My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Sam Bett

Originally published in 2016 as 私の消滅
English language translation first published in 2022

What transforms a person into a killer? Can it be something as small as a suggestion?
Turn this page, and you may forfeit your entire life.
With My Annihilation, Fuminori Nakamura, master of literary noir, has constructed a puzzle box of a narrative in the form of a confessional diary that implicates its reader in a heinous crime. 
Delving relentlessly into the darkest corners of human consciousness, My Annihilation interrogates the unspeakable thoughts all humans share that can be monstrous when brought to life, revealing with disturbing honesty the psychological motives of a killer.

Recently one of my friends, curious to start exploring some Japanese crime fiction, asked me what I thought of Fuminori Nakamura’s work. It was a really nice question to be asked but it proved to be surprisingly difficult to answer, at least with a simple response. You see, while I have only a limited sample size to judge, what I had read had left me feeling quite conflicted. Certainly I admired the author’s skill and his ability to depict some very uncomfortable psychology, especially with regards to disaffected young men. I cannot however describe any of them as particularly enjoyable reads, including this latest work.

The novel is narrated by a young man who is in a cabin in the woods. There he encounters a short, autobiographical manuscript apparently written by the person whose identity the narrator has intended to usurp. As he and we read that story, it soon becomes clear that this person was a deeply damaged and dangerous person. The question is what has the writer of that manuscript done and how will it affect the reader.

It’s an intriguing starting point for a story that lives up to its billing as a ‘puzzle box of a narrative’. Nakamura carefully constructs a story in which we are not prompted to answer who or why something has happened but rather to simply try to comprehend exactly what is taking place. Multiple documents and accounts are stitched together and our task is to see if we can comprehend how ideas and characters interact with one another so we can understand how this story will be resolved.

I admire the tightness of that construction. Nakamura’s story is far more complex than you would expect from a book of this length (like many of his other works, the pages are generously spaced meaning that it reads quite quickly) but I felt it was ultimately cohesive and coherent, even if I occasionally had to revisit some passages to be sure I understood how everything connected. While some elements of the story struck me as fantastic, Nakamura takes care to explain those ideas to provide context for the reader so they can understand their relevance and anticipate how they might be expanded upon.

As interesting as some of those ideas are, I do not intend to discuss them in any detail. This is a short work and to do so would inevitably strip the book of much of its sense of surprise. That would be a shame as I think it is a more compulsive read than either of the other works by the author I have read up until this point. While I may praise the book for its construction and thoughtful development of its themes, I doubt many readers will guess where this is headed until much later in the story. If I can, I would suggest preserving as much of the surprise as possible.

There are a couple of aspects of the book though that I do want to address as they relate to that question of the book’s entertainment value, at least for this reader. I have found each of the Nakamura books I have read to date to have elements that are unsettling or disturbing but this is the darkest that I have read by far. Part of that is the nature of reading the thoughts and experiences of the young man as recorded in that journal which, were I minded to include a trigger warnings section to my reviews would prompt one of the longest ones for any of the works I have written about to date. Be warned, some of that material gets pretty disturbing.

That of course reflects on the effectiveness of Nakamura’s writing. It wouldn’t unsettle if it wasn’t well observed. That young man strikes me as being a pretty disturbed individual and while the first person nature of his account may have us wondering about its reliability, some of the descriptions of the things he has done or tried to do may well unsettle and horrify readers.

The other aspect of this book that really struck me as adding to that sense of darkness is that the book draws upon some true crimes, namely the murders of four very young girls by Tsutomu Miyazaki. There are a few lengthy passages describing and reflecting upon that man’s crimes and while I understood their relevance to this story and the themes the author was exploring, they made for some very uncomfortable reading.

Which leaves me with one other aspect of the book I want to discuss which is its genre categorization. Those who remember my review of The Thief may recall that I find this topic a little frustrating. There is an assumption often made that crime fiction and literary fiction are exclusive terms but as with the other Nakamura titles I have reviewed, I would stress that I think this has a fair claim to belong to both traditions.

I will certainly acknowledge that the reader is not really involved in much of a game of wits with the writer so much as they are being carefully steered through a series of sensations and reactions. With context comes greater understanding and so it can feel a little like the reader is simply waiting for that context to come properly into focus.

At the same time, this is undoubtedly a work about crime. There are multiple transgressions, both legal and moral, explored in the course of this book and there are attempts to exact what may be viewed as either vengeance or justice depending on the reader’s perspective. While there may not be a detective-style investigation, there is certainly an exploration of causes and the context of those crimes and while some aspects of their treatment may feel akin to a thought experiment, the reader will eventually be given the answers they need to understand them.

