Tokyo Year Zero

TOKYO YEAR ZERO
By David Peace

The Golden or Classic Age of Hollywood film noir was the post-World War II period, encompassing the late 1940s and early 1950s (the actual term was first used, by a French critic, in reference to Hollywood product in 1946). Cultural historians have attempted to locate an explanation for this sudden flowering in a sense of increased alienation and cynicism, though I’ve never found any of these theories particularly convincing. The Japanese post-war experience, however, was cataclysmic enough to profitably suggest the birth of a noir culture. Which is an idea David Peace takes hold of and runs with in Tokyo Year Zero.

It is the summer of 1946 and Detective Minami of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department has to negotiate the human and material wreckage of Japan’s defeat while on the trail of a serial killer. Many noir basics are in place: a world where nothing is what it seems, a state of corruption and moral ambiguity where members of the police department and the nascent yakuza underworld sometimes find themselves on the same side, a series of violent crimes, an overworked detective who suffers from lice, insomnia, and a guilty past, and a ruined urban landscape that is always either miserably hot or slick with rain.

It is a world Peace vividly evokes in all of its sights, sounds and smells. His Tokyo is identified with sweat, the stench of human waste, and the noise of the street. The story is told stream-of-consciousness style, and Minami’s thoughts are dominated by the repetition of a plague of trivial annoyances. The lice he scratches, endlessly (gari-gari). The hammering of construction workers (ton-ton). The dripping of the rain (potsu-potsu). Hard enough to think, let alone sleep, when tormented by these imps. And so his mind begins to buckle under the strain.

The beat of Peace’s prose, built around the incessant repetition of short sentence fragments, obsessive thoughts, and sound effects, captures Minami’s mental stress perfectly. Surprisingly, given how irritating such writing could easily get to be, it works. At least most of the time. A gun fight rendered in a series of “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!“s just seems silly. And even when it does work it is irritating, but is nevertheless redeemed by a nervous and intense momentum that keeps things moving even when they seem to be grinding to a synaptic halt (the Calmotin referred to in the following passage is a sleeping pill):

I turn their shoes to face the door. No Calmotin. No alcohol. No sleep. No dreams. No air. No breeze. I am out of luck. Everything is falling apart. I turn their shoes to face the door. No Calmotin. No alcohol. No sleep. No dreams. No air. No breeze. I am out of luck. Everything falling apart. I turn their shoes to face the door, three times I turn their shoes to face the door, three times I turn their shoes to face the door. No Calmotin. No alcohol. No sleep. No dreams. No air. No breeze. No luck. Everything falling apart again, over and over and over, again and again and again –
She is beside me now, beside me now, beside me now . . .
I think about her all the time –
She is laying beside me now . . .

Despite the simplicity of the language and its stripped-down, incantatory insistence, it is not always easy to understand what is going on. Detective Minami deliberately remains a cipher. And at least one reader will confess to being confused by the ending, which has the disorienting effect of calling into question much of what has happened in the rest of the book. Some confusion and open-endedness are part of the noir genre, but in this case things seem to get carried away. I found myself, uncomfortably, reminded of Irvine Welsh’s Filth.

This is the first book in a projected Tokyo Trilogy. Given its insistently introverted and idiosyncratic point of view, it will be interesting to see how Peace imagines the city in his next installment. As stylish and original a take on the pulps as Tokyo Year Zero is, it also leads to a creative dead end. There is nothing left to say of this place, in this voice. Now for something completely different.

Notes:
Review first published online December 20, 2007.