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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The good, the bad and the ugly: 12 offbeat visions of Japan


LOVE HOTEL CITY, edited by Andrew Stevens. London: Future Fiction, 2008, 127 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Of the 12 "visions of Japan" gathered in Future Fiction's "Love Hotel City," Steve Finbow's "Shadowings" is among the most interesting. In it he explores the relationship between a character who appears in a comic and the artist who draws that character.

Is tubby young Takahiro the artist? And is the girl whom Takahiro follows the character? That the girl's face, when first glimpsed, is "thin as a cigarette paper," and that Takahiro can see through it, hints that she is the less substantial. But when Takahiro finds, in the end, "a thick black line holding him in," and that "nothing else existed," the roles appear to be reversed. The last word of the story — I won't reveal it here — bears this out and serves as a nod to Franz Kafka, an author who, unlike some authors represented in this collection, understood the efficacy of calm, precise prose in writing about situations unsettling and fantastic.

Many of the other authors of this collection try too hard to be transgressive, and usually to very little effect. Often the stories are reminiscent of the "ka-ka," "poo-poo," "pee-pee" exclamations of a toddler, who having learned that such words get a rise out of grownups, screeches them when in company. The words really aren't that shocking . . . or interesting.

The excerpt from Stephen Barber's "Tokyo Supernova," the third entry in his "Tokyo Trilogy," reads, for example, like an attention-seeking version of William Gibson. As a reviewer for these pages, Finbow has referred to Barber's prose as "pared down." One supposes he means to suggest that Barber's writing has been shorn of all that is nonessential, whittled down to something stark and austere. That's not, however, what we get.

Barber's piece begins: "In the jet heading back for Tokyo, Junko celebrated her triumph, screaming with joy and brandishing the vials containing the premium-grade, fascism and sodomy compatible semen of the four Shield Society veterans, three of whom, during the course of that day's work, had now been dispatched to the Western Paradise . . .," and so on for a couple more lines. One has to ask: Pared down from what?

Kenji Siratori's "Tokyo Evil Mind," because it is the most formally adventurous piece included, is more interesting — which is not to say it is necessarily an enjoyable read. Siratori's prose attempts to emulate the sort of language one uses to communicate with a computer: It is that ugly and distant from the language one uses to communicate with human beings. In spite of Siratori's delight in meaningless jargon ("a hyperreal genetic code," for example, is how he describes his own writing), the repetition and rhythm built into the seven sections of his piece leads one to suspect that all the "paradise apparatus of the human body pill cruel emulator reptilian=HUB—modem that crashed" and so on might be more than verbal diarrhea and more than just a writing style calculated to shock.

One wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the grammatical absurdities with which the story is littered, and which appear to be something other than principled authorial moves, give rise to niggling doubts.

"Love Hotel City," in terms of both content and quality, is a mixed bag, but those hungry for something different may want to give it a go.



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