Sequioa Nagamatsu: How high we go in the dark

April 10, 2022

     My acquaintance with Japanese fiction is pretty slight, and I’ve found it hard to access in certain ways, as I find it quite different from what I’m used to (European, English, American fiction mainly). Nagamatsu is a Japanese-American writer and the novel was written in English, but there’s an approach to story, and also a narrative tone, I think, which I find hard to get used to. And I’ve forgotten what it was that prompted me to want to read this novel.

It’s set in a near, and fairly recognisable future, a world where the climate emergency has continued and made the planet far worse; it has released a deadly virus from the distant past through the melting of frozen land in Siberia, and humans no longer have any defences against it. The novel is a series of loosely related chapters or episodes that cluster around the consequences of this event, as they gradually unfold and humanity grapples in a pretty ineffectual manner with them.

The prose feels business-like, but is polished; there is pace to the unfolding of the plot, and interesting intellectual concepts are explored, too. Characters develop interestingly. Initially the plague seems only or mainly to affect children: euthanasia parks in the manner of Disneyworld are set up. Then adults become susceptible, perhaps to a different variant, and the story becomes more disjointed, almost hallucinatory at times. I think one of the things I found challenging was the matter-of-fact tone of the narrative here, almost as if the writer is saying, “well, of course this is what would happen, naturally this is what we would do in these circumstances” whilst at the same time describing what we think of as quite alarming courses of action… And the characters are emotionally involved in the events; the overall effect is Brechtian, unsettling in the extreme. At the same time as realising that such events are easily possible now, there is also a sense almost of detachment, disembodiment from our world. Robot pets, to which people become strongly emotionally attached, are people’s response at one stage. A reflection of Japan as a technological nation? That’s trite, I know, and the chapter is surprisingly poignant.

It’s very depressing, at times surprisingly maudlin, and yet the images of a disintegrating world, beyond our capacity to put right, are very powerful. It’s not an easy read, but it is a compelling one, given that mortality is at the heart of the novel, watching death and dying, following characters experiencing it. One most unnerving chapter tells of a woman whose marriage falls apart as she has an affair with a dying man…

I found many of the separate chapters intriguing, even gripping, and yet I had an overall feeling as I worked my way to the end of something missing, the sense of an ambitious hotch-potch that didn’t quite gel, at least for me. At the same time, I realised I was possibly being unfair, and decided I’d read it again soon.

The novel ends with humanity sending a craft into space to try and reach another planet to colonise it; while it’s on its centuries-long journey, somehow the plague is cured, and humanity sets about addressing the climate emergency; the people on the spacecraft are left to their own devices. Bleak, this one, in so many ways.

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