Between the man who was coolly deciding to cut his victim’s Achilles tendons and wondering what it would sound like, and the man who’d smiled at his wife that very morning in a room saturated with the fragrance of freshly baked bread, there was clearly a gap. Exactly what the gap consisted of he couldn’t have said, but he knew there was one.
I’m not a rom-com kind of girl. One of my favourite cinematic genres is Asian Horror so when I discovered that Ryu Murakami was responsible for one of my favourite (and one of the most terrifying) Asian horror movies, Audition, I figured that I couldn’t go far wrong with Piercing. I mean, let’s take the premise for a start. Kawashima is a new father, dealing with the anxieties that caring for a small baby brings. Only, Kawashimas anxieties aren’t the same as most. For the last 10 nights, he has stood guard with an ice pick over his child’s crib, daring himself to plunge it into the sleeping baby. Or, more importantly, daring himself not to.
It’s an arresting way to open a novel and is so audacious that it propels the first half of this short, sharp little novel along at a pace that doesn’t really allow the reader to stop and question some of the more bizarre plot scenarios. Afraid for his daughter’s safety and fearful that the violence lurking in his not too distant past is about to re-emerge, Kawashima decides to abandon both job and family, check in to a hotel, “call an S & M club and have a woman sent over” and then plot her murder, as a way of purging his homicidal urges.
We don’t have time to question his motives as he hurtles towards a meeting with his intended victim – a depressive callgirl called Chiaki, who transpires to be every bit as deranged as Kawashima, who is, as he notes ‘a kindred spirit’. What follows is an uneasy mix of a black comedy of S&M manners and a treatise on the effects of child abuse on adult life. This man and woman have both been abused as children, but they regard each other across a gulf of misunderstanding and incomprehension. Their misinterpretation of what the other is doing is what propels the story along and while it can often be strangely amusing, it is ultimately unsatisfying. The lines between arousal and anger blur and merge, particularly in the case of Chaiki whose urges can change on a whim;
She had a sudden urge to hit that face. Not just give him a little slap on the cheek but slug him as hard as she could, with her fist or a bottle or a wrench or something, right in the eye. He’d be bleeding and begging her to stop, and she’d just laugh. He’d be even cuter weeping and asking for forgiveness, she thought. And after that he’d stay by her side for ever, no matter what.
Kawashima is little better, inhabiting a state beyond misogyny, courtesy of hideous abuse at the hands of his mother. He throws off a life of domesticity, personified by a wholesome wife who teaches baking and pastry-making, infusing the home with a buttery smell of happiness. The softness and warmth of baking bread being no match for the cold, hard edge of his icepick. Kawashima ascertains that;
It’s vital that those on the receiving end of violence ponder its meaning. A sad and bitter but important truth.
While the characters here do a lot of pondering on the meaning of the violence they have experienced, there is little consideration for the violence they are currently experiencing and inflicting. As the book lurches towards what I would hesitate to call a climax, the lack of insight or even a dramatic pay-off means that Murakami fails to deliver on the promise of his compelling opening.
This is a novel of interiors, set almost solely the two rooms of Kawashima’s home and the scene of his somewhat botched crime and in the two minds of our protagonists. This is not the Japan of kimono-draped geishas, cherry blossoms and snow covered mountain ranges and the veneer of politeness and manners barely conceals the underlying depravity of Tokyo.
In the end, Piercing is a shallow, nasty little read which may have its’ moments but it never really penetrates the surface.
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