and was featured in thousands of blogs.

But now, at the time of the novel, he is just an ordinary citizen, happy collecting unemployment checks until he decides what he wants to do with his life. Then his world implodes; his face, which is of course, vaguely familiar to everyone, again fills TV screens, newspaper front pages, and electronic billboards — but this time he’s a villain not a hero.

No one can be trusted, so Aoyagi goes on the run and into hiding, trying to outwit the police and security services while struggling to clear his name.

At school, he had two close friends — Shingo Morita and Kazuo Ono. As the narrative gains pace and the police close in, Morita dies in another bomb attack and the police violently assault Kazuo. Within hours, Aoyagi finds himself framed for both events. As he travels through the city, his image metastasizes, there are sightings of him everywhere, and all the visual evidence points to his guilt. The police are able to track his and other people’s movements through the Security Pods — hi-tech, closed-circuit TV cameras that record cell phone messages and digitally videotape 350 degrees of the surrounding area.

As an aside, I would like to know why the novel was renamed “Remote Control.” The original title, “Golden Slumber,” comes from a Beatles track and the song carries an important motif throughout the book. In saying that, Stephen Snyder’s translation is spot on, his stripped-down and seamless language propels the reader through the narrative as if we were Aoyagi’s sidekick.

This novel has doubles and double-crossings, shady secret-service men, dodgy underground crime figures, a determined and resourceful ex-girlfriend, backroom plastic surgeons and political manipulators. Along with George Orwell’s “1984,” the Kennedy assassination forms the foundation of the narrative — Big Brother is watching you but, at the same time, he is manipulating what you see.

In a time of WikiLeaks, reality TV, identity theft, our increasing surveillance-based society, 24–hour news, instant access to electronic media, the age of celebrity-for-celebrity’s sake, and governments’ micro-involvement in individuals’ lives, Kotaro Isaka’s “Remote Control” is a highly pertinent novel.