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Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009

Occult novel dredged from Tokyo's shadowy history

David Peace's 'Tokyo Trilogy' ventures deep into the darker realms of fiction

OCCUPIED CITY by David Peace. London: Faber and Faber, 2009, 288 pp., £20 (cloth)

To say the second book in David Peace's "Tokyo trilogy" is haunting would be to start this review with a cliche of which "Occupied City" is devoid. Yet the book stays with you, hunkers down in your memory like some needling parasite.

From novel to novel, Peace's prose is becoming both steely and limpid; like glass, the writing is sharp and — like rebuilt postwar Tokyo — its construction borders on concrete poetry.

If Peace continues on this trajectory, I would not be surprised if the third novel turns out to be a collection of haiku written with a diamond stylus.

A fictional analysis of the 1948 Teikoku Bank poison massacre in Shiinamachi, Tokyo, "Occupied City" explores the personal and political aftereffects of the attack and the conspiracy theories that followed. Borrowing the narrative structure of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's story "In a Grove" and Akira Kurosawa's film "Rashomon," the novel is formed of 12 tales told from 12 differing perspectives — the victims as one voice, a police detective, a female survivor, an American serviceman, an occult tantei (detective), a journalist, a gangster, a Russian interrogator, a CID detective, the condemned man and the killer — with the final part based loosely on the Noh play "Sumidagawa."

The setting is the Black Gate (kurimon) within which a medium channels the narration through a storytelling game where, after each tale is told, one of 12 candles is snuffed out. The room (like the novel) becomes darker as the tale progresses. Peace himself is the 13th member of this occult coven — the writer in search of a novel.

"Occupied City" is a psychological — sometimes psycho-pathological — portrait of Tokyo and the writer. Peace is writing himself out of the pain of writing. The suffering felt by the poisoned victims, of the war-ravaged population of Tokyo, of the victims of Unit 731, is evident in the purgative prose, the tortured agonizing throes of the novel's creation.

Whether the poisonings had anything to do with the experiments conducted by Shiro Ishii and the Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory in China during World War II is open to conjecture, but what Peace does brilliantly in all of his novels is expand the personal consequences of crime to the universal.

The book — in its story of the fate of the accused Sadamichi Hirasawa — touches on guilt, retribution, biological warfare, Tokyo's burgeoning crime organizations, the complex relationship between Japan and America, and personal and political murder, torture, and secrecy.

Peace is a moralist, a writer who does not blink when faced with history's tragedies. His novels are actualizations of the theater of cruelty. That he has chosen Tokyo on which to center his gaze is a blessing to anyone interested in the city's history. To do this, Peace has had to bend genre, break tradition.

In "Occupied City," we have a novel created from meticulous research, previous books on the subject (Mark Schreiber's nonfiction and Romain Slocombe's fiction), avant-garde poetry (Paul Celan and T.S. Eliot), horror and crime fiction. "Occupied City" is a repetitive, brutally rhythmic, and beautifully constructed narrative.

Peace — once the bastard offspring of James Ellroy and Alan Sillitoe — is, with every novel published, moving closer to the works of Antonin Artaud and Pierre Guyotat. Where once he would have shared shelf space with George Pelecanos and Ted Lewis, he would now sit snugly alongside Maurice Blanchot and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

That is to say, the experimental, narratively daring, clinically moral world of Peace has taken over from the thriller writer. In the increasingly insipid world of publishing, this is something to celebrate.

If only more writers had Peace's bravery, determination and skill.

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