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Here, the gods are all too mortal

Promenade of the Gods; A Novel; Koji Suzuki; Vertical: 320 pp., $24.95

October 31, 2008|Dale Bailey | Bailey is the author of three novels, "Sleeping Policemen" (with Jack Slay Jr.), "House of Bones" and "The Fallen," and a collection of short stories, "The Resurrection Man's Legacy and Other Stories."

Toward the end of "Promenade of the Gods," Japanese novelist Koji Suzuki pens one of those unfortunate sentences that invite reviewers to bludgeon him with his own pronouncements. "When it came to injecting a broad story into a person's head," Suzuki writes, "a vividly descriptive writing style was best."

A novelist must have enormous confidence to risk such a gambit, and enormous skills to pull it off -- but even then the odds aren't great. (One thinks of Philip Roth's "The Great American Novel" -- which wasn't -- or A.M. Homes' "This Book Will Save Your Life" -- which didn't). And a reviewer must possess vast reservoirs of restraint to resist taking the bait.

Suzuki -- in "Promenade of the Gods," anyway -- is not that novelist. Nor, alas, am I that reviewer.

I didn't expect it to turn out this way. A perennial bestseller in Japan, Suzuki remains most widely known for the "Ring" trilogy -- "Ring," "Spiral" and "Loop" -- source material for the films that introduced Western audiences to Japanese horror (J-horror, as aficionados call it) first through the original Japanese adaptations and then through the inevitable Hollywood remakes.

The success of subsequent J-horror imports confirmed the genre's transcultural appeal. Its signature trope conflates the high-tech talismans of Japan's urban present with the superstitions of its rural past -- Suzuki's 1991 novel, "Ring," for example, traces the carnage unleashed by a videotape infected by an onry{omacronl}, a vengeful ghost of Japanese folklore. Such juxtapositions highlight J-horror's penchant for exploring the anxieties occasioned by a rapidly changing technological world that offers no safe harbor for conventional systems of belief.

"Promenade of the Gods" seems to mine the same cultural vein. Following the disappearance of a Tokyo salaryman named Matsouka, his wife, Miyuki, recruits Shirow, one of Matsouka's childhood friends, to help her track him down. Matsouka's apparent infatuation with Ryoko Kano, a Japanese television star, proves to be a key clue. Learning that Kano too has recently disappeared, Shirow traces the mystery to twin points of coincidence -- Matsouka and Kano's shared decades-old history with a New Age cult called the Halo of Heaven and Earth and their simultaneous disappearances on the night of Kano's last broadcast. Shirow's review of that broadcast reveals a brief, unexpected gesture of Kano's -- the ritual greeting pose required by the cult's deceased founder. This seemingly spectral encounter primes readers to expect J-horror's typical exploration of the collision between scientific and supernatural world views. Instead, the story veers into routine thriller territory, depicting an entirely rational (if increasingly unlikely) media-driven conspiracy.

In itself, this isn't a problem. Suzuki should be commended for his willingness to stretch outside his aesthetic comfort zone. The problem isn't in the idea; it's in the execution -- and that brings us back to the fatal sentence embedded toward the end of the novel, Suzuki's pronouncement that a successful story depends on a "vividly descriptive writing style." Alas, Suzuki -- or his translator -- errs on both sides of this otherwise useful rule: "Promenade of the Gods" manages to describe too much, and in doing so, describes far too little.

The devil, as they say, is in the details -- or the selection of them. And Suzuki consistently selects the wrong ones. This is a novel that describes a character accepting a ride from a friend, saying: "Thanks for coming out of your way" -- and then, in the very next sentence, explains the dialogue: "Shirow . . . thanked his friend for picking him up." As literary sins go, this is a venial one -- or it would be if it didn't happen over and over again, often within mere paragraphs.

This habit of over-explanation also mars the novel's plot. Thrillers depend on the artful presentation of seemingly trivial detail -- the casual incident that later detonates in the reader's mind, rearranging the entire story with a single retrospective glance. Suzuki trusts neither himself nor his reader in this regard. As a consequence, every twist of plot is weighted down with clumsy explanation as the characters recall -- in often laborious detail -- the entire network of observations and events that must be reconsidered in light of new developments.

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