March 2006

Sanford May

big in japan


Koji Suzuki is good at depopulating the overcrowded Japanese islands. Tokyo is a modern urban monument to millions, yet in Suzuki’s world it is inhabited only by a select few who play prominent roles in nervous horror plots. This near vacuum, a great nothing in place of the much that belongs, imparts a disquiet loneliness that itself will keep you on edge. Suzuki could write any kind of novel and he would write it scary. That he has written popular chillers is not surprising -- he describes the perfect geography for them.

The lonesome Loop is the final full-length novel in Koji Suzuki’s series of books now generally known as the Ring cycle. As Spiral was to Ring, Loop is to Spiral -- Suzuki shifts focus from a familiar group of characters to another bunch, connecting them through the viral contagion of a sinister video tape. Although in this iteration the “Japanese Stephen King” leaves most common ground behind, setting the story, as the reader eventually discovers, in a different world. Loop puts the infamous tape and its creator, Sadako Yamamura, in their final context.

Suzuki begins in his often didactical style illuminating the life of Kaoru, still a young boy when the novel opens. As with Loop’s predecessors, there are elements of school lessons in this book; the pieces of background are ordered so that we’ll better understand the forthcoming story. Sometimes this feels a bit like Suzuki is ticking items off a list, but in Loop’s case it’s interesting enough to carry us along. While watching television and surfing the Internet, Kaoru discovers unique correlations, perhaps too significant to call coincidence: The places in the world where people live unusually long lives match up perfectly with the zones of weakest gravitational attraction.

Hideyuki, Kaoru’s father, is a brash sort of wild-man university researcher, a computer scientist with his feet wet in many fields, including medicine and astronomy. The linchpin of his relationship with his son is science; when his Kaoru’s youthful presumptions pan out, he pays attention. Hideyuki thinks this intersection of gravitational anomalies and life expectancy is more than the kind of hare-brained thing a kid dreams up watching TV and playing around on the Net. The location of the most extreme gravitational anomaly -- in the “four corners” region of the United States -- is near a city Hideyuki soon must visit regarding his own academic research. And Kaoru’s mother Machiko focused her college education on Native American mythology, a salubrious providence. So the family plans a trip within the year to see if Kaoru’s romantic notion of an ancient people living deep in a cavern under American desert is true. Doesn’t have much to do with Ring -- killer video tapes and girls tossed down wells -- does it?

Before they can make the trip Hideyuki develops an aggressive form of cancer, reminding us of the thread begun in Spiral. But Hideyuki’s disease turns out to be the result of something new, a cancer-causing virus of unknown origin that is recently making its mark on the world’s medical community. Unfortunately for Hideyuki and his family the bug known as the Metastatic Human Cancer virus is incurable, there is no vaccination, and though the various cancers it seeds can be treated, they’ll keep coming back until the human host is dead.

Hideyuki slowly succumbs; over the years his cancer returns and migrates to different parts of his body. Even his wife Machiko carries the virus, although Kaoru, now a university student preparing for medical school, has tested MHC-negative. While visiting his father in the hospital, the young boy turned young man meets Reiko, a sad, attractive woman, widow of a cancer victim, her son now dying of MHC-related cancers. Worse, Reiko is also MHC-positive.

Kaoru’s makes a discovery about his father’s past around the time he begins a love affair with the vulnerable Reiko -- Hideyuki’s old project may hold the secret to decoding the MHC virus. The effort, long closed down, was an earth evolution simulation program running on massive supercomputers in Japan and America. The virtual world inside mutated into something unexpected and grotesque during its brief operation. And the technicians and researchers closest to the project are all dead or stricken by MHC-related disease. Kaoru decides to make the trip abroad on his own, with the lives of his father and mother, his lover and perhaps the whole world, in his hands.

Kaoru Suzuki embarks on a long, complicated and at times even rather sound explanation of how the MHC virus debuted inside the computer system known as the Loop, reproduced itself and eventually escaped into the real world. And of course we find out where the girl in the well fits into all this. When he’s not otherwise making good sense, at least in the terms of Ring world, Suzuki’s loose-end tying operation is a little contrived. Not that Suzuki is unaware, at one point mocking his own plot twisting with, “Kaoru began to feel as if he were watching a movie -- a well made one to be sure, but based on some pretty juvenile premises.”

Suzuki does throw his full weight into Loop. There’s a lot going on here. High-end artificial intelligence. An alternative to Darwinian evolution that could be called “intelligent design” -- last year’s buzzword in contentious American school board debates. An almost plausible mechanism for getting a virtual virus out of a computer and into the real world as its own terrestrial counterpart. A small piece of a doomed love story. Neutrinos. A divergence into an imagined life in Native American history. Some of this works, some doesn’t. While the Indian myth element is tired today, it was a popular topic in fiction when Loop was published in its native Japanese. Likewise, the unmistakable HIV/AIDS inspiration for MHC’s social implications was done to death in the late 1990s -- which is of course when Loop first appeared. Also, Suzuki’s proposal of a cosmically engineered, predeterminate sort of evolutionary process falls flat when with contrary logic he identifies a lack of diversity as the major cause of complex systems failing. In Loop’s favor, Glynne Walley as always turns in a capable translation.

Of the three Ring cycle novels, Loop is unique, immediately accounted for by the decade-long lag between the first book and the last. Suzuki had a lot of time to think about it; he obviously chose to go the surprise route. In this he does not disappoint, and though it will never possess the spare, terrorizing magic of Ring, Loop satisfies better than the original or its sequel when you want real answers.

Loop by Koji Suzuki
ISBN: 1932234152
288 Pages