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Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010

Ink-stained wretch meets psychic teen freak


THE SLEEPING DRAGON, by Miyuki Miyabe. Translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi. Kodansha International, 2009, 301 pages, ¥2,600 (hardcover)

It was, as one might expect for a psycho-thriller, a dark and stormy night. Taking a hint from Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), Miyuki Miyabe wades into her narrative with, "I couldn't see more than a yard in front of me, even with my headlights on. The rain poured down and the road was full of puddles . . ."

The voice relating this tale is Shogo Kosaka, a reporter for Arrow, a weekly magazine. Driving back to Tokyo from his parents' house in the middle of a powerful typhoon, Kosaka gives a ride to Shinji Inamura, a very strange teenager.

Nearby, a 6-year-old boy searching for his cat is swept away because someone removed a manhole cover from the center of the flooded road, setting off a karmic chain reaction.

As weird as Shinji might be, at least he's not as ghoulish as one of those Stephen King characters who sets people ablaze. Actually his psychic abilities cause him a lot of grief, since he realizes he's seen as a freak in the eyes of the rightfully skeptical.

Is Shinji truly psychic? Or is he just a convincingly manipulative trickster? Miyabe teases her readers, serving up statements and insights that it would seem only a person with paranormal powers could possibly know. Then, a few pages later, she debunks the same statements by demonstrating how easily people can be manipulated.

Kosaka plays Doctor Watson to the astute adolescent, torn between belief and skepticism. He and his colleagues at Arrow just want to do their jobs and when confronted by the possibility of a story involving paranormal phenomena, they're stymied over how to report it.

In the meantime, Miyabe weaves in several subplots. One involves Naoya Oda, Shinji's dysfunctional friend who boasts even more powerful abilities (including telepathy and the ability to transport himself from place to place). While searching for Naoya, Kosaka encounters a mysterious mute girl who responds to his questions on the telephone by tapping on the handset — twice for "yes," once for "no." And a string of vaguely threatening, anonymous letters to Kosaka raises his concerns for the safety of his former fiancee, a coldly self-centered young woman who broke off their engagement several years earlier.

Although use of unworldly devices is not considered fair play in mainstream mystery fiction, Miyabe makes the reader want to believe. Teamed up once again with Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi, translator of "The Devil's Whisper" (2008), she has produced an entertaining work in which the two main protagonists are attributed with characteristics from two different genres of fiction — amateur detective and psycho-thriller.

In the early 1990s, when this novel was initially published (with the Japanese title "Ryu wa Nemuru"), mystics and spiritual quacks were making regular appearances on TV and in the print media, exposure that was abruptly withdrawn in the wake of Aum Supreme Truth's gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. This chronological coincidence in no way diminishes Ms. Miyabe's creative artistry, however. While now removed from its contemporary social context by nearly two decades, "The Sleeping Dragon" still impresses on its own strengths.



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