A Touch of Melodrama
By his own telling, novelist Peter Cameron is a devoted fan of midcentury female British writers no one talks about much anymore. Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, and Penelope Mortimer were publishing sensitive, insightful, and sometimes ironic books about women’s interior lives when doing so didn’t exactly reap literary respect (or sales). Like Todd Haynes’ period drama Far From Heaven—a tribute to Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas—Cameron’s new novel Coral Glynn is a tip of the hat to artists who deserve a second look.
A reader who picks up Coral Glynn unaware that it’s a book about the attempt (and the repercussions) of two damaged people to find love would be forgiven for believing it’s a horror novel. The book opens in the stagnant, wet spring of 1950 at Hart House, a lonesome English manse a mile away from the nearest road. Elderly Mrs. Hart is dying of cancer there and Coral is the third nurse in as many months hired to care for her, with no explanation as to why the previous attendants jumped ship. Mrs. Hart’s son Clement was burned in World War II and moves around “with an odd marionette stiffness.” Each pebble on Hart House’s garden path is “wrapped in a moist transparent blanket of slime.” The house is full of “sickness and strain,” which Coral escapes by walking through the “dark craw” of the nearby Sap Green Forest. Cameron employs a powerfully coiled verbal economy; his language sidles into your mind and sticks there.
Coral soon has reason to wish she’d never entered that forest; life inside Hart House quickly becomes stranger. Clement and Coral, two kind, tender people who have absolutely no emotional know-how, are thrust together and try to make a life with one another. If you explained to someone what also happens in Coral Glynn - a little girl is apparently being tortured in the forest; a bride has no choice but to suddenly leave her husband on their wedding night, never knowing when she’ll return; and oh yeah, she’s married to a man who used to be in a relationship with another man, although she doesn’t know that - they’d think you were devouring a turgid romance novel.
Coral Glynn is actually a beautifully controlled, suspenseful novel that smartly renders melodramatic events into credible, even empathetic moments. Cameron is such a clear, wry writer who knows precisely what he’s after, and his style is so restrained, that he achieves the feat of making outrageous occurrences feel understandable. Each of our lives, whether we want to admit it or not, has a touch of melodrama.
Another character refers to Coral as a “frightened little mouse” and it’s true—Coral spends much of the novel kowtowing to everyone, like the unnamed narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, played by Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s adaptation. The problem with mousy people is that they’re not very interesting. Cameron lays the groundwork of compassion for Coral—her parents are long dead, she has no home, and moves from one wealthy family to another ushering people into death—but Coral remains a cipher for much of the novel. She perks up by the book’s end but the real sympathy for her results not from her situation in life but because she serves as a vehicle for Cameron’s thesis: “How was it ever possible to know who, or what, people really were?” he writes. “They were all like coins, with two sides, or die, with six.”
On Tokyo’s Mean Streets
Fuminori Nakamura’s Tokyo is not a city of bright lights, bleeding-edge technology, and harujuku girls with bubblegum pink hair. In Nakamura’s Japan, the lights are broken, the knives are bloodier than the tech, and the harujuku girls are aging single mothers turning tricks in cheap tracksuits. His grasp of the seamy underbelly of the city is why Nakamura is one of the most award-winning young guns of Japanese hardboiled detective writing. With this month’s English-language translation of his award-winning novel The Thief, he does for Japanese fiction what John Woo did for Chinese filmmaking: bringing the darker side to an American audience.
The Thief tells the story of an anonymous pickpocket who steals as much for the thrill of the hunt as he does for the money. For him, it is an almost mystical vocation. As he steals a wallet at the very beginning of the novel, he says “A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body. I felt I was standing in a void, as though with the countless intersecting lines of vision of all those people, not one was directed at me.”
Our narrator lives alone in semi-squalor, and not even his mentor knows his real name (even the reader doesn’t learn it until page 53). He longs for a lost woman from his past, someone else’s wife who is now dead and gone. When he is offered a high-paying gig as muscle during a robbery and intimidation job, he goes along even though it sounds too good to be true—which of course it is, The Thief being that kind of story.
In form and tone, The Thief is an updated Japanese version of the 1930s noir crime stories of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. The writing is terse, with highly stylized dialogue. The landscape is bleak: cloudy, rainy, dirty, and dark. The city (which could be any city) is a place of anonymity, violence, and sex for sale. Our narrator has a moral code, though it is grudging and has little relation to the law, allowing him (for instance) to help a child who is being forced to steal to support his mother—and then paying the mother for sex. But the strongest sign of its noir roots is that over the course of the short book, there are 37 separate references to cigarettes, or one approximately every 5.7 pages. One can almost make out Sam Spade lurking in the smoky shadows.
