How to adequately describe “Subduction,” the new work by husband and wife team Todd and L.J.C. Shimoda? A psychological thriller framed by gorgeous artwork? A beautifully bound collection of abstract, multimedia images evoking traditional Japanese brush techniques? The story of fragmented lives on a small Japanese island, an island perpetually threatened by actual and imagined underground fault lines? A whodunit murder mystery with suspects lingering from the island’s fractured past?
Take a breath and start again because no single sentence can piece together the whole that makes up “Subduction,” and I walked away from the novel uneasy, a bit unbalanced and unsure what to believe.
The novel begins on solid ground. Jun Endo, the narrator, is a young doctor facing a disciplinary hearing after his superior’s mistake, a mistake that resulted in the death of Endo’s patient. Outraged with his superior’s callous dismissal of life yet unable to fight as a lowly first-year resident, Endo meekly accepts the fall, believing, “in the end, it really was my fault … yes, I would have lost my job going behind his back, but Ms. Sunada would likely be alive.”
Endo’s forbearance, his acceptance of ultimate responsibility wins the reader immediately to his side, and his four-year sentence from the medical board — a new posting through a government agency — sends him to rural Japan, a “dust mote of an island” called Marui-jima. Marui-jima lies directly on a fault line and several years ago had been ordered evacuated; only a handful of elderly islanders remain. There are only two other outsiders on the island, Ishikawa, a seismologist from Tokyo, and a young documentary filmmaker, Maki Sunada. Here, Endo will serve his penance as the doctor for this dwindling, isolated community.
Just like the ground we walk on, a narrator should be trustworthy, balanced, and firm. Although the opening chapters plant the reader solidly behind the narrator, Endo gradually loses his stability as the novel unfolds. His growing obsession with Sunada, his black-outs and excessive drinking, his suspicions and jealousy against Ishikawa crack his sympathetic facade, and the reader begins to wonder what other cracks within his heart cause turmoil.
It is not only the narrator that shakes the reader’s suspended disbelief. Shimoda uses storytelling within the main narrative to reveal the island and its residents’ hidden secrets, and most of the time, the stories connect seamlessly within the main text. These stories occasionally erupt out of the narrative as an obvious writer’s technique, however, and once or twice the accounts seem driven by Shimoda himself, not powered by the characters. The writer’s objective is reached, however, as Endo later makes a fault-line drawing, mapping out the connections and intersections of island life. The reader, too, gradually pieces together a greater conflict than Endo’s honesty as a narrator, as past events become increasingly important to the unstable present.
Despite the flaws in character and narrative, the book seethes with a compelling force, made more mesmerizing with the many, separate parts to the novel. Splitting the narrative are L.J.C. Shimoda’s powerful, Japanese-styled prints. Taken on their own, the artwork itself tells a story in image and with haunting phrases at the bottom of each print. Wedged within the main narration is also a retelling of Kashima and the Giant Catfish, Japan’s mythological answer to the cause of a quake, delicately, colorfully illustrated, in contrast to the bold, red and black images within the main text. The Japanese Omori seismic scale also fractures the storyline, and Shimoda’s last page, a curt journalistic report, somehow provides a satisfactory conclusion by ending with that familiar full-stop that punctuates every natural disaster, everywhere in the world: the news world’s dry, factual summary.
Part murder mystery, part romantic thriller, part seismological textbook, “Subduction” heaves with a splintered brilliance I could only appreciate after rejoining the parts inside my imagination. Each section slides or grinds along another, but the final whole is a work that stayed with me for weeks afterward.