To reiterate, readers should not come to this expecting a quick or easy read. My Annihilation is, as the title may suggest, a heavy and often difficult book that delights in confusing and unsettling its reader. While I cannot say I enjoyed it as an entertainment, it is undoubtedly an interesting one that is more often successful than it is not. I would suggest though that crime fans new to the author might be better served with starting with The Thief which has a somewhat more traditional structure before trying this.

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

Originally published as 掏摸 (Suri) in 2009.
English translation published in 2012.

This book has a sister volume, Kingdom, which was translated in the same year. The two stories can apparently be read in either order.

The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections…. But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It’s an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt. Only the day after the job does he learn that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape.

The Thief is told from the perspective of a nameless thief who has supported himself since his teen years by picking pockets and shoplifting. He is good at what he does, knowing how to evade the eyes of store detectives and the police, though he has started to not even realize when he does it, occasionally finding wallets in his pockets he doesn’t remember taking.

Though he has more than enough to survive, the thief lives a solitary existence. He has no family or friends beyond a couple of fellow pickpockets he has worked with in the past. When one of those, Ishikawa, tells him that he has been told he must recruit him to help out with a heist the thief agrees. The job is supposed to be a simple one where the gang steal some money and papers from a safe and they pull it off with ease but the next day they learn that the victim was brutally murdered after they left.

The book is a short one and while I would suggest that it is more focused on character than plotting. I will say that I do not expect that readers will be surprised at the general direction of the story but that the details and the development of theme, combined with the novel’s brevity, make for a surprisingly weighty read.

I had only read one other Nakamura novella prior to this one, The Gun, which was his very first work. That was of a similar length and was also clearly intended as a character study but where that work built a sense of dread about where the story was headed, inching slowly towards a grim inevitability, this story feels quite different. Certainly we will be aware of the danger facing the protagonist but where The Gun features a character descending into obsession and inhumanity, here we have a character who clearly is searching for the light, even if he knows he will never escape his lifestyle.

This idea is most clearly shown in his actions towards a pair of characters he encounters at several points in the story. His actions, while not exactly heroic, show him in a generally positive light and establish him as far more likeable than the protagonist in The Gun. In other words, I think readers will want him to survive and hope that he finds a way out of his predicament, even if we recognize that this seems unlikely.

While we do not learn a lot of detail about the thief’s background, we do become quite versed in his lifestyle. Nakamura carefully describes different aspects of pickpocketing and thievery, painting a convincing picture of that life and giving the reader a sense of what it would be like to live that way. The material feels well-researched and there is even a little interesting background about some noteable historical pickpockets and thieves, helping flesh out that world for readers even more.

Though the bulk of the story explores the character’s relationship with his chosen profession, there are some developments that compel him to action. This involves the introduction of a figure who serves as the antagonist of the piece though I think that term is not entirely accurate to his role within the story. This character’s appearance, while brief, feels substantial because they are not just representing an obstacle for the thief to overcome but because of the attitudes they express about everyone other than themselves.

Key developments happen pretty quickly and information learned fills in many of the gaps for us, helping the reader understand exactly what happened though a few of the broader details remain sketchy – no doubt because they aren’t really relevant to the thief’s story or the broader themes being discussed. This story is not, after all, about the crime but about the effect it has on the criminal.

It builds up to a rather powerful finish that some will doubtlessly find frustrating, though I found it quite intriguing. The ending provides a clear statement of the antagonist’s perspective and philosophy but Nakamura leaves a tiny sliver of space for the reader to consider and reject it. This is not exactly an open-ended conclusion – it does tie up several loose ends quite tidily. Instead it represents a sort of philosophical challenge to the reader, encouraging a judgment from the reader. As an exploration of theme it is a highly effective ending but those principally interested in the narrative may feel a little underwhelmed.

Which I suppose brings me to the question of genre.

One of the most tiresome discussions that people get into about this book is whether it is crime fiction at all. Those arguing this view typically suggest that the book should be read as literary fiction. The reason that this is tiresome is that unless you are merchandising this in a bookshop or library the question is entirely academic. I would suggest that you can have equally rewarding experiences reading it as either of those two forms though personally I would suggest that it is both.

Whether you come to this for an exploration of the human condition or to read a criminous tale of a safe-cracking gone wrong, I think this is a fascinating and worthwhile read. I far preferred this to The Gun and hope to get around to its similarly short sister volume, The Kingdom, at some point soon.

