JANUARY 21, 2016
I HAD BARELY cracked the spine of The Gun when I learned, via a stranger’s laptop screen at a coffee shop, of the recent shooting in San Bernardino.
It seems fitting that Fuminori Nakamura’s debut novel will be released in English while our national dialogue is engulfed in the firestorm of gun-control debate. First published in 2002, The Gun won the Shincho Prize for New Writers and launched Nakamura’s career as one of Japan’s most celebrated crime novelists. Since then, he has released a slew of successful titles, including The Thief, Evil and the Mask, and Last Winter We Parted, which have already been translated into English to much acclaim. Now, translator Allison Markin Powell and Soho Crime have readied The Gun for an American audience.
It’s difficult to imagine an American crime novel without the heavy presence (or at least pointed absence) of guns — after all, guns are an everyday part of American culture. But the gun as object might hold greater significance for a Japanese author. In 1958, the Japanese government passed a law that “no person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords” — the exact opposite of the US Second Amendment. As a result, Japan has become a country where guns are so tightly restricted that there have been as few as two gun-related deaths per year in the recent past. Knowing this, I was curious as to how the subject would be handled.
The Gun is almost more of a character study than a straight crime novel: it focuses on one young man’s obsession and its fallout. At the book’s opening, Nishikawa, a college student, wanders through a rainstorm and happens upon the dead body of a man, holding a gun. Instead of feeling reviled, he is deeply attracted to the object. He feels an intense, immediate personal connection with the gun, as if he were separated from it long ago and happening upon it is a matter of fate correcting itself. “I’ve never seen something so beautiful, or that feels so right in my hand,” narrates Nishikawa. “I didn’t have much interest in guns before, but the moment I saw it, all I could think about was making it mine.” He takes the gun home with a strange mix of fear and sensible logic, in which he knows he is breaking the law but can’t bring himself to let anyone else possess it. After hiding it, he attempts to resume his normal school and social life but finds his thoughts weighed down by the knowledge of the forbidden object waiting for him in his apartment.
Nishikawa has a sociopathic side to begin with, and finding the gun only exacerbates these tendencies. He’s a loner, in part because he demonstrates no desire for authentic connection in his relationships. He’s disgusted by his one friend Keisuke, who cares about nothing but his next female conquest. In fact, he only seems to tolerate him because he never has to be vulnerable around him — he just follows him on his escapades. His attitude toward women manifests as cold and unfeeling (though the female characters interpret this as confidence or complexity). He demonstrates antisocial behavior toward his fellow students and neighbor. We watch his personality turn from detached in the beginning to domineering and aggressive midway through the book. The knowledge that he has the power to back up his menace with real physical harm makes these moments extremely chilling. His unbalanced nature may have been shaped by difficult childhood experiences, but even his interactions with the people who harmed him are not strictly sympathetic. When he starts receiving calls from his adoptive mother, telling him that his biological father is dying in the hospital, he regards this news with a Meursault-like apathy. In his mind, there is no logical reason to visit or acknowledge the father who abandoned him to an orphanage. When he eventually does see his father in his weakened state, he chooses to taunt him instead of making any kind of amends, an action that gives him sick satisfaction.
Nishikawa only breaks his unfeeling exterior when his own pain is reflected in others. He knows from the shouts and thumps that he’s heard coming from the apartment next door that a mother is abusing a little boy. When he sees the boy in public situations, clearly in distress, he departs from his usual cool nonchalance by reporting the situation to child services. They inform him that they are already aware of the situation, but claim that their hands are tied unless it escalates. The bureaucracy’s lack of action causes him to project his own unresolved rage onto the neighbor boy’s plight. He starts to believe that the only way he can help the child is by working outside the system — escalating the situation through vigilante justice. Suddenly, the gun seems to offer itself as a means to an end.
The gun is now a tool with powerful potential — his idol rendered concrete. Even though the initial crime is still being investigated by police, the fear of being caught can’t sway Nishikawa’s obsession with the weapon and its new possible purpose. Aesthetically, ideologically, spiritually — Nishikawa worships every aspect of it, letting it become the center of his life. “Whatever the case was, the gun was mine, and the pleasure I took from that had enabled me to pass each day since with relative ease,” he narrates. “That, to me, was an important fact. To use the gun, to do something with it — the circumstances I now found myself in, that allowed for such a possibility, was the best part.”
After a gruesome slip-up involving a cat, it seems that Nishikawa’s days are numbered, and sure enough a detective visits him to ask about the incident. But rather than scare him straight, this brush with the law makes him hurtle toward the inevitable — to use the gun on a person. Everything that’s been eating away at him — his dying father, the abusive neighbor, his failed attempts at human connection — comes to a head and drives him to become a predator. He stalks the neighbor boy’s mother with a determination that fluctuates between cold fear and rabid ecstasy. The ironic thing is that Nishikawa knows exactly what will happen; he understands the law and the consequences of his actions, but so deep is the need to know that moment of firing the gun at someone, he is practically compelled. The unspoken truth of Chekhov’s rule seems to be driving him to the brink of insanity — he feels that fate has already sentenced him to kill someone. Days disappear and he is only fueled by caffeine, nicotine, the occasional sandwich, and the desire to feel the split-second jolt of power between being an ordinary person and becoming a murderer.
Nakamura infuses the book with a noir flavor — Nishikawa always seems to be smoking, drinking coffee, walking in the rain, fucking, or lost in his own head — but because Nishikawa is not a detective, or even a hero, this aesthetic casts a kind of hopeless tone on the entirety of the story. Rather than the slick crime stories of Raymond Chandler, Nakamura seems to channel the pallid comedies of Gogol. The main character is extremely detailed and self-aware, making the story all the more tragic. Even Nishikawa himself admits the problematic nature of the gun, and the destruction it ensures by its presence alone. “I could think only of it causing injury, of destroying life; it had been created expressly so that a person could commit such deeds, its design utterly compact, nothing extraneous. It seemed to me a symbol, like Thanatos, the god of death himself.”
Like Nishikawa’s titular gun, the book is simultaneously fascinating and repellent. Nakamura paints his main character with a stark realism that rejects the romance of the misunderstood noir hero. Nishikawa is not a strapping, heroic vigilante, but a mentally unstable young man who is unable to cope with the world around him, and projects his frustration into a fixation with a deadly object. The Gun is essentially a study of a nervous breakdown, amplified by the destructive power of a weapon that should never have wound up in its bearers shaky hands.