Thursday, December 25, 2008

AUDITION - Ryu Murakami

Bloomsbury, 2009, ISBN 9780747589488, £10

A couple of years ago, a friend passed me a copy of In the Miso Soup, with the warning that it was going to be messed up. And yet gloriously wonderful. My first exposure to the twisted world of Ryu Murakami was devoured fast; even when nothing appears to be happening, Murakami appears to be setting themes and threats bubble beneath the relatively innocuous surface of his prose, leaving the reader desperate to discover what dirty secrets and noiresque monstrosities will finally emerge at the novel’s climax.

Audition – and yes, it is the inspiration for the unsettling movie by Takashi Miike – follows in a similar pattern. The innocuous beginning – Why don’t you find yourself a wife, pops? – leads the reader down a path that rapidly diverges from anything we expect to be normal. The novel takes its time in setting up the central character of widowed Japanese businessman, Aoyama, introducing us to the painful loss of his wife and his near selfish need to find some form of companionship. As much as he claims to be looking for love, perhaps he is merely looking for something to fill the holes in his life. He was, while his life was alive, far from saintly. And this merest hint at his unfaithful nature sets us up to distrust much of what comes from his own thoughts and actions. Allowing us to see not only how he dupes himself but those around him.

Murakami’s characters seem to be experts in self deception. And it is this that leads to their downfall. In the case of Aoyama, his sins and his pride seem small at first, but rapidly we come to question whether or not he truly deserves his fate when he meets the alluring but troubled Yamasaki Asami. Their entire courtship is based on deception, given that Aoyama has colluded with an old friend to set up “auditions” for aspiring actresses in order that Aoyama can remarry and fill those gaps in his life that he yearns to forget.

What follows could almost be a plot from some Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie – the deception leads to romance and ultimately to the possibility of coming clean, which could make or break the relationship – but imbued with darker colours than Hollywood would ever allow. Aoyama’s own actions are morally dubious and his dream girl is quite literally too good to be true. Her seemingly meek acceptance of his declarations of love are offset by questions about her own life and background that up the tension on the part of the reader; what is the big secret? Is she truly who she appears to be?

Those already familiar with Miike’s movie will have their answers, but be warned that even if you expect the twist that’s coming, the climax is even more unsettling than in the movie. Less visceral, perhaps, but Murakami’s matter-of-fact voice serves to deeply unnerve the reader and bring a nightmarish quality to events that you will be unable to shake for weeks afterwards. This detached narration - and much credit to the translator for their work here - serves to enhance the moral questions raised in the text without offering many answers except those the reader brings with them.

If you haven’t discovered the psycho-noir of Murakami, do yourself a favour, drop everything, rush out and buy his books. But gentlemen be warned; after reading Audition, you’ll never look at a pretty girl in quite the same way again.

Russel D McLean for, 24/12/08