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Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

Werewolves prowl in a dystopian future


By STEPHEN FINBOW
LOUPS-GAROUS, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, translated by Anne Ishii. VIZ Media, 2010, 450 pp., $16.99 (paper)

The vampire novel seems to have taken over the imaginations of young adults. Inspired by the success of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and its spinoff series "Angel," and, in turn, inspiring shows like "True Blood," Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series is a big seller across the globe.

Werewolves, however prevalent in world myth and folklore, have yet to capture the attention and imagination of the publishing and film business in quite the same way. Like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Natsuhiko Kyogoku's "Loups-Garous" ("werewolves") uses lycanthropy as a subtext — the fear of shape-shifting werewolves as an implicit, almost instinctual terror, rather than a marauding pack of hairy humans, drool swinging from prosthetic maws bounding through our nightmares.

The werewolf in this novel is no stalker of the Little Red Riding Hoods who are the books' heroes; it is more a vestigial throwback to our fear of night and a virtual leap forward to the post-human.

Set in a dystopian near future in which humans have little interpersonal contact, the novel centers on three junior high school students: Hazuki Makino, Ayumi Kono, and prodigy, genius, computer hacker Mio Tsuzuki. The girls meet illicitly and band together to find out what has happened to girls and boys in their communications group who either have gone missing or been eviscerated. Shizue Fawa, counselor to some of the girls believes there has been a police cover up, that the special investigations unit might even be involved in the murders and disappearances.

Nothing appears as it should, even the buildings of the city look like CGI creations. Shizue, by accident rather than planning, teams up with Officer Kunugi, an experienced but jaded cop, and the unlikely sleuths conduct a parallel investigation. Where the girl team's crime fighting and clue sniffing owes more to manga and anime, the adults' inquisitions are closer to Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell.

The novel swings from full-on cyberpunk action to philosophical dialogues about the nature of reality, what it is to be human, Japanese history, and the (un)reality of life controlled by computer systems. The author constructs so many twists that the reader feels as if in a maze made out of circuit boards, a labyrinth of wrong turns all reeking of red herrings. What is the meaning of the pink gemstone? From what is synthetic food made? Do animals have the same rights as humans? Is there a monster lurking in cyberspace? Why are the lives, emotions, and fears of the children so controlled? Is Section C of the city as lawless as the police say, or is it a front for covert government activities?

In a huge city, unthinkable in its geographical spread, the novel's protagonists live ultra-claustrophobic lives.

Shadows proliferate throughout this novel. A mega-corporation — run by 115-year-old man kept alive by his workers/subjects — controls the synthetic food production, the old man's power diffused into politics, the military, and the police. The three girls and their friends fight for the right to be individuals, to shuck off the heavy burden of history, to be human in a world where computers, cell phones, and virtual reality act as extensions, dehumanizing us and, at the same time, making us post-human.

Natsuhiko Kyogoku's fast-paced, intelligent novel — a dystopian/cyber- occult thriller with philosophical undertones and nods to the work of Philip K. Dick — moves from the horrors of the Second World War to the terrors that await us in an unknown future where corporations rule, the individual is sacrificed to the state, communication is only possible through computer monitors, to a time and place where age-old fears (werewolves) still haunt our fragile psyches.



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