Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Speaking of the Devil

Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the September 1st, 2010

In my reading recently I’ve been haunted by the devil.

For example, he shows up, albeit ambiguously, in Charles Baxter’s fine 2008 novel, The Soul Thief. The narrative, written with Baxter’s usual intelligence and style, traces the life on one “Nathaniel Mason,” as told in the first person–or, perhaps not. It might be that Nathaniel is dead and his place has been taken up by a psychopathic mimic, ala Norman Bates in the film Psycho, which is alluded to repeatedly (we even get a creepy motel scene at the end). Or perhaps Nathaniel is none other than Satan himself–another possibility deliberately raised. The first half of the book, detailing Mason’s younger days as a grad student in Buffalo, New York, is especially strong, as good as anything Baxter has written.

So I finish that novel and then in all innocence move on to Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960). Here, the central figure is Dougal Douglas (or, sometimes, Douglas Dougal), and again the narrative strongly suggests that the protagonist has more than a bit of devilry to him. He even invites people to touch the two bumps on his scalp where his horns were surgically removed. It’s a terrific comic yarn about the dark powers of the humanities to disrupt the social order. Douglas is a recent “Arts” graduate hired by an industrial firm in South London that fears it is falling behind the times in its failure to carry out “human research” on its employees. Once he arrives all hell breaks loose, literally: weddings fall apart at the altar, loyal workers start skipping shifts, and young men take to battling it out in the streets.

The Christian undertones are missing, but there is more devilry afoot in another work I’m reading just now, Okazaki Kyoko’s awarding-winning manga, Helter Skelter (serialized 1996, published in book form 2003). The heroine is a beautiful fashion idol who becomes increasingly cruel and cold to those around her as the surgery, drugs, and manipulation that artificially generate her desirability take an increasing toll on her person.

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