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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Revenge of the aunties


By STEVE FINBOW
POPULAR HITS OF THE SHOWA ERA, by Ryu Murakami. Translated by Ralph McCarthy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, 192 pp., $13.95 (paper)

If the collective noun for a bunch of morons is a "drool," then what would it be for a group of feckless twenty-something cretins? A "slobber"? A "salivation"? The group of six men in this rollicking satire run the entire gamut of idiocy as they battle the formidable Midori Oba-sans (aunties), those of sharp elbows, sharper tongues, dyed hair and withering looks.

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The group of six men come together by accident rather than choice; they are bored, they are single, and they gather together to trade inanities, sing cheesy karaoke songs and drink One Cup sake — they get excited over macaroni salad, electronic equipment and watching the silhouetted figure of a woman undressing in the apartment opposite. They are a pathetic tribe, a gang of postteen otaku (geek) without the will or sense to be obsessed with anything.

The Midori Society — a collection of women whose surnames happen to be Midori — are of a certain age, divorcees who congregate to share stories, gossip and take holidays together. It's Ishihara, Nobue, Yano, Sugiyama, Kato and Sugioka against Henmi, Yanagimoto, Tomiyama, Suzuki, Iwata and Takeuchi; and the violence escalates from random to ultra as the two groups exact revenge on each other.

It all starts when Sugioka — hung over from one of the group's evening karaoke rituals — rubs himself against Yanagimoto's backside in the streets of suburban Chofu. As she cries out, and the smell of ripe clams from her shopping bag offends Sugioka's nostrils, he slits her throat and flees the scene. The Oba-sans strike back and the blood, the bad jokes, and the overblown similes start to flow.

Murakami has some fun at the expense of the feuding groups and even more with a remarkably ugly wall-eyed junior college girl, witness to the first revenge murder by the Midoris. The girl elicits nausea, vomiting and defecation just through her looks, she sees ghosts and is able to stop grown men dead in their tracks with just a smile — her teeth are that disgusting.

For all its pantomimic violence, the novel has some sharp and funny things to say about Japanese society: the separation of generations, the ever-growing gap between genders, the ambitions of the young and the regrets of the old, the inability to form loving partnerships, the Americanization of youth, and the ease in which a moment of individual disrespect can metastasize alarmingly into societal destruction.

Murakami works the slapstick and grotesque at the sentence level; metaphors are hyperarticulated, a simple simile is never enough, they almost collapse into their own absurdity and extremism, "This time he looked like a hippopotamus who'd accidentally sat in a puddle of hot mustard."

Murakami portrays a society in which people fail to communicate, everything is meaningless, decision making is left to games of paper-rock-scissors; a nihilistic world where people use knives, then rocket launchers, and then a thermobaric bomb to settle disputes. For all its over-the-top gore and relative morality, the novel's satire is piercing and funny.

If Murakami's "In the Miso Soup" is a Japanese version of Bret Easton Ellis' hilarious "American Psycho," and Ellis' "Lunar Park" analogous to Murakami's "Audition," then "Popular Hits of the Showa Era" is "Glamorama" with similar moronic main characters, surface ethics and a wicked deconstruction of terrorism.

Ralph McCarthy's translation is smooth and witty. I learned what lagniappe means, and very apposite it is, too, to Japanese gift-giving customs. An enjoyable satire on what Friedrich Nietzsche and Slavoj Zizek term "passive" and "active" nihilism, the stupid daily pleasures of the men and the Midoris resulting in mutual self-destruction.



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