January 2005

Damien Weaver

fiction

Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi

And now, for something completely different: Genichiro Takahashi's Sayonara, Gangsters, in a sophisticated, eye-grabbing hardcover from Japanese pop-fiction powerhouse Vertical. Sayonara, Gangsters is a novel, but a novel in the same way its main character's employer is a poetry school. When you read the phrase "poetry school" you might imagine an institution with fees, hours, classes, texts, curricula or something beyond its name to designate it a poetry school. You might imagine there being poetry, or schooling. The noun "novel" similarly brings with it associations and expectations, but besides its generic physical reality -- bound and numbered sheets of paper, largely inked with words -- Sayonara, Gangsters has nothing in common with what a novel usually is. This isn't experimental writing, because there isn't experiment. It's just different from what we're used to.

The contents, loosely interrelated postmodern set-pieces, are wide-ranging in tone and subject. There's everything from the erudite interstellar goofiness of Douglas Adams to the grating egomaniacal popcult gobbledegook of Mark Leyner (My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist.) There's something of Richard Brautigan's Willard and his Bowling Trophies, too, the sense that an accomplished storyteller has tired of trying to make sense and moved to a form in which the teller is the audience.

Your enjoyment of this book will hinge on your appetite for beautiful nonsense of the Edward Lear sort, nonsense that's a candy coating for melancholy alienation. Though it's hard to pin anything down, social bewilderment and missing identity are certainly the book's major preoccupations. There's an undercurrent of fogged anxiety, the anxiety of not knowing what's expected of you, what your duties are, who the people in your life are, even your name. It's the anxiety someone might feel trying to play-act and fake through an unrecognizable world. The book is shot through with ominous disapproval and the wearied disappointment of others. The degree to which looming opprobrium makes your palms sweat and the quality of pot you smoke while reading will decidedly influence how compelling you find Takahashi's universe.

Curious about gangsters? Sayonara's introductory page offers the oh-if-only New York Times headline "One After Another, Like Bowling Pins, U.S. Presidents Are Toppled by GANGSTERS." That word, "gangsters," is responsible for a lot of the book's excitement. When GANGSTERS do something, or say something, one is inclined to pay attention, and yet the appellation "gangster" is arbitrary. There's no reason this book couldn't be Sayonara, Software Developers or Sayonara, Wal-Mart Greeters. The gangsters wave machine guns, but they could as plausibly wave roofers' hatchets or short-order cooks' spatulas. The baggage a reader brings to the language -- Gangsters! Machine Guns! -- is what makes the stakes seem high enough to stake awake for.

When the gangsters do finally show up they interrogate the narrator, and implicitly the author, about the meaning and purpose of his poetry school. Samuel Beckett's play Eleutheria disrupts narrative stagnancy with something similar: a previously unseen character named "Chinese Torturer" emerges from the audience and begins maiming the play's characters, demanding they reveal what the point of the play is. The Torturer doesn't get any satisfactory answers, but the audience is at least passingly gratified to have such a frank meta-textual advocate for intelligibility. Like the Chinese Torturer, however, Sayonara's gangsters are ineffective champions and are quickly absorbed into the rush of plotless events.

In the end, Sayonara, Gangsters is different enough from a conventional work of fiction that it's tough not only to judge its merits but to settle on criteria by which to judge it. Is the book emotionally affecting? No, unless you're someone who cries at television commercials. Does it succeed on its own terms? Is it fun to read? The writing feels well-crafted, not a lazy put-on, not Dada, yet it's playful to the point of annoyance. Reading it can feel like sharing a tiny room with a manic kitten. Sayonara, Gangsters seems mostly interested in amusing itself, unfolding in accordance with private rules. Only you can decide whether this whimsical novel is worth your time, whether the emperor has clothes, whether or not he knows, and whether or not it matters.

Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi
Vertical Inc.
ISBN 1932234055
224 pages