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 File on Lester by Andrew Garve

The File on Lester
Andrew Garve (aka. Roger Bax)
Originally Published 1974

While The File on Lester is the first novel by Andrew Garve you will find reviewed on this blog it is not the first novel by this author I have read. Garve was one of three pseudonyms used by journalist Paul Winterton for his fiction and I have previously read several inverted crime stories he wrote as Roger Bax.

The File on Lester is a different type of mystery fiction that I have not encountered on this blog before – dossier crime fiction (credit to Martin Edwards’ post about this book for acquainting me with the term). The book is structured as a series of (fictional) memos, diary entries and documents that have been assembled from different sources tracking developments in a political scandal. Some of those sources have biases either for or against the accused politician and the reader has to use that information to work out exactly what is going on.

A charismatic and young politician has quickly risen to prominence to become the leader of the Progressive Party on the eve of a General Election. His party is widely expected to win in a landslide but his campaign is rocked when a woman turns up at one of his events and asks a press photographer to pass a message to Lester to let him know that she is back in the country and hinting that they had shared a previous sexual encounter. The photographer speaks with Lester who he denies knowing the woman leading the press to return to the woman who tells a lurid and detailed story of nude sunbathing and subsequent night of passion aboard Lester’s boat.

A newspaper owner sends several of his top political journalists and his daughter to investigate the case and most of the documents in the second half of the book document the outcomes of their interviews and research, culminating with an entry that explains what had happened and why. The problem the reader has to wrestle with is to determine who is lying. As Lester’s supporters note, it is hard to understand why he would lie about not knowing the woman given that both he and she were single, consenting adults in her account but the evidence against him seems detailed and accurate.

While I was reading this I assumed that the novel must have been written in the late 70s as some elements of its premise mirror that of a famous British political scandal from later in that decade. Lester, like Thorpe, is a young widower whose wife died in a car accident and who is widely expected to find electoral success in an election in 1974. Lester, like Thorpe, is not depicted as a radical but as a centrist figure and both are considered dandies, dressing fashionably.

In fact it was written several years before the story became widely reported, being published in 1974, so while it may have drawn on some elements of that situation (Scott had shopped his story around newspapers at the start of that decade), it would not have drawn those comparisons with contemporary readers. Whether it was inspired by Thorpe or not, the work is a complete work in its own right with strong characters and an interesting plot that contains several intriguing developments.

One such development is the discovery of a piece of evidence that either was genuinely dropped in a space that was subsequently locked and under observation or placed into it after the fact to support one of the parties’ accounts. Yes, in the middle of this narrative we get the possibility of an impossibility! While this question only hangs over the narrative for a couple of pages (and I wouldn’t suggest that you read it purely for this element), it is very cleverly handled and I appreciated the manner in which it is resolved.

There are also elements of the procedural at play as the various journalists attempt to track down sources to corroborate their stories. “Garve” gives each of these journalists distinctive personalities and approaches to getting their stories. A nameless editor provides very brief commentaries on their personalities and backgrounds in the chapter headings when they first appear, further giving the sense that we are reading a real document rather than a novel. While I know I have read other crime stories that present fiction as fact, I cannot think of any that have done so as effectively.

The puzzle “Garve” constructs is balanced beautifully and the reader may find their beliefs about what happened shift at times in the narrative. If you are interested in reading this story I do caution you to avoid its Goodreads page as the solution to the case is spoiled in the plot description at the top.

That solution is rather clever and I found it to be a pretty convincing explanation for what had taken place. While a contemporary review suggested that it was far too short, I feel that it is about the perfect length for the story it is trying to tell and cannot imagine how it could have been stretched out without weakening the narrative.

I was a little less keen on a romantic subplot. This is not a late addition or an afterthought but rather the author weaves hints at an attraction as a motivation for a character looking into the case throughout the whole novel. This struck me as quite well done but later in the novel it is more directly addressed in a scene that I felt was quite rushed. I did appreciate the way that both characters had been written up until that point however and it is really only a small element of the novel.

On the whole I found The File on Lester to be a quick and satisfying read and it is easily my best experience with Paul Winterton’s work so far. The situation struck me as interesting and credible portrait of a political scandal, building to a very tidy conclusion. If you haven’t read anything by the author this would be a great one to start with, particularly thanks to a recent Bello reprint it is not too expensive an acquisition.

This book was published in the United States as The Lester Affair.