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Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

Behind the sinister science of sleep

Psycho-horror detectives explore deadly dreams in a novel best labeled 'strange'

PAPRIKA, by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Alma Books, 2009, 350pp., £9.99 (paperback)

Comparisons to Haruki Murakami and J.G. Ballard on the cover of this book do Tsutsui little service. His novels do not have the steely gaze and cool prose of Ballard's "Crash," nor the magical-realist tint of Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." What they do have is a thorough awareness of horror films and classic science fiction, plus a peculiar Japaneseness that makes them — for want of a better word — strange.

Amid medical and administrative politics at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, the beautiful and brilliant Atsuko Chiba analyzes schizophrenic patients using psychotherapy (PT) devices invented by her co-Nobel-Prize-nominated, otaku-like partner. These machines enable the doctors to monitor, record, participate in, and manipulate their patients' dreams.

The institute's administrator asks Atsuko to help a friend of his, a top-ranking executive in the motor industry suffering from a very Heideggerean form of anxiety neurosis. Enter Paprika — the dream detective — a kind of superhero among psychoanalysts. While Atsuko is one of Japan's most brilliant psychotherapists, her alter-ego Paprika is, well, Japan's most brilliant psychotherapist.

There are subnarratives, including every otaku's dream, the love story where obese geek gets the beautiful girl, and the action is interspersed with some humorous insights into corporate Machiavellianism. But the main plot deals with the use of the PT devices to collect dreams for Paprika to investigate. For this purpose her partner invents a portable dream collector, the DC Mini — sort of the iPod of psychotherapy.

The anxiety-riddled executive's dreams are filmic. Tsutsui uses movie motifs and storylines to express the banality of most people's unconscious. Sinisterly in the background, two of Atsuko's jealous rivals, Inui and Osanai (who are lovers and colleagues and bear a close resemblance to real-life 20th century figures Yukio Mishima and Masakatsu Morita) scheme to change dreams for their own evil ends.

To enable their plans, they steal five DC Minis and systematically turn their enemies within the institute into psychological wrecks. Inui and Osanai intend to use the machines to gain control of the institute, and also as virtual-porn devices with which they hope to determine the "true essence of sex."

Paprika's next private patient is a chief superintendent suffering from clinical depression. Dreams start to bleed into each other and into the waking world. Atsuko/Paprika battles Inui and Osanai in the unconscious realm. As the narrative pace quickens, the line between dream and reality attenuates.

There are two attempted rape scenes in the novel, blurring the book's moral relativity. Atsuko allows Osanai to rape her because he's not that bad looking and she hasn't had "real" sex in a while; after all, how bad could it be if the rapist's breath doesn't smell?

However, Osanai cannot quite rise to the occasion and it is Atsuko who becomes angry. She hasn't been "satisfied" and so berates the would-be-rapist for being impotent, but after he leaves, she feels guilty about her cruel words, and chastises herself for not being more sympathetic about his lack of rape-readiness.

Osanai argues that the use of PT devices goes against basic tenets of psychotherapy such as "warmth" and "morality" — an argument that surely contradicts the clinical distance and doctor-patient confidentiality of actual psychoanalytic practice. Tsutsui also insists on using the term "subconscious," a word the psychology profession derides.

Tsutsui's portrayal of a no man's land between the unconscious and conscious worlds is well drawn. The imagery (some later used in J-Horror movies like "Exte") is nightmarish and the characters, as well as the reader, become unsure of what is real and what is not. Tsutsui's world is his own: a flash forward to a society where technology and the human mind merge.

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