Book Review: The Gun
by Fuminori Nakamura
translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell
Soho Crime, 2015
The threadbare Chekhov axiom about the rifle on the wall – that if a dramatist mounts such a weapon in the first act, it had better go off before the play is over – carries with it a certain implicit tension. Regardless of what exactly Chekhov said about it, the insinuation is that weapons have an inexorable momentum toward use.
That momentum is undeniable. It’s the reason gun shop owners should be indictable in the homicides their customers commit; it’s why parents with decorative cabinet gun collections should lose custody of their children; and, unsurprisingly, it hovers over virtually every crime novel ever written. Only the most bored or amateurish crime writers ever take guns for granted as a part of the mechanics of their stories; the best of them consistently understand that crime fiction is gun fiction.
It’s a complicated implication, and it could hardly be made more explicit than it is in Fuminori Nakamura’s 2003 novel Ju, now appearing as part of the Soho Crime line in an English-language translation by Allison Markin Powell called The Gun. This was Nakamura’s debut novel, which first appeared in a Japanese literary magazine, and as flat and monochrome as this author’s affect has been in previously-translated works like The Thief or Evil and the Mask (or Last Winter, We Parted, which Powell also translated), it’s positively comatose in The Gun. Most of these 175 pages read with all the drama of a British pub lunch menu; either the reader decides to do virtually all of the imagination-engagement heavy lifting in The Gun or the reader might as well spend the hour dusting the houseplants.
The book doesn’t so much have a plot as a premise. One rainy night in Tokyo, a sad-sack young student named Nishikawa (“I hardly ever used to evaluate my own past actions,” he thinks in one typically electrifying rumination, “I really didn’t make a habit of thinking too hard about right and wrong, or about the consequences that arose from either”) is out for a walk. He isn’t particularly enjoying his walk, but then, he doesn’t particularly enjoy anything. He’s moping along when he encounters a dead body in a secluded spot. He doesn’t care about the dead man (he spares barely a thought for calling the police), but he’s arrested by the sight of a small, elegantly-crafted gun lying on the ground nearby. He takes the gun, carefully cleans the blood off its muzzle, and brings it back to his apartment.
It immediately begins obsessing him. Japan has sensibly, excessively strict gun-control laws; Nishikawa, a nondescript college student, could never expect to hold a gun, much less ever get government clearance to own one for private use. Suddenly having this gun in his apartment begins to compel him in much the way Tolkien’s One Ring compels its unlucky bearers. He still attends lectures at the university; he still goes out listlessly clubbing with his boorish friends; he still chain-smokes in every waking moment; he still has half-hearted one-night stands (Powell does her best with Nakamura’s fairly standard-issue Japanese sexism, but she can’t work miracles) … but always he’s thinking about the gun back in his apartment. About holding it, cleaning it, perhaps somehow buying ammunition for it, and then there’s the penultimate fascination:
The fact that someday I would shoot the gun – I had come to believe that this was an absolute certainty. Being in possession of the gun meant that each day was filled with the potential experience of actually discharging it, and without a doubt there would come a day when I would want to do so – that is to say, I was sure I would fire it. That conviction brought the once-distant future closer, almost as if it had taken on a life of its own, and would compel the first shot to happen.
And the ultimate fascination? Well of course the ultimate fascination of a gun is the one gun owners (even inadvertent gun owners like Nishikawa) religiously omit mentioning: not just to fire the gun but to fire the gun at something living, most importantly, most exquisitely, at another human. It’s not surprising that even our wishy-washy protagonist should move in fairly short order from Why on Earth would I ever shoot somebody to Why SHOULDN’T I shoot somebody?
It’s all very prettily done by Soho Crime (the understated US cover design is by Jeff Wong), but it should be gripping, and it’s not. “I am delighted to see this long-ago novel of mine retroactively translated into English,” Nakamura comments in a brief Author’s Note (the charming “retroactively” underscoring his need for a translator), and completists of this young author’s work will be delighted as well. But others might justifiably view it as a misfire.