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Fuminori Nakamura's CULT X is definitely not to everyone's taste in either detective fiction or crime fiction—or even, for that matter, in the noir fiction genre that has led to his apparent acclaim, both in Japan and North America. Certainly, he captures the darkness, insularity, and hopelessness of the noir novel. Indeed, CULT X is positively claustrophobic in its characters' absorption in the cultish spheres that preoccupy them: the switching from one cult to another, the genealogy of cult affiliations, and the infiltrating spies who move from one cult to another to monitor rivals, all suggest a homogeneity in the adherents' desire to believe in something, despite the patent leakiness of the terms by which one cult distinguishes itself from another. The various cults on offer are based in Tokyo, but the city features considerably less than Japan itself. Nakamura traces, quite bluntly, the trajectory from WWII to the present as a causal relationship between the jingoistic nationalism that made (selected) dead soldiers into heroes and the renewed empire/state that continues to control the media through the same rhetoric of greatness. Its rhetoric cannot address its citizens' malaise and despair, even after the 1995 sarin gas attacks and multiple other occasions that challenge it.
Such a context and interrogation of Japan's collusion in the first world military and economic exploitation of developing nations would probably be fine, if it weren't served up through a series of didactic (and yawn-worthy) lectures—some of them presented as literal transcriptions of CDs from whatever guru or leader is presenting them—and a series of memoirs, speeches, and found documents, the substance of which is either the rusty subject of free will versus fate or the justification for personal non-responsibility via recourse to molecular biology or quantum physics, or both. The plot, such as it is, gets lost in the assault of many, many pages of staged verbiage. Every cult leader holds forth to his disciples or remembers his own initiation into an earlier cult, and that leader's practices of induction. And his is the operative pronoun here in a novel that represents men as either charismatic or weakly susceptible and women as either sex workers or undersexed ladies, getting wet at the prospect of sex with the leader or his deputies. The men all talk endlessly, and the women just open their ears and legs, begging the men to come inside them as if lectures and sex were synonymous. Maybe that formation captures the way a Japanese male writer, earnestly critiquing Japan's participation in global politics, sacrifices gender on the altar of counter politics. It's hard to tell. But, frankly, it's also hard to take as a female reader.
I'd like to say that, despite the seemingly endless lectures, the atmosphere and plot are enough to make one keep reading—and, to be fair, the final 150 pages are considerably more gripping than the first 350—but neither one is particularly rivetting. For atmosphere, the novel gives only a sense of the deep insularity, either in a mansion or a tony highrise, of the cult members, despite its setting in Tokyo, which features not at all. And for plot, the missing person's motive that prompts the (sometime) protagonist, Toru Narazaki, to search for his sort-of girlfriend, Ryoko Tachibana, is lost in the messy ideologies of the cults he traverses trying to find her—ideologies spouted by both the various cult leaders, Matsuo (of the good) and Sawatari (of the bad, Cult X)—and in the large cast of characters either resistant to or co-opted by those leaders. Thrown into the mix are old cults, current politicians, homicidal policemen (or officers of the shady Public Security Bureau), and news broadcasters. But these latter play minor roles, except when they are brought in clunkily in the manner of "oops, now it's the secret police talking; now it's the old leader talking; now it's politicians talking," just to fill out a few blanks or consolidate some theory espoused by someone. And the talk, no matter from which person, or faction, or charismatic leader, is invariably the same. It's unclear to me whether this sameness is Nakamura's or the translator's, but every person, from third-tier henchman to leader, and from Bureau officer to acolyte, speaks exactly the same way—with articulate grandiosity, political and historical savvy, and pomposity. Every woman is described identically, "She is beautiful," over and over, as if there were no other adjectives; every woman has "moist eyes" in the moment of desire or climax. And every man gets hard after he registers that the woman he gazes at is beautiful.
It is possible, of course, that this repetition is Nakamura's point—that the human desire to live or even be is reducible to sex. It's equally possible that Nakamura is insisting on the sameness of every character to indicate the unimaginative similarity of his or her sense of emptiness, which prompts the search for a leader who can deliver a symbolic way out from the quotidian drear of an undistinguished life; even in their searching, they are boringly motivated by the same desire to find reparations for their crummy childhoods, especially (no surprise here) for their bad mothers. But such possibilities, whatever their inspiration, don't change the fact that CULT X is frustratingly repetitive, with little-to-no payoff.
§ Nicola Nixon is Associate Professor of English at Concordia University, Montreal.
Reviewed by Nicola Nixon, May 2018
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