FUMINORI NAKAMURA published his first novel in Japan in 2003 but came to international attention with the English translation of The Thief in 2012. Well received, this was followed by translations of earlier works Evil and the Mask, The Gun, and The Kingdom, all from Soho Press. These novels, which have won Nakamura critical and commercial success in his home country, are generally short, noirish, and set in Tokyo. The Thief, for example, is the story of a gifted but alienated pickpocket. There’s action, but it feels almost secondary to Nakamura’s exploration of a deeply disaffected young man drifting around Tokyo, running from an omnipotent tower that represents his golden peak.

Cult X, translated by Kalau Almony, marks a shift of sorts evident from length alone — at 528 pages, it’s more than twice as long as any of Nakamura’s other English-language books. The scope has expanded accordingly; where before his crime novels followed individual characters, Cult X takes a look at a handful of characters linked by their membership in one of two religious communities. Narazaki is the closest thing to a central character: a disaffected young man, his search for former girlfriend Ryoko Tachibana serves as our jumping-off point for learning more about the parallel cults at the core of the narrative. The private investigator Narazaki hires tracks Tachibana to a small religious organization that’s formed around Shotaro Matsuo, an elderly autodidact who identifies as an “amateur intellectual.” Matsuo’s group — it doesn’t even have a proper name — draws people interested in hearing his lectures. Wide-ranging and based upon Matsuo’s own personal interests, these talks don’t provide answers as much as they explore big topics, gently probing and frequently coming back around to core ideas about how best to think about and live in the world. An archetypical lecture begins with an overview of the life of the Buddha before moving to modern theories of mind:

During my research I realized that the Buddha’s words closely resemble some of the most recent theories of neuroscience […] There is no one part of the brain that controls consciousness, or “me.” Consciousness and “I” are born out of the broader work of the brain. Without brains, consciousness and “I” would not exist. The activity of the brain reflects consciousness and “me.” […] Now, I want you to remember the Buddha’s words. One must cut oneself from the root of delusion, the thought that thinking brings wisdom.

Talking to some of Matsuo’s close friends, Narazaki learns that Tachibana had spent some time with Matsuo’s group but is now a member of a splinter religious organization founded by Sawatari, one of Matsuo’s former associates. Unnamed — hence the title — Sawatari’s group has attracted the attention of the Public Security Bureau, but little is known about them. Takahara, a high-ranking Cult X operative planning a terrorist attack, is our primary source of information about the shadowy organization. Through following him, we learn that Cult X has a culture of sexual subservience to its leaders, that Takahara is planning a high-profile terrorist attack, and that he is also romantically involved with both Tachibana and another woman in Matsuo’s organization. The love triangle at first appears to be the central conceit, and Nakamura isn’t shy about exploring the thematic connections inherent in the idea (“Brainwashing, romance […] How are they different?” a Cult X member asks Narazaki) but the novel soon reveals its larger concerns.

There are a lot of moving pieces here, but less plot than that description implies; Cult X is more interested in ideas than actions. Nakamura takes us into the past to show us how Matsuo, Tachibana, and Sawatari came to be where they are today, in the process creating a web of linkages between the people involved. Some of this is ideological; despite their seeming differences, Matsuo’s and Sawatari’s respective groups have some shared themes when it comes to the questions they seek to answer and the people who choose to follow them. Some of this is also borne from shared national identity: Cult X is also very much about Japan and the country’s self-image in the aftermath of World War II and onward through the end of the 20th century. It is significant that Matsuo is a World War II veteran captured by the Americans in the Philippines and that Sawatari’s compulsions toward sexual violence began as a doctor on an aid mission in rural Malaysia. Interpersonal and international power dynamics are thoughtfully and carefully examined at several points throughout the book, though that doesn’t make the extensive descriptions of the sexual violence they generate any easier to stomach.

The talent for character and existential themes that won Nakamura’s previous novels praise comes through here, but both are weakened by a plot that exists less to answer questions than to provide a framework for Nakamura to raise them. The careful consideration of what it means to be in previous novels came through and by action; it was the Thief’s drive to solve impossible problems and by doing so remain alive that gave the novel’s existentialism purpose and direction. Cult X’s relatively flat plot means that it is heavy on the musing, a structure that does a disservice to the ideas within it. Cult X’s length also begins to work against its goals near the end, as extended meditations on the importance of stories or a character’s descent into or out of despair become less effective after 500 pages of the same.

As the character with the most to do both in the present day and in flashbacks, Tachibana becomes the most interesting protagonist. Years ago, as an NGO aid worker in (a one-dimensional depiction of) Africa, he was kidnapped by an armed terrorist group. Though he escaped, the experience was transformational for his sense of self and understanding of religion. As he writes in his diary, “I was alienated from my will, from the flow of my life, and I was alienated from my proper destiny. All the work I had done up to now, my skills, my character, the better aspects of my nature, none of that mattered.” Set adrift, he begins to work with the rebels in an attempt to save his own life and in the process begins interrogating their folk religion, ultimately concluding that “[p]eople believe in religion because they want to.” Though he escapes, the twin ideas of violence and doubt carry through to his work with Cult X, giving him a unique position as a leader questioning the nature of his own belief. All this comes through his attempts at carrying out a spectacular attack designed to win media attention and transform Japanese society.

This is all treated with a humanity and clear-eyed willingness to engage that serves the novel well. There are no moral judgments here, just an attempt to explore and understand a swath of Japanese society at a very specific historical moment. Cult X is full of lamentations about what has befallen human beings so as to leave a population of broken people looking for whatever Cult X offers. For Narazaki it’s stated simply: 

When he was a child, he’d cover up the sounds of his parents yelling at each other with music, and he’d recreate passages from novels in his mind, and live in those stories, in those other worlds. Whenever something bad happened in the world, whenever he felt he didn’t belong there, he would choose just the pieces he liked, and live cautiously among them […] He’d always lived his life that way. But it had stopped working. Reality kept breaking into his fantasies, and he’d grown more fatigued year after year. When reality ultimately punctured one corner of his consciousness, the violence of his desires had come gushing out.

For all that goes on, perhaps the most unifying sensation across Cult X is one of being adrift and unmoored. At times even a generous reader will probably feel the same, but Nakamura’s talent for characterization and willingness to engage make this a novel worth wrestling with, flaws and all.

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Nathan Jefferson is a writer living in Mexico City.