THE COAT THAT COVERS HIM AND OTHER STORIES, by Michael Hoffman. Authorhouse, 2004, 632 pp., 2,940 yen (paper).

Japan, having contrived the image of itself as a manifestly gentle society, the spiritual home of garden gnomes and all that is cute and cuddly, is now awakening to a manifestly dysfunctional world. Michael Hoffman’s new book, though a work of fiction, is a primer not merely about Japan’s breach with sanity, but a timely reminder of how close ordinary lives are to the sulfur pits.

Hoffman has an uncommon grasp of the current social geography. His characters are uncannily like flesh-and-blood people, as if the author had made their actual acquaintance while counseling them in some professional capacity. Shut-ins, teen prostitutes, a girl imprisoned within the room of a disturbed youngster, eruptions of unaccountable violence — Hoffman’s casebook is full. In sharing these accounts, the writer takes us as far as any fiction has gone into the troubled heart of Japan and into the hearts of those non-Japanese who try to make it their home.

Why is it that other people’s suffering can be so consoling? Is it merely a matter of catharsis at someone else’s expense, the relief of having been spared the same fate? Like David Mitchell’s “Number 9 Dream,” Holly Thompson’s “Ash,” and other novels by foreign writers with Japanese settings, there are dangerously thwarted emotions to be confronted and resolved in these works.

Hoffman has planned his collection like a formal banquet: The short stories come first, followed by a novella, then a full-blown novel. The short stories are the canapes, the tasty morsels that arouse appetite; the novella, with its dreadful inevitability that we can see but the characters appear blind to, satisfies, but leaves us in need of further nourishment. Trapped at the table, jammed between courses, Hoffman serves his main fare, the long novel that completes the set.

In the same way that a neurosis will bide its time before manifesting itself, Hoffman’s shocks and climaxes work like depth charges, delayed detonations. His stories take us far away from the comfort zone into fiction of borrowed reality, one you will either find yourself nodding to sympathetically, or wincing at how close to the bone it all is.

A character in one story writes his own memo of existence: “Hot, tired and hungry, I sat on a bench in a nondescript little park, eyes open, staring at nothing.” This aptly describes the state common to the characters throughout this anthology, people who have had the mooring blocks kicked out from under them.

“Taguchi” is a story in which the pathology of desire and suspicion, played out in blank apartments and the amoral world of the city street, create unease about the existence or nonexistence of facts. Held back by the gravity of an act of unconfirmed violence, the story ends with a strong narrative surge.

“Lock and Key” concerns characters that hardly know they have a connection until the parts, like the components of the title, are assembled.

In “The Human Element,” an editor implores one of her reporters to search out the human drama behind the story. The reporter finds his material in the most obvious, but equally unlikely, of places. Elsewhere, a character comments that “a belief in reincarnation is a first sign — a first incarnation, if you like — of a serious sense of history.” By the same token, the recognition of existence is the first step toward narration. “Nude with Insect” is propelled by this very same need to unburden a story.

Trapped in the beautiful but lugubrious North, the respective latitudes of Montreal and Otaru, Hoffman’s characters in his final piece, “The Coat That Covers Him,” a novel involving a foreigner’s complicated relationships with three very different women, are both articulate and squeamish, effusive but introspective, tormented in ways their neighbors would never suspect. Hoffman shows us the anguish that can ensue when people are not up to the large questions they put to themselves.

In this fiction of uncommon predicaments, Hoffman takes us to the darkest of places, but the writing is sufficiently phosphorescent to guide us back to a state, if not of enlightenment, then at least illumination.

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