Review: “Piercing” By Ryu Murakami (Novel)

Well, it has been way too long since I read a Ryu Murakami novel. After discovering Murakami’s excellent 1997 horror novel “In The Miso Soup” in a Waterstone’s during my early twenties, I ended up reading translations of several of his books (“Audition”, “Almost Transparent Blue” and possibly “Coin-Locker Babies”, if I remember rightly) over the next year or two.

At the time, I must also have bought a copy of his 1994 horror/thriller novel “Piercing” (translated by Ralph McCarthy) but, for some reason, I didn’t get round to reading it.

So, when I was working out which book to read next, I happened to spot “Piercing” in one of my book piles. And, since it was both a refreshingly short novel and it was a Murakami novel I hadn’t read, I thought that I’d check it out.

[Edit: Interestingly, in the months between when I first prepared this review and the time of posting it, an American film adaptation of this book (also called “Piercing”) was announced and released. Since I haven’t seen it at the time of writing, I can’t really compare the two things.]

So, let’s take a look at “Piercing”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2008 Bloomsbury (UK) paperback edition of “Piercing” that I read.

Set in Tokyo, the story begins with family man Kawashima Masayuki standing over his baby daughter’s crib one night. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, he has stood over the crib for ten nights in a row. Every night, he holds an ice pick and wills himself not to harm the baby. Every night, the baby is left unharmed. And, thankfully, this night is no different.

When he tries to work out what is wrong with himself, Kawashima is racked by traumatic memories of his childhood. Overwhelmed by the furious intense rage within him, he decides to act upon it in the hope that this will cause it to go away. So, coming up with an excuse, he leaves home for a few days and stays in a hotel in another part of Tokyo – where he begins to plan a grisly murder…..

One of the first things that I will say about “Piercing” is that it is an incredibly gripping horror thriller that isn’t for the easily shocked. However, by the high standards of Murakami’s other horror novels, it falls short somewhat.

If you’ve read “In The Miso Soup” or “Audition”, then you’ll know that Murakami is famous for gradually building suspense over the course of a novel, only to finally release it in a truly shocking moment of extreme horror. Well, this novel does the literal opposite of this.

In other words, a lot of the really shocking, creepy, dark and horrific stuff happens in the earlier parts of the novel, and although the novel still works reasonably well as a fast-paced and gripping thriller, all of the novel’s chilling suspense eventually descends into something of a grim farce (like a “romantic comedy from hell” or something like that) that ends in a rather random, abrupt and ambiguous way which is about a million miles away from the usual jaw-droppingly shocking Murakami ending.

Likewise, the almost unrelenting barrage of horror means that some of it comes across as a bit “over the top” in a corny late-night movie style way or as an immature attempt at being “edgy”. Although there is a small amount of contrast between the horrific and the mundane, there really isn’t enough of this to make the novel’s scenes of horror really stand out in the way they do in Murakami’s other horror novels.

Still, as a horror novel, it works incredibly well. This novel contains a disturbing plethora of different types of horror including violent horror, character-based horror, psychological horror, sexual horror, criminal horror, poverty horror, suspenseful horror and some hints of paranