I’ve posted several reviews on books from Red Circle, a publisher specialising in short works by Japanese writers, and their latest release looked to be an intriguing prospect. It’s the longest work in the series so far, running to over a hundred pages of the small paperback format, and the writer, Soji Shimada, is a well-known name, too, with his locked-room mysteries The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (translated by Ross Mackenzie) and Murder in the Crooked House (tr. Louise Heal Kawai), published in English to great acclaim. However, despite all these encouraging signs, I’m afraid I’m going to have to put a bit of a dampener on things – you see, I’m not convinced this is a book that will grow the Red Circle audience…
One Love Chigusa (translated by David Warren, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a spec-fic novella set at the end of the twenty-first century, a story that begins with what you’d expect to be the end:
In the year 2091 AD Xie Hoyu caused a major accident on the expressway. He careered on his motorcycle into the opposite lane, straight into the oncoming traffic, flying into the air and colliding head-on with numerous passenger cars. All the drivers had their automatic mechanisms turned off.
p.1 (Red Circle, 2020)
However, advances in technology mean that despite major damage to his body and brain, Xie manages to survive the crash, and after multiple operations and extensive rehabilitation, he’s able to leave hospital and return to his Beijing home to get on with his life, albeit with artificial limbs and a memory mostly consisting of images on a hard-drive.
As you’d expect, life after the accident poses Xie several challenges. One unexpected side effect is that the people he sees, especially women, become distorted caricatures, which causes problems when he attempts to return to his job as a magazine illustrator, leaving him unable to draw accurately. Living alone, without friends or a partner, he begins to think about ending all – until, that is, he happens to see a woman one day and falls hopelessly in love.
Much of One Love Chigusa, then, focuses on Xie’s struggles to cope with life as a virtual cyborg and how he latches onto this woman, Chigusa, using her as something to anchor himself to in a world turned upside-down. While she’s initially suspicious of his advances (and rightly so), eventually she lets down her guard, and the two enter into a relationship. Yet there’s always a sense that we’re only seeing the surface of what’s going on. The story is told from Xie’s point of view, and given that he’s often convinced that his mind is playing tricks on him, it would be a foolish reader who takes everything at face value.
The best feature of the story is its probing into humanity and how that concept might stand up in a world where the divide between people and machines is growing ever smaller. Xie’s transformation into a form of hybrid being has serious consequences for how he sees the world, and the theme that slowly develops is one of the first step towards a very different kind of world, one where humans are not necessarily the pinnacle of existence. This idea was floated in a previous Red Circle offering, Takuji Ichikawa’s The Refugees’ Daughter (tr. Emily Balistrieri), and One Love Chigusa again takes up the idea of possible paths for evolution, albeit in a very different way.
Unfortunately, though, as intriguing as the set-up is, there’s far too much stopping Shimada’s story from being a success. For one thing, it’s a fairly predictable piece for the most part. Once we learn of Xie’s malfunctioning processor and his inability to see people and objects for who, or what, they really are, it would take a fairly dim reader not to see where the story is going. Since the book focuses rather heavily on Xie and Chigusa and rather ignores wider society after the initial chapters, it makes for a dull and predictable ending.
I was also fairly disappointed by the writing here. While there are no errors as such, the style is stilted, and I found myself (especially on my second reading) spending far too much time mentally rewriting passages in my head, which is never a good sign. Of course, there are places here where the text is probably meant to stop the reader, and Chigusa’s halting speech is an obvious character trait, but elsewhere you suspect that improvements could have been made without affecting the story. Whether that’s down to the writer or the translator, I can’t really say, but the final impression is of a fairly clumsy piece of prose.
To be honest, though, some readers won’t get that far because of the misogynistic nature of the book. While some men do change in Xie’s eyes, it’s the women he focuses on, with most described as devilish with red faces, and his reflections on women are usually pretty ugly, too:
But now he had come back to this room, sat on the sofa and reflected, he realised that all the women he’d had relationships with had been like Tin, more or less. Whatever he said, they screamed, got angry and thought only of themselves. A girl who was gentle, had a nice personality, didn’t have a temper, and was restrained and mild-mannered – he couldn’t ever remember meeting one like that even from his days as a child. (p.10)
There’s lots more where that came from, so if you’re put off by this kind of mansplaining, you might not get very far into the story.
If you do, though, be prepared for some disturbing behaviour on the part of Xie as a large part of the story consists of our ‘hero’ following Chigusa home via the buses and trams of future Beijing. At one point, the penny does seem to drop a little:
He thought about why he had followed the woman from Shankal Electric and was now standing there on a streetcar. It was so desperate that it was painful. Was he stalking her? (p.61)
Alas, his misfiring neurons don’t quite get there:
He didn’t see it like that.
Most readers will undoubtedly have a rather different opinion…
I admire Red Circle’s project of releasing Japanese stories in attractive pocket-sized books, and you can certainly see why releasing a futuristic story from a writer with a decent following in English might have seemed like a good idea, especially as it’s a longer one than the tales published thus far. Unfortunately, though, this isn’t one I’d recommend – in fact, I think it’s a bit of a misstep on the publisher’s behalf. I’m still interested in seeing what Red Circle come up with in future, but I certainly won’t be exploring Shimada’s other work any time soon.