The Verdict: A very short but powerful exploration of the life of a thief with strong characters and thoughtful development of themes.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Allison Markin Powell

Originally published as 銃 in 2003
English translation published in 2015

On a nighttime walk along a Tokyo riverbank, a young man named Nishikawa stumbles on a dead body, beside which lies a gun. From the moment Nishikawa decides to take the gun, the world around him blurs. Knowing he possesses the weapon brings an intoxicating sense of purpose to his dull university life. But soon Nishikawa’s personal entanglements become unexpectedly complicated: he finds himself romantically involved with two women while his biological father, whom he’s never met, lies dying in a hospital. Through it all, he can’t stop thinking about the gun—and the four bullets loaded in its chamber. As he spirals into obsession, his focus is consumed by one idea: that possessing the gun is no longer enough—he must fire it.

The Gun is the story of a young man’s growing obsession with a gun he discovers next to a body under a bridge near the river while wandering late at night. Instinctively picking it up, he takes it home with him where he cleans it and examines it more closely, finding there are four bullets left in its chamber.

After he starts to carry it with him everywhere he begins to fantasize about firing the gun…

Though it is labelled a crime novel, I think it would be more accurate to describe The Gun as a piece of literary fiction, albeit one placed in the noir tradition. After all, for most of the novel’s page count there are no crimes beyond the possession of the gun itself and our focus is on exploring the protagonist’s precarious mental state.

The narrator, Nishikawa, is a university student who is something of a loner. While the novel begins with the discovery of the gun we get an impression of his life prior to that moment and it is clear that he was already exhibiting some warning signs.

He has one friend, Keisuke, but he has little affection for him, seeming disgusted by his lifestyle of heavy drinking and womanizing. While he also seduces women, he has little interest in them afterwards and certainly no interest in forming anything approaching a relationship. Not that he seems to find much pleasure in those pursuits either…

Possessing the gun does not change Nishikawa so much as it encourages some dormant personality traits to develop and emerge. In effect it serves as a catalyst, giving him the power and the confidence to become the person he would like to be and ignore his inhibitions. We see this manifest itself in several ways including his interactions with two women (it would be misleading to call them relationships or either woman a romantic interest). His behavior in both encounters becomes increasingly less responsive to the women’s preferences.

One of the most successful aspects of the novella is in the way it conveys the sense of obsession. The word gun appears frequently throughout the story, sometimes as often as every two or three lines and this is a really effective way of suggesting just how ever-present it is in Nishikawa’s thoughts. The writing conveys a fascination with the mechanism and with the sense of power it bestows and while I think there is a sense of inevitability about the story’s ultimate destination, I did find it interesting to witness some of the developments that push the story towards that conclusion.

The other aspect of the novella that I found to be particularly successful was the way it posed the question of whether the gun gives Nishikawa power or whether it is actually exerting it over him. At times the gun seems to almost possess a personality or an aura and seems to be willing him to act in particular ways and the reader may question whether this is simply a projection of his own desires or if it really does have a sort of hold over him. After all, he tells us quite clearly that he never had any interest in guns prior to finding this one and we have little reason to think he is manipulating us. Is it simply the allure of the forbidden or is there something almost supernatural about the gun?

As interesting as that idea can be, the problem for me was that the plot was not sufficiently complex. Indeed there is relatively little incident at all beyond his interactions with the two girls and a subplot involving a trip to the hospital to visit his father. The latter sequence provides an interesting viewpoint of his mindset and sense of priorities and self but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been expanded on to explore the origins of Nishikawa’s sociopathic tendencies.

Instead the author chooses to provide the reader with suggestive moments but no clear answers. Denying the reader answers or a sense of resolution can be an interesting choice as it can provoke and engage a reader but here it feels that it simply fell outside the scope of the writer’s interest.

This is a shame because I think at its best the author’s depiction of obsession can be really quite effective. The problem is that as the novella strikes one note repeatedly, it ends up feeling a little repetitive by the point we reach the end and it fails to develop any great moments of surprise or the sense that the reader is engaging in an act of discovery.

So, overall this didn’t quite work for me but while I was a little underwhelmed by some aspects of this particular title I did enjoy the writing style enough that I am keen to try more of his work.

Hopefully the next title I pick will be more to my taste.

Further Reading

Normally I link to other blog reviews but I found this discussion between the author and his French translator and discussion of the film adaptation so interesting that I had to link to it. I will say that while I had some reservations about the novella, I am intrigued by the stills from the movie adaptation and would be curious to see it for myself.