David Peace’s 10th novel concerns the Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (pronounced Dyu-noss-ke Ak-ta-ga-wa). In his extensive bibliography, Peace says, “for anyone who has not read Akutagawa, I would begin with” Rashōmon & Seventeen Other Tales, selected and translated by Jay Rubin, with an introduction by Haruki Murakami. No matter how big a fan you are of Peace, no matter how important it is to you to speedily read his latest novel, we heartily recommend you start with the stories themselves (and the accompanying biographical and historical background Rubin additionally supplies), especially if you have not read anything by Akutagawa before. In fact, before we get to Patient X, let’s do ourselves a favour and take a look at…
Before you even get to the stories, there are interesting things to be learned that will serve you well in a reading of Patient X: for instance, Akutagawa’s mother was consigned to an asylum when he was a child and he spent his life haunted by fear of becoming mad himself. His early life was complicated by the fact that he was raised by his uncle rather than his own family. After achieving early success, he faced criticism (his success built on the back of contemporary reworkings of ancient tales, his critics wondering if he was a one-trick pony, a worry that obviously plagued Akutagawa too) that led to him trying his hand at different types of writing for the duration of his short life, his creativity mirroring the short liberal period known as the Taishō period (his suicide two years into the Shōwa period was felt to be an indictment of Taishō’s shortcomings). You also learn that Akutagawa struggled – with fidelity, with religion, with writing, with life. And then you have an unusual introduction from Haruki Murakami that, whilst confirming that Akutagawa is undoubtedly among the first rank of Japanese writers, spends some time sharing the fact that there are several things about his writing that Murakami never quite got along with.
You get the sense from reading the intro that Murakami likes odd stories a fair bit, but likes other writers a lot more, and possibly involved himself in the introduction more out of friendship for the book’s translator Jay Rubin (who translated a number of Murakami’s own books) rather than out of genuine enthusiasm for Akutagawa. Or maybe just maybe Akutagawa is a complicated writer, a writer who had different ‘periods’ and whose fans tend to attach themselves to a given period (imagine a Bowie who killed himself at the age of 35 and left behind him Ziggy Stardust, Tin Machine, The Thin White Duke, Halloween Jack and Elephant Man): there’s the young man who wrote ‘Rashōmon’, ”In a Bamboo Grove’ (both of which have a sort of tangential relation to the Kurosawa movie, Rashōmon) and other reworkings of older tales; there’s the writer who developed the fantastical elements of stories like ‘The Nose’ into a self-referential period in which he shared the mechanics of the stories alongside the stories themselves (such as in ‘Green Onions’, where we know Akutagawa is up against a deadline); and finally there are the autobiographical stories that begin with how the man became the man and end, posthumously, with stories that seem to pick apart Akutagawa’s various failings – ‘The Life of a Stupid Man’ is possibly the hardest of those stories. At his best, though, in stories like ‘Hell Screen’, Akutagawa is a ferocious talent.
One important additional thing to know about Rashōmon & Seventeen Other Tales, particularly if you’re reading it to limber up for Patient X: Rubin decided not to include Kappa, a novella Akutagawa wrote in the last year of his life, about a psychiatric patient who travels to the land of Kappa, a device that allowed Akutagawa, Swift-like, to comment upon the corruption of then-contemporary Japan. It continues to be a popular book in Japan to this day (the anniversary of Akutagawa’s death is known as ‘Kappaki’) and Peace threads mentions of both Kappa and ‘Tock’, one of the characters, throughout Patient X. Are we saying you should read two other books before you even think of starting Patient X? Possibly.
Time to get back to Patient X, that novel by David Peace we started talking about earlier. You’d be forgiven for wondering, given our recommendation to read another book (or books) in advance of this one, whether Patient X qualifies as one of those ‘difficult’ Peace books (GB84, we’re looking at you). The answer (as you’d no doubt expect) is both yes and no. Yes because all of Peace’s books demand something from the reader – you don’t coast through a Peace and you don’t read Peace expecting a page-turner, as such. But also no, because Patient X is framed as 12 more or less short stories, broadly linear, some of which are straightforward and some of which are not.
Peace uses Akutagawa’s own stories to riff on his life: so, for example, where Akutagawa has the thief Kandata climbing out of hell on a spider’s thread bestowed by Lord Buddha Shakyamuni in his 1918 story, ‘The Spider Thread’, so Peace has Akutagawa climbing out of hell – the subtle difference being, where Kandata ends consigned to eternal damnation for his lack of compassion, Akutagawa gives up his place on the thread when he spies he is being followed by sinful versions of himself (Kandata’s thread snaps at the instant of his failure; Akutagawa gives up the thread seconds before it snaps). Reading the novel with a knowledge of the story gives you nuance but also questions – what is Peace saying by having Akutagawa’s own hand play a part in his fate, as distinct from the lack of choice Akutagawa gave to his character? (Quite possibly it’s one more way Peace underlines the choices Akutagawa made.)
The novel is bookended by a pair of stories – one about Akutagawa, in which he was instructed, at an early age, to “Look! You cannot turn your face away from horror!” when faced by a floating corpse; much later, out walking after a terrible earthquake, he sees a small child being commanded to do something similar by his brother – the young child in question being Akira Kurosawa, the director who went on to adapt Akutagawa’s ‘In a Bamboo Grove’ for his film Rashōmon.
“Look carefully, Akira. If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened forever. But if you look straight on, then there is nothing to be afraid of.”
In response to this sight, Akutagawa “turned on his heel and marched off, thinking, It would have been better had we all died.”
It’s a kind of dour playfulness, of the kind you’d find in Beckett, a writer Peace has a tremendous amount in common with. Listen to the sing-song of this:
“A nervous child, a frightened child. Always frightened, always afraid: afraid of the dark, afraid of the light. The stars in the night, the clouds in the sky. The sky and the sea, the water and the earth. The ground beneath you, the land about you. The air you breathe, the very air you breathe. Afraid of the living, afraid of the dead.”
Like James Ellroy, Peace is a writer with an unmistakable voice. Time and again, reading Patient X, you can’t help but pick up on a tender sympathy which feels unusual, however, unusual in the sense of not typical of Peace, a writer who wouldn’t be top of your list if you were thinking of writers who conjure warmth – and yet here he does, here there is sympathy:
“‘I was born in these modern times,’ replied the young man, hesitantly. ‘But I feel I can do no work of lasting worth. Day and night, I just live a desultory and decadent life, standing on the beach and then running from the waves, always wanting to believe and yet never having faith…”
And yet, alongside this, there is the audacity of Peace’s formal experimentation, albeit married this time to a narrative he seems keen to ensure you remain with him for. You read a section like ‘Saint Kappa’, which channels repetition and stories within boxes to dazzling effect, and you find yourself wondering how much better he can get?
Patient X is another high water mark for Peace. I’ve read it twice in a row and switched, page to page, between marvelling at his dexterity and being swept up in the tale he’s telling. The very last detail you leave the book with is that his next book, the resolution of his Tokyo Trilogy is coming 2019. We can’t wait. Peace is a bright spark in this dark world.
Any Cop?: It’s a marvellous piece of work, intelligent, rigorous, beautiful and entrancing. Up there with the best of what he has written.