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Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006

A dip into the extraordinary of the ordinary


IN THE POOL by Hideo Okuda, translated by Giles Murray. Tokyo: IBC Publishing, 2006, 224 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

On the surface, Irabu General Hospital appears no different from other medium-size privately owned medical facilities in the Tokyo area. It's only when patients' conditions defy simple diagnosis or treatment and they are referred to the Neurology Department that the fun begins, in this collection of five humorous stories focusing on the absurdities of modern living. Hideo Okuda's vernacular work, released in 2002, achieved best-seller status.

As a doctor warns a first-time patient in the lead story, "In the Pool," "Our neurologist is a little bit eccentric, but don't worry, you'll soon get used to him."

Marcus Welby he's not. Dr. Irabu's little examination room in the hospital's basement is more like something out of The Addams Family mansion.

The doctor, so hugely overweight he can barely squeeze into his expensive German sports car, appears to become sexually excited watching patients receive injections from his nurse Mayumi, a gum-chewing slut whose revealing white uniform shows way too much, and who habitually shocks patients with indifferent or insulting remarks.

It's hilarious.

Irabu's five patients, with one possible exception, suffer from what are often referred to as obsessive-compulsive disorders. There's a man who's terrified of leaving his apartment because he's convinced he's left a gas valve open or appliance turned on, which might cause a fire. A teen, who sends 200 cell-phone messages a day and works hard at nurturing his popularity with his school peers, fails to realize how callously he's being used by them. And in a case of vanity gone berserk, the lovely Hiromi, a former race queen and model, is so utterly narcissistic that she's convinced men are stalking her. After all, how could men not want to pursue her?

In "Making a Stand," a salaryman named Tetsuya finds himself in a permanent state of priapism, i.e., an erection that won't subside. He carries his coat across his arm when walking and folds a blanket over his lap to "keep warm" -- in summer mind you -- but the girls in the office have begun casting strange glances his way.

Irabu's unorthodox attempt at therapy is to drive his knee into Tetsuya's groin. "Has that taken the lead out of your pencil?" he asks the patient, who is rolling on the floor in agony. "It's the same thing as hitting a TV when the picture's bad," the doctor explains. "Everybody knows that a lucky thwack . . . might get the picture back to normal."

Somehow [Tetsuya] dragged himself to his feet and sat down on the stool. He withdrew his hands, leaving his crotch exposed. They both looked at it. . . . It was still rock hard."

Despite being conniving, eccentric, unorthodox and sometimes unethical as well, Dr. Irabu is not entirely unsuccessful in treating patients, partially because what they need most to deal with their neuroses is a grim reality check, which he and his slatternly nurse usually manage to provide.

The situations Okuda describes in "In the Pool" may exaggerate this reality, but with the exception, perhaps, of poor Tetsuya -- whose medical condition actually exists and is no fun at all -- the reality is there.

Author Okuda, who won the prestigious Naoki Prize for Fiction in 2004, previously worked as an advertising copywriter and magazine editor. His stories, he has said, are inspired by manga comics, and his first concern as an author is to "give readers a good time." By these off-the-wall portrayals of ordinary people in seemingly harmless but nonetheless extraordinary predicaments, "In the Pool" delivers a good time indeed.



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