Utsuboro: the story of a novelist, by Nakamura Asumiko is a rare luxury of a book, so layered and interesting it left me thinking for days and took two back-to-back readings to feel I had wrung (most of) the story from it—and rereading was not a chore. I can’t overstate how thrilled I am when I find a book that is both rich with story and a pleasure to read and re-read. A miracle to be celebrated.
And listen, celebrate I did when I saw that Nakamura had a new English language title. I adored her Doukyuusei and what I can find on-line of its sequel Sotsugyousei (still not available in English, a crime!) which I reviewed briefly here. I also found her Double Mints fascinating, disturbing, and terrific—indeed, the last page of that story is BRILLIANT. I do not say that lightly.
So I had no trouble signing up for her murder-mystery psychological thriller plagiarism story. I mean, come on, it’s about a writer. And let’s just say the fucked up inner lives of writers is a subject I’m interested in. Cough.
So. Utsuboro. The basic plot. Mizorogi Jun is a famous writer with writer’s block, tempted by plagiarism (so far a trope I’ve seen too many times before), only to find out that the girl who’s story he has stolen has committed suicide…leaving only two numbers in her phone, Mizorogi’s and her twin sister’s. The cops are mighty interested in him, but even under their eye and oppressed by his own guilt, Mizorogi enters into a dark affair with the twin sister who continues to give him chapters of the dead girl’s book to use as his own work. He just can’t stop himself.
But who is she really? What are her real motives? Who’s body was that he saw in the morgue? Was it really suicide? Murder? Something else? And who really wrote the book he is palming off as his?
Okay, this description doesn’t really begin to cover it.
More pertinent than the plot, to me anyway, is that at its base Utusboro is a story about writing, particularly about the fantasy and mystique of The Author, and the damage that image can do.
Any person who loves reading will have a short list of books in her back-pocket, books that changed her life. I certainly have such a list. Books that made me feel deeply, books that shaped me. I’m not the first person to have felt awe for the people who wrote such books, even deifying the writers/books in a way. Such writers must be closer to the Truth to have come up with stories that rocked me so profoundly…right? Hmmm….
Nakamura’s Mizorogi is such a writer with legions of fans desperate for his next work, crazy fans, devoted fans (psycho fans?). Except that Mizorogi knows himself to be a fake—and long before the plagiarism. He says, “Ha, ‘talent’…I never had such a thing. Nothing of the sort. I faked it and fooled people…with bells and whistles and gaudy frills. It was all a lie. Though I’ve lived on somehow, clinging onto an empty lie.”
Mizorogi has taken on this identity of Author, adopting for example, the eccentricity of traditional Japanese clothing and an affected mustache, as well as the womanizing lifestyle, accepting the adoration of the reviewers, all of it. People love it, they love him, that is, they love this image of him, the cult of Mizorogi. This is what people want him to be. And what he has come to think is all that is valuable about himself.
Only he has lost his ability to write. If he ever had it. (He did, I think. See the lovely scene where he makes up a bedtime story for his child niece, and read the translator’s notes about it at the end. There is such joyful creativity in that moment.). Without writing, without flogging what talent he has into producing what his fans want, what does Mizorogi have left?
Here is where Nakamura digs deep into the dark side of writing. The egoism, the inflation and depression of writing, having done it once the despair of ever doing it again. The certainty that anything good we have done is all a fake, a lie. The terror that someone will find out we have nothing to say, that we are (horror!) boring. The seduction of the positive projections of fans. The heart stabbing pain when our work is rejected or dismissed. (No, none of this hit me close to home, why do you ask?)
Without giving away the twisty-turny plot, I will say that piece by painful piece Mizorogi loses his Author identity, right down to his Japanese garb and mustache (the last scenes find him in Western clothes, shaving his face clean). That the loss of his writer-self is so profound to him is, perhaps, a depressing statement by Nakamura about writing. Or, at least, about what we think we have to be to write—and what the Cult of the Author does to us. For Mizorogi, at least, nothing good comes of it.
