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by Charlie & Fossfor (Artwork)

by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Publisher: Alma Books

I came to Yasutaka Tsutsui’s Paprika with a great sense of expectation. With themes of psychology, psychiatry, detective thriller and science fiction many of my buttons were pushed. Not only that, the cover boasted a quote from no less a publication than The Guardian that drew a comparison with J.G. Ballard. Much to my disappointment I came away from this book with my hopes shattered and a rather nasty taste in my mouth. But more of that later.

The story itself is set in contemporary Japan and postulates that machines can be manufactured that allow a person to both view and interact with another’s dreams. These devices are used by therapists to treat ‘mental illness’ but someone is also using them to drive people insane. It is left to the central protagonist Atsuko Chiba, a brilliant young researcher and therapist, to uncover what is going on – both in the waking world and in the dreams of her clients.

As a story idea this has much potential but it failed for me on two fundamental levels. The first was language, or perhaps translation. It has often struck me that translated texts can tend to a style, particularly in dialogue, that feels somehow ‘formal’ – as if one was reading subtitles. Of course it may be that this is a cultural difference in the use of language itself but for whatever reason the immersive experience one should get when reading was fatally damaged by both prose and style. That being said, whether an author’s voice rings true is always subjective and for someone else the issue may not arise here. For that matter, on more than one occasion I’ve taken a deal of pleasure from (to me) clumsily written work that told me a good tale. But sadly I felt the book failed on that count as well.

As a worker in mental health I could hardly not take a ‘professional’ interest in the ideas postulated but it rapidly became apparent that if Tsutsui is seriously putting forward a set of ‘what if’ possibilities, he has very little grasp of psychology, psychiatry and ‘mental illness’ in the modern era. Rather his hypotheses seemed based on Kant, Freud and Jung – all great thinkers and pioneers but with ideas on connections between dreaming and psychosis that no longer hold water. Again this may not be an issue for readers without an interest in the area but for me it was too big a hurdle to overcome.

Alternatively Tsutsui might be wearing another hat here, that of the satirist of contemporary views on medicine, morality and the soul? I freely concede that this may have been his intent and I wondered as I approached the latter stages of the book if a sub-text would be revealed? Alas it wasn’t to be and I was, as I said, left disappointed and disturbed. I had wondered if one point Tsutsui was attempting to convey was societal attitudes to women. Certainly he places great emphasis on the reactions by colleagues’ and the media to Atsuko’s physical beauty. Indeed many characters seem to be suffering from some form of Atsuko induced mental priapism. One character takes this further and attempts to rape Atsuko. All this could have been to some point that I’m missing but I really don’t think so. Instead Tsutsui reveals something about himself rather than society when Atsuko herself becomes aroused during the attempted rape and beating. There is no doubt that sexual assault is a complex issue for both protagonist and victim but this was not evident here, all I found was a lazy stereotyping ‘they all want it really’ attitude that bore no relevance to her character or motivation. Perhaps I’m making a cultural judgement or guilty of misunderstanding but I really don’t think so. At the end of the day there are some things for which moral relativism just won’t cut it for me. This was just a nasty pointless scene.

As for The Guardian, the quote asks us to imagine a manic Ballard and that encapsulates the problem here. Ballard was controversial, challenging and walked the fine line between alienation and revelation. On what is presented here, Tsutsui hasn’t inherited his mantle; rather he’s wearing the Emperor’s new clothes.

Original painting for the review by Fossfor


Jane Turley said...

I find this review quite disturbing as the idea that a woman might find rape arousing is really quite abhorrent. It's possible, as you freely admit Charlie, that you have misinterpreted the novel. However, it is suggested in the author interview that he has received some criticism for being politically incorrect so perhaps you are justified in your assumptions. I see the author claims during his interview to stretch the “boundaries of fantasy” in this novel – obviously not in relation to male fantasies then as this scenario is as old as the hills! I’ll reserve judgement though till I’ve read the book myself- who knows maybe it was a little dream manipulation:)

An interesting review :)

Kerrie-Anne said...

Hey Charlie
I like you found the book difficult at best to come to terms with. It seemed to encompass all the cultural sterotypes we hear about. The treatment of the female characters I found disturbing at best from the reporters during the first press conference to the very end.
I was left wondering if I was disadvantaged by cultural aspects which to others more accustomed may have not struggled with.
In my efforts to understand the book, I turned to the animated film on Youtube to gain further insight, but found nothing there to change my mind.
It is shame as the concept I found intriguing. It may be lost somewhere in translation, but I must admit to finding the book a chore to read and disturbing to attempt understand.
Your review has only confirmed for me my reaction. As a woman I found it a truly disturbing tale on so many levels.

Jen P said...

Really interesting in many aspects Charlie - and Fossfor, LOVE the artwork!