In many ways, we are our experiences. We wake up, experience something, react to it, consider it, form thoughts on it, go to sleep, and wake up again. This continuity of thought—memory connecting point to point to point—is one of the ways we as people come to define ourselves, according to John Locke. Novels, then, do the spectacular: allow us to get as close as possible to the thoughts of another, be it a character or the writer themselves, perhaps moreso than any other medium of art. The late, great Joan Didion described this feature of writing to be hostile: “It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture”. There’s a power here, for both good and bad; which can be as connective and bridging as it can be forceful or aggressive.
These are some of the concerns Fuminori Nakamura broaches in his new novel, My Annihilation, translated by Sam Bett. The book opens with an intense warning: “Turn this page, and you may give up your entire life.” It’s a dark message, applicable to any piece of writing, but rarely laid so bare. The setup that follows is classic grisly noir, familiar to those who’ve kept up with the Japanese take on the genre. In a dingy room in a mountain lodge, a man finds a bed, a desk with a manuscript detailing a twisted individual, and a suitcase, which he presumes contains the author’s body. The man has assumed the identity of Ryodai Kozuka, who he assumes is the author of the document. “Kozuka” begins to read the document, which details the author’s early run-in with death, abnormal sexual development, and a dubious accident where by his hand, his sister falls from a cliff near an abandoned house they played in. It continues with a psychological assessment of an infamous serial killer, then directs the reader to a drawer where they find the key to the suitcase. Consumed by curiosity, the man opens the suitcase and finds a body; but not the one he expected. The manuscript ends abruptly: “YOU BETTER RUN”.
Kozuka never gets the chance. A knock at the door dashes any hopes of escape, and he’s soon shuttled into a world of psychiatric evaluation and treatment, led by two shadowy figures. There is a death at the core of My Annihilation, one character that binds all the seemingly-disparate philosophical and narrative threads together, but in classic noir fashion, nothing is quite as it seems here. Bett does an extraordinary job making sure all these pieces fit together, across tones and intents, especially in a book that aims to mislead at times. Even so, there are times where the waters become more muddied than they should be, and it can be difficult to keep the chronology and characters straight; only moreso because the idea of the “self” and assumed identities are the terrain Nakamura has chosen to explore.
Conveniently, Nakamura stocks his cast with a few psychiatrists, albeit with questionable ethics and methods. Characters have their memories altered through hypnosis, electroconvulsive therapy, and conditioning. Nakamura wonders, could a memory be taught, if only for a while? And if so, what does that do to the “self”? The results vary, of course, but it’s the inquiry itself that’s intellectually stimulating.
Unfortunately, as compelling as the questions are, the novel is only partly successful in exploring them. By curtailing the scope to the investigation of a death, and the following search for revenge—in other words, the purview of a noir—Nakamura is only able to go so far. Instead, My Annihilation exists in a thin stretch on the darker side of the human psyche. While it’s not the darkest crime novel I’ve read, and the literary and psychological aspects lift the work, Nakamura doesn’t shy away from delving into death, stemming from both murder and suicide, sexual crimes and deviancy, mental illness, and many more sensitive topics. While I didn’t feel the novel handled anything specifically poorly, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
That said, this dark approach also gives Nakamura some unique terrain to explore. The most affecting aspect of the novel involves Yukari, a woman whose deeply traumatic past forms the backbone of the novel, and the lengths the characters go to protect her and express their love for her. This leads the novel not only into some of its most challenging ethical territory, but also among its most emotional resonant. What is the difference between pain and pleasure, and when does a sweet lie become necessary against the brutal truth?
In My Annihilation, Nakamura has constructed a dense and dark web, where characters are not only not who they seem, but not even who they think they truly are. It’s a book that’s more Chandler than Christie (“Who killed the chauffeur?” “I don’t care!”, or so the anecdote goes), but despite posing some fascinating questions on the nature of memory and self, metafictionally and metaphysically, My Annihilation is held back by it’s adherence to the noir form; unable or uninterested to transcend the genre it finds itself in. The book remains compelling in spite of this, buoyed by a few exceptional and emotional moments, but ultimately settles in beholden to form rather than in opposition to it.
By Fuminori Nakamura
Translated fromm the Japanese by Sam Bett
Published January 11, 2022
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.