Created by: Asumiko Nakamura
Published by: Vertical
ISBN: 1935654764 (Amazon)
I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. He may be my Favourite Author—if not, he’s definitely part of a select handful of Favourite Authors. I haven’t read all of his works but I have read eleven of them, some of them multiple times. When I was reading Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (for the second time) alongside my wife (her first time), we were so taken with the book that we named our as-yet-unborn daughter St. Wind-Up Bird (while she awaited a proper name) as mark of our affection for the novel and, conversely, for our daughter. When 1Q84 was released a couple years ago, I purchased it at release and promptly devoured it. When I began Utsubora, I suspected that Nakamura probably had done the same. By the end, I instead presumed simply that Nakamura read 1Q84, allowed it to filter into her cultural consciousness, and then wrote a completely different kind of story that lifts liberally—and perhaps accidentally—from the very large novel. There are overlaps.
It’s not cheaty or plagiaristic or anything, but its several similarities did prompt me to initially hope that I’d be able to write a review about a book about a plagiarist that was itself derived a bit too closely from another work. I’d say it’s almost a shame that I couldn’t end up writing that review, but Utsubora is so diabolically interesting that I’m deeply glad for it. Even if I can’t use this space as much of a meditation on the nature of plagiary.
Utsubora, unlike 1Q84, grew on me. With Murakami’s novel, I was hooked from the start. I was seeing the fascinating properties of the novel in every page, every pericope. With Utsubora, I began at tepid. I thought, This is the run-of-the-mill thriller. Suspicious suicide. Femme fatale. The obvious, typical everything. A quarter of the way in, some of the book’s intrigue began to surface and kept me invested until the conclusion. At that point I was still only at the point of thinking that the book was Fun. And of course, Fun is nice. There’s nothing wrong with Fun. I just wanted more bang for my buck—after all, the editor’s blurb on the back called it Nakamura’s masterpiece. And initially, it didn’t feel like a masterpiece. So I was going to write a review that said that.
Fortunately, I like to get my ducks in a row before I begin a review, so I started thinking about the story and I realized that I didn’t actually know what had happened. Which is on-the-face-of-it ridiculous, right? I mean, I read the book all the way through—and pretty carefully. So I made my wife read it and we talked about it. There were so many holes in our grasp of What Actually Happened that I decided to reread the book, this time taking notes. At this point, I was guardedly impressed. In truth I was probably Schrödinger’s impressed. I was simultaneously impressed and the opposite of impressed and would only become wholly one or the other upon finishing my notes. As I picked my way through that second read, carefully noting things that might have anything to do with putting together the pieces of Nakamura’s puzzle, I realized a handful of things: 1) the author was meticulous in putting these things together in a way that actually reveals everything, 2) the book is about much more than just the thriller that it’s camouflaged as, and 3) the book is not actually a thriller in any sense—even though it toys with the structure of the thriller.
These are some of the notes I took.
I won’t say much about it because sussing out the book’s plot is half the fun, but Nakamura juggles back and forth between events at will—so much so that neophyte readers might be wholly left in the dark. There is a complexity to her non-linearity that you might not notice ‘til you’re knee-deep in its morass. Nakamura will bounce between two or three or four events happening roughly simultaneously and then throw in a couple pockets from two weeks or two months or two years ago. It’s a ton of fun if you’re up to it. Mind-bogglingly challenging if you’re not.
What surprised me about the book is that its story is really pretty mundane. Outside of all the narrative tricks, nothing is quite as diabolical as it seems. In fact, it may even be that Nakamura was so interested in creating a meditation on the existential part of any novel’s author that she masked it in genre tropes so people would ingest something probably outside their usual range of reading. Utsubora feels sexy and dangerous, but it’s really just a discussion of the nature of authorship.
Nakamura’s novel follows the diminished career of Shun Mizorogi, a once potent author whose works have inspired a particularly loyal and invested collection of readers. Mizorogi has long lost his inspiration and, in an act of ill-conceived desperation, plagiarizes a young amateur’s work, developing it as his own project, thereby winning renewed acclaim for what will be seen as his magnum opus. Utsubora begins with what may be the suicide of a young amateur, a woman with whom Mizorogi engaged romantically after plagiarizing her. The identity of the dead woman is in some contention, as all her particular features were obliterated when she dove headfirst from a high-rise. Then a twin appears.
It sounds kind of ridiculous. And it’s actually more ridiculous than it sounds. But it’s also very very good. Nakamura has created something tense and relentlessly worthwhile. It’s Mature rating will make it a hard sell in a lot of markets (and it definitely earns the publisher’s 18+ recommendation11I never ever ever feel like a creeper reading books like this in roughly public spaces like Starbucks. Not even slightly. Yep, here’s a page where two detectives are discussing the identity of a missing person with a landlord. Then they’re talking about an author’s bibliography. Young cop, old cop. Typical stuff. Turn the page. Oh hey, a close up of a finger in a vagina. A tongue glancing off a nipple with a string of sloppy sloppy makeout saliva. Turn the page rather more quickly. Phone conversation with an editor about when a particular chapter will be ready for submission.
Yeah. I don’t feel like a weirdo at all. I read with my back to the wall these days.), but it’s a valuable book that merits the time readers will put into it. And that’s the great thing. When I first presumed Utsubora to be some sort of lip-service homage to Murakami, I was only seeing plot points and thriller tropes. I thought Nakamura’s book would merely be an amusing ride. Summer reading, something to lounge with poolside. But just as Murakami masks deeper examinations of culture and identity in his novels, so too does Nakamura. All the salacious bits about blended identities and sexual liaison actually work on a High Literary level as lightly veiled thematic reference to the central discussion of the Author and his place in, among, and above the work. The last couple years have each been great for comics, with a number of surprising and valuable works releasing in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Utsubora is one more release assuring that 2013 will be another stand-up year for the comics medium.
A Dissonant Note
There is one thing I haven’t figured out that nags at me. Through all the notes I took (even to the extent of compiling a timeline of events to keep everything straight), there was one thing that I couldn’t make sense of. It’s potentially something that could outright break my interpretation. It’s troublesome and I don’t yet understand it. I’ve come up with an argument for it, a way to wedge it into my reading of the book, but I fear I damage the truth of things by how I massage the thing into my reading. So yeah, if you have any great thoughts about this one element, I’d love to hear them.
The thing that is tripping me up so badly is this: the cheesecakes.
A Timeline of Events
I don’t yet have a study guide prepared for Utsubora. I’d like to have one—at the least to help readers understand the plot well enough that they can begin to get at the meat which lurks within. Until then, I’ll deposit my timeline of notable events here. Obviously, these are spoilers so if you haven’t read the work, I’d recommend not going any further, even if you’re the kind who doesn’t mind spoilers. With that, click the below thumbnail to see a rich expression of the book’s plot development:
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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