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.