The Kingdom, by Fuminori Nakamura
What started out as an intriguing read — a novella-length, noir crime thriller set in modern-day Tokyo — turned quickly disturbing, then troubling, then infuriating.
Allow me to explain. The Kingdom is a slim 200 pages (barely, even with an absurdly large font) and the action and intrigue kick into high gear immediately. In short, a sort-of prostitute working for some kind of secret crime organization drugs the johns she’s arranged to meet, who invariably are men of influence, and photographs or videos them in compromised positions. What gets done with those blackmail-worthy images, well, that’s explained later in the book. But the protagonist, Yurika, an orphan with a troubled past, soon finds herself in too deep with the leader of a rival secret crime gang.
So far, so good; I wasn’t expecting high literature but a fast-paced crime thriller/mystery that maybe gives some insights into or at least some plausible fantasy about what the underbelly of Tokyo life may be like. BUT…
The big problem I have with this book is with its unrelenting emphasis on and obvious delight in the sadistic relations between virtually every character who appears in the book. To step back, look, from where I sit I don’t like critics who tear down authors or artists who are brave and resolute enough to create and complete works of art, low or high as these may be judged to be. But let me point out what Jan Stuart recently wrote in the New York Times about The Kingdom, which I think is apt: “one experiences a certain discomfort in the ways the author himself appears to relish his protagonist’s own humiliations and manipulative sexuality.”
To briefly expand on that, there are a few scenes in this book where women get off being treated abusively and painfully that are so unrealistic the reader simply can’t keep suspending reality like one has to when reading a work of fiction. One can argue the writing is intense therein, sure — it reads at some points like the author was as overheated at the keyboard as a person could be — but in terms of characters, character development, and so forth all I could think reading these scenes was, “this is bullshit, this would never happen, no woman or at least 99.9% of women on this earth would ever enjoy this, and physiologically things don’t work the way the author is depicting them.” (Yeah, I think in quotes…)
In case you think I’m some moralistic turd, let’s recall what filmmaker David Cronenberg said, with which I agree: “An artist has no social responsibility whatsoever.” Thus, the author and anyone else who creates can and should write about whatever they please. But the author in my view blew his chance at penning a good to great crime novel with Tokyo as its backdrop by infusing it top to bottom (pun intended) with characters so implausibly into being degraded emotionally and physically. Let’s put it this way, I haven’t even gone into the plot and whether the story resolved effectively because of this obvious, highly distracting, and disturbing weakness.
Still, if the above actually makes you want to read The Kingdom, have at it, and you should know that if this is your cup of tea you may also enjoy a similarly sadism — infused companion novel by the author, The Thief. However, I’d suggest you get your literary degradation and S&M elsewhere; bookstores and the internet have all you could ever desire in that oeuvre.