And yet for all that, there is nothing pulp about this book. Nakamura (and his translators, Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates) have a visceral, powerful way with language. Describing a rich man fumbling with the unfamiliar mechanisms of public transportation, Nakamura writes “he stooped forward, his thick fingers hovering over the vending machine uncertainly like revolting caterpillars.” It is an image that is as distinct as it is unappealing, and it is indicative of the packed metaphors that tinge every moment of this story with disgust and fear.
The Thief is almost lyrical, with symbols and moments repeating themselves cyclically, giving the reader slightly greater understanding each time they appear. Perhaps that is why Nakamura is already such a highly decorated writer. He’s won the Akutagawa Prize and in 2009 The Thief was awarded the Kenzaburo Oe Prize, one of Japan’s preeminent literary awards. While it would be easy to dismiss Nakamura as a genre writer, he elevates the form, showing that literary merit is not bound to certain subjects.
As the mystery at its heart unfolds—or perhaps it is more accurate to say unravels—The Thief reveals itself to be as much a work of philosophy as it is a crime story. In the end, it becomes a meditation on what it means to have free will: whether the man with no responsibilities or connections to society is truly free, or whether true freedom can only be held by those with the most power. It is obvious why The Thief has been chosen as Nakamura’s first work to be translated into English, and it provides a great inroad into the world of popular Japanese crime fiction.
The Mess of the Irish
Alan Glynn, a rising star of Irish noir, spins a seamless web of conspiracy spanning three continents in Bloodland, which won the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. Glynn, who studied at Dublin’s Trinity College, has the knack; his first novel, The Dark Fields, landed onscreen as the 2011 hit Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro.
Glynn is good at the details, alluding knowingly to dozens of current hot-button issues, from the money behind U.S. presidential candidates to real estate developments deserted after the Celtic Tiger faltered, to private contractors who carry Bushmaster M4s as they usher VIPs through danger zones (“the privatization of the security and intelligence industries have been nothing short of revolutionary,” Glynn writes).
His characters are familiar enough to be drawn from tomorrow’s headlines, yet pleasingly idiosyncratic. There’s Larry Bolger, a former Irish prime minister, who is so anxious for another prestigious spot where he can “hoover up connections and kudos”, and James Vaughan, the American eminence grise (chairman of the private equity firm, Oberon Capital Group, member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission) who seems to be blocking Bolger’s dream of sliding into a prime spot at the IMF. And the Rundle brothers, J.J. and Clark, who are powerful enough to merit their own spread in Vanity Fair (“The Rundle Supremacy”) —one a U.S. Senator about to announce a bid for the White House, the other the ruthless chairman of BRX, a multinational mining and engineering corporation whose operations in more than seventy countries include a mine in Congo that yields rare metals used in cell phones, camera lenses, and surgical implants.
The cast of minor characters include Colonel Kimbela, the Congolese warlord who controls access to the mine; Don Ribkoff, the sleek young head of Gideon Global, a full-service security agency, capable of discreetly handling clandestine assassinations (and newly focused on “corporate competitive intelligence and domestic surveillance”), and Ray, the trigger-happy Iraqi war vet who sets a disaster in motion.
Glynn’s narrator is young Jimmy Gilroy, who has lost his Dublin newspaper job and is struggling to write a celebrity bio about one Susie Monaghan, a reality television starlet who died three years earlier in a helicopter crash off the north Donegal coast.
Susie was at a career crossroads, with an increasingly desperate need to take her career to “the next level” and an out-of-control coke habit. Her presence at an international conference on corporate and business ethics seems odd to Jimmy. As he noses around he discovers who else was at the meeting: Larry Bolger, Clark Rundle, James Vaughan, and Dave Conway, an Irishman who that weekend sold what he thought was a depleted copper mine in Congo to BRX for a bundle.
Jimmy is dogged and fearless, and he’s got good instincts and a broad grasp of the Internet. He is trustworthy enough to draw confidences from Susie’s sister and confessions from various perpetrators. Maybe he’s just a good listener. But he’s onto the story of a lifetime and he won’t let go, even when it becomes increasingly clear his life is in danger.
I read Bloodland twice, the second time for the rare pleasure of watching a first-rate investigative reporter—and novelist—at work.