Master of creepiness pens dark tale of damaged lives
By Ryu Murakami
Translated by Ralph McCarthy
Penguin, 185 pp, 13 dollars
An ice pick is a very simple tool that focuses the strength and weight of the user's arm onto a tiny, needle-sharp point, allowing the shaft of the ice pick to easily penetrate deep into a rock-hard block of ice.
Like the ice pick that figures so prominently in its pages, Ryu Murakami's Piercing focuses the life stories of a pair of complex characters into single harrowing encounter that transfixes the reader from the arresting opening scene.
To say Murakami's work is often dark would be an understatement.
In his best-known novel, Coin Locker Babies (1980), one of the main characters drops nerve gas on Tokyo. In the Miso Soup (1997) is about a psychopath carving a bloody trail through the capital's red-light district. While the body count in this newly translated 1994 novel is considerably lower, for sheer creepiness, Piercing puts both of the aforementioned books in the shade.
Ralph McCarthy, having previously translated In the Miso Soup and the considerably lighter 69 by the same author, seems well versed in the intricacies of bringing Murakami's subtleties into English with a sparse, matter-of-fact prose style that adds further impact to the stark brutality of the violence.
Piercing begins with Masayuki Kawashima, a successful graphic designer for an advertising agency, married to a kind and loving wife. His life seems the paragon of domestic bliss, but for the last 10 nights he has spent hours after his bread-baking wife has gone to sleep standing over his baby daughter's crib with an ice pick, trying to convince himself he won't stab her.
Kawashima decides that the only way to overcome his obsession with using the ice pick, and the fear that he will harm his daughter, is to stab someone else instead. He puts a few days into planning the perfect crime and under the pretext of taking a business research trip, checks into a top-end Tokyo hotel intending to use it as a base of operations to murder a prostitute. Further meticulous preparation ensues, during which the reader gets glimpses of Kawashima's nightmarish childhood and the brutal beatings his mother routinely inflicted on him before he was taken away to live in an institution for abused children.
Murakami then switches point of view to Kawashima's intended victim, Chiaki, a call girl who specializes in S&M games and who is also a survivor of childhood abuse. Chiaki's mental health is as dubious as Kawashima's and the roles of predator and prey become confused as the novel teeters between psycho-thriller and black farce as Murakami switches points of view, often revisiting scenes to give contrasting perspectives. Such a he-said/she-said approach would be doomed if not for Murakami's use of third person narration.
On the surface, Piercing is a chilling horror novel in the vein of Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter books, but on a deeper level it is about the vulnerability of children and the lasting damage that results from abuse. Both Kawashima's and Chiaki's deranged behavior stems from the coping mechanisms they have developed to survive their respective childhood ordeals. In the widening gyre of their adult lives, things fall apart and the coping mechanisms become psychoses that fill them with passionate intensity of the worst sort.