Which reminded me of the end of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, another story about a writer with writer’s block. At the end of Bones, the main character gives up writing, saying it is a waste of time that keeps him separate from the real world and the real people in his life. I think Bones came out around the same time King was trying to retire? (I guess retirement didn’t stick.) But this question writers have, why do I do this, why must I do this, is an interesting one, to me. Mizorogi’s answers to this question are not sustaining. Perhaps we could say he is brought down by his inability to care about his own work.
The cult of the Author as an eccentric, brilliant, wealthy, dashing, coddled by their publisher, man (usually it is a man) well, it is compelling, cropping up everywhere from Junjou Romantica to the tv show Castle. But I kind of doubt its reality. The idea that such a writer is somehow different from regular people, or is the possessor of a rarefied, even deified, mind feels…dated. Is that the right word? It certainly seems a throwback to bygone days of publishing. I remembering hearing Madeline L’engle say once, “My stories are smarter than me.” That seems a smarter way to think about it. For the writer most especially.
I know dozens of writers, some with multi-book contracts and long, successful careers and here’s the thing: none of them are like that. Maybe the Author image is more a product of the literary world and not the genre world I am a part of. Was John Updike like that? I think of him when I try to imagine a real life example. Was Hemingway?
But Mizorogi buys into that mystique completely. And he can ascribe no value to himself now that he has lost it.
Okay, I’m mostly talking about Mizorogi, but every character in Utsuboro is complex and interesting. For example, Mizorogi’s new editor starts out seemingly so naive and idealistic only to reveal the depths he’ll go for his secret love. What does he know? Why isn’t he telling? Or the detectives who are investigating the suicide, one overwrought by the echos the case brings to him of events in his own past. Every single character here has a secret desire running his or her life. There are no walk-ins, no boring bits. Do you know how hard that is to pull off?
Even Mizorogi’s niece, Koyomi, the most “normal” (honest?) person in the story, secretly has feelings for Mizorogi himself. I think she represents something pure that Mizorogi has lost and cannot regain. “I just want Uncle to eat with me what I’d cook, and take walks with me, and teach me the names of flowers, and laugh like he was always a little embarrassed…”
Yatabe, another writer—another Author—answers her, “Writing is what living means for an author. You write because you’re alive. You’re alive because you write. Because the author is an author. An author who can’t write might as well be dead—”
And Koyomi answers, “Does living really require anything to put on a scale against itself? We simply live. We live because we’re alive. Me, I’m good with that. Because I’m not an author.”
And there is that separation again between Autors and mere mortals.
Personally, I’d like to challenge the mystique of the Author. Perhaps the democratization of writing through things like e-publishing and even fanfiction, two avenues people who write can use to connect directly to readers without the competitive, enclosed world of traditional publishing, has broken (or at least damaged) this archetype. There isn’t a holy writer/non-writer divide the way the old myths would have us believe. Writers can be regular people, too.
Listen, you have to read Utsuboro at least twice. Just accept that on start. This is literary-style storytelling with all the subtleties and craft that comes with that. Time, for example, is slippery, moving forward and back with no warning. Clues are subtle, not telegraphed, and reward paying close attention. Resonances are a big part of how the story is told, echos between frame layouts, between symmetrical actions or lines of dialogue, between book-end scenes revealing connections not explicitly spelled out. Emotions are strong and rarely pleasant as difficult territory is explored. The art is fantastic, fluid, gorgeous, disturbing. This is chewy, fascinating stuff, people! Go buy a copy right now!
Seriously, Utsuboro creeped me out. In a good way. I found myself going back to reread scenes days later as I tried to put all the pieces together. I’m still thinking about it as I try to write this review. And really, I’ve only been talking about the writer-angle. How about the girls? The women who love (are obsessed by?) Mizorogi (or possibly just his work) enough to continually reinvent themselves for him to a freaky degree…the danger of loving an author (or an author’s work) too much? I mean, what the heck is up with them? Or how about Yatabe, the writer-friend/competitor of Mizorogi’s who sees through him when no one else does? I haven’t talked about any of that at all. You’ll have to take my word for it, there is a lot going on here.
Based on some of the reviews I read, I paid full retail price for this one at the local comic shop (it’s 25% less at amazon). I want more work like this translated and I would love more by Nakamura, she is fantastic—so I ponied up the big bucks. Worth every penny!