Death Sentences (originally Genshi-Gari)

Reviewer: Ian Leroux

Author: Kawamata Chiaki (Translators: Thomas Lamarre, Kazuko Y. Behrens)

Published: 2012 (original Japanese publication 1984)

Reviewed: 2013-12-12

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Parental Guidance:
* Lots of death, some of it violent.
* Sexual assaults, some against minors.

Sometimes I feel that back-cover-blurb writers don't read past the
first chapter. I picked this novel up partly to write, for once, a
kvetchcomm review of a book that the rest of MITSFS has not already
read, and partly because of a back-cover blurb that presaged a dark
hybrid of Monty Python's World's Funniest Joke sketch and a police
procedural. Which is a fairly accurate description of the Prologue,
and a wholly inadequate description of the remainder of this fairly
slim volume.

I should have known. It's published by a Midwestern university press,
not Tor. The tome opens not with the usual hagiographic review
excerpts but with a foreword entitled "From Surrealism to
Postmodernism" by an undoubtedly learned commentator, and closes with
a (surprisingly interesting) afterword by the lead translator rather
than a list of upcoming publications for the addicted reader. The
translators are both professors, one at McGill and one at Texas Tech.
In short, this is a Serious Literary Document, one that explores the
links between surrealism, new-wave SF, and mass media while being
itself a surreal new-wave SF novel about publishing books about
surrealism. Books whose readers die.

It also happens to be a fun read, once you forget the earnest
foreword. The plot ranges through too many decades in too few pages
to leave much space for characters, but a few of them are sketched
evocatively enough. The real protagonist is a passive but potent
poem, crossing generations and oceans, abetted by unwitting
collaborators, lying in wait for decades, then striking again. That
description sounds a bit like Tolkien's Ring, but a better analogy
would be one of those British horror TV shows with good writers and no
effects budget, creeping you out not by what is shown but by what
could-have-but-didn't-quite happen at every turn, keeping you on edge
because of the human characters' oblivious disregard for the power
sitting on their shelf.

Ironically for a book about surrealist poetry, the prose is mostly
straightforward, with most paragraphs consisting of a single
one-clause sentence, so one doesn't get bogged down in turgid literay
onanism. The whole clipped style is reminiscent of pulp detective
novels. If anything, it's a little *too* simple: one spends a lot of
time staring at punctuation marks.

If you want to see what a Doctor Who episode about MITSFS might look
like, this is a quick and accessible way to find out. If you want to
read a Serious Literary Document about the links between surrealism
and Philip K. Dick, complete with learned commentary and endnotes, you
need only wait until I've dealt with my upcoming move and shipped my
copy to the library. If you just want to read a light-hearted police
procedural about a world where books have frightening powers, go look
up Jasper Fforde in the pinkdex.