Monday, June 28, 2010

Zaregoto Book 2: The Kubishime Romanticist

By NISIOISIN. Released in Japan by Kodansha. Released in North America by Del Rey.

The concept of the 'unreliable narrator' has been around for ages. Arabian Knights uses it, and Agatha Christie made it famous. But NISIOISIN, the author of the Zaregoto series, really does try to take it to a whole new level. Usually the author sets rules when using such a thing, such as never actually lying to the reader, but merely omitting things that would make the deceit too obvious. Not here. Ii-chan, the narrator of this series of 'mysteries', outright lies to us several times throughout the book.

I put the word mysteries in quotes because not only are the mysteries in this book fairly easy to solve, they're never the point. You're not trying to figure out who the murderer of the cute girl here is - it's fairly obvious early on. Likewise, the serial killer going around at the same time is introduced on Page 1. And unlike the first book in this series, The Kubikiri Cycle, Ii-chan himself is not the entire mystery - we already think we know what to expect from him.

We get it, to a certain degree. Once again, whenever talking with Ii-chan, every other character spends pages and pages talking about what a horrible person he is. Since the narrator is compared throughout the book to a mirror, the deeper thematic meaning is clear, but his willingness to accept any insult, analysis, and one-liner thrown back at him can get very annoying. Ii-chan is meant to be frustrating, and I suspect the point of the entire series is getting him to actually be proactive, but I wouldn't blame people who can't stand listening to monotonous philosophy and dialogues to get there.

There is a certain ponderous nature to the book, partly because Ii-chan is that kind of person, but it extends to everyone else. There's no urgency anywhere in the book, with two exceptions which I'll get to in a minute. The narrator walks around a lot, has conversations with people (that go on and on, usually about what humanity is and why Ii-chan is so far away from the ideal of it), and tries to exist on the periphery. There are several people (including Aikawa Jun, from the first book) who are noted as being far more interesting and 'lead character-ish', but we barely get glimpses of what they're doing. Indeed, Ii-chan notes that he's not even a sidekick, just the comic relief. He said similar things in the first book.

This is total garbage, of course. The star of these books is definitely him, something that Aikawa points out when they have their 'if I could just clarify one more thing' conversation at the end of the book. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene at the 'prison-themed' restaurant with Mikoko, and in Muimi's apartment. Ii-chan, in his narration, tries to make the reader think he is the ultimate in ambivalence (sometimes it works - he can be very boring). But here he can't keep up the pretense. Seeing his anger in these two scenes is startling - he's almost completely out of control, even though he's speaking the same as he always does. They're the best two scenes in the book, as you really sit up and take notice of just what kind of person Ii-chan is. Or at least you think you've gotten closer to finding it out.

This book is hard to recommend. It consists almost entirely of characters talking at each other, it's filled with ponderous philosophizing, and the narrator can make a man want to throw the book against the wall at times. But I still found it very difficult to put down, and some of the sequences were simply brilliant. The first book was put out by Del Rey two years ago (I may have to go re-read it now), and there's no sign of the 3rd - Japanese novels have tremendous difficulty selling here. Still, I'm pleased that Del Rey took a chance with this series. As an unreliable narrator, Ii-chan leaves Kyon in the dust.

2 comments:

  1. Now might be a good time to point out that, traditionally, Asian mysteries are not "whodunnit"s as western ones are, but "how do we make them confess" stories - like Columbo, back in the day. Typically a Asian mystery begins with the crime being committed by A and then Inspector/Judge/Detective B comes in and hounds A until they give themselves away.

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  2. True, but this was actually framed as a whodunit - we didn't see the murderer, and Ii-chan was going around trying to figure it out. It's just that a) the murderer is quite obvious, and b) Ii-chan knew who it was immediately and proceeded to lie in his narration for his own advantage.

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