Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Coin Locker Life

“The whole city stinks of age and stagnation and boredom, and it makes Sachiko as sick as it does me; but she goes on listening to the same old songs, trying to keep from dying of boredom, while I'd rather puke it all out, puke up a great cloud of boredom and let it rain all over Tokyo, rain till your lungs rot in your chest, till the streets crack and wash away and rivers of puke run between the buildings...”

The aforementioned "puke" features prominently in the novel, Coin Locker Babies, as does rotting fruit, raw flesh, spilling cum, soaked urine, human sweat, sour breath, cigarette smoke, exposed brain matter, and stale garbage, among other sensational olfactory transgressions. Part and parcel of a book's theme, I suppose, when it pertains to true human horror, in this case, the abandonment of a newborn baby in a coin locker. That a toddler should be left to perish and rot anonymously in a coin locker is an action so grotesquely hideous, our natural instinct is to look away, feeling an admixture of disgust, pity, and rage. But as an idea for a story, it intimates an intriguing premise and Ryu Murakami's weird-ass pseudo-sci-fi novel is almost great. Certainly there are superb moments, a wild imagination, and occasionally vivid sentences, but after getting revved up and going, the story gets distracted by its subplots and later languishes in some end-of-the-world apocalyptic ludicrousness.

An opening sentence often sets a story's tone, no less true here, and one of the wickedest in contemporary literature: “The woman pushed on the baby's stomach and sucked its penis into her mouth; it was thinner than the American menthols she smoked and a bit slimy, like raw fish.” The baby is Kiku, abandoned in a coin locker in Yokohama in July, discovered when the summer heat causes him to scream for his life. Found and placed in an orphanage, he naturally befriends Hashi, a fellow coin locker baby. But beyond the inevitable trauma of having survived something extraordinary and spending formative years raised by Catholic nuns, they have unique personalities. Kiku is shy, athletic, tough, and spiteful at the world. Hashi, on the other hand, is social but physically awkward, artistically inclined, especially adept at music and singing. Inevitably  such tragically terrible beginnings in the world would inform both their lifelong outlooks.

They are adopted by a childless couple to live in a remote island near Kyushu. Wandering the island, they find an abandoned coal mine town and a rebel drifter on a motorcycle named Gazelle, who puts a word in Kiku's head, “DATURA,” that would help him “off the whole world” including the mother who left him in a coin locker. The boys struggle in school, receive psychological testing to normalize them, and while they are teenagers, Hashi leaves the island for Tokyo to find his mother.

Written in 1980, Murakami's Tokyo is a strange, urban nightmare with its own no-go neighborhood, a Fukushimaesque city ward called Toxitown that's been contaminated and where only outcasts and outlaws, prostitutes and the mentally insane now roam (abandoned by former residents like the coal mining town of the boys' childhood, as well as the boys themselves). A high-perimeter fence with armed guards surround the community, which occupies a terrific piece of real estate in Shinjuku in “the shadow of the thirteen towers.” This is where Hashi ends up, and later, Kiku when he goes to find him.

Already a strange novel, Tokyo is where the circumstances become intensely surreal for the boys. More country bumpkin that Hashi, Kiku somehow gets involved with a supermodel named Anemone who shares his nihilistic visions, and Hashi, pimping his dolled-up body to rich, gay men, falls under the spell of D, a megaproducer in pop music, who transforms Hashi into a superstar, utilizing for marketing purposes Hashi's provenance as a coin locker baby. This leads to an incredible mid-book climax too good to spoil by mentioning, though it is worth saying that, unfortunately, Murakami never recovers the story's earlier momentum (though the ending does deliver a Hollywood-style nightmare finish).

Ryu (the superior) Murakami

Nevertheless, this is a unique work of fiction. Unlike most Japanese novelists (and a much more famous Murakami), Ryu Murakami is an exciting social critic. Japan, a mannered civilization known for many sacred cows, is skewered relentlessly in Coin Locker Babies; the music business, reality TV, the vapidity of authorities, social hypocrisies, and the “normal” people from whose custom the Underworld depends. And Murakami, at least via his protagonists, does not advocate some patsy tonic to redeem social ills, nor a revolution, but something more destructive, something punk, as when Kiku witnesses in Hashi's star makeover a new cage, gilded bars, but a locker all the same:

“The locker was bigger, maybe; the new one had a pool and gardens, with a band, people wandering abut half-naked...but it was still a huge coin locker, and no matter how many layers of camouflage you had to dig through if you felt like digging, in the end you still ran up against a wall...There's only one solution, one way out, and that's to smash everything around you to smithereens, to start over from the beginning, lay everything to waste.”

Perhaps total annihilation of everyone is a bit extreme and not extraordinarily sympathetic to most readers. Murakami came of age in the 1960s, a generation known for wanting to smash old orders and start afresh. His characters' solution, that of wiping out the human race with a US army chemical agent (DATURA) takes a potentially subversive novel and turns it into a horror show. Arguably it's a forgivable misstep, since the novel has enough going for it to be a good read. But it could have been so much more. Had Murakami kept his narrative grounded in reality the society he savages would have been understood in a more believable context that makes his characters' lives more tragically poignant. Instead of something that devolves into entertaining pulp fiction escapism, he might have written a novel for all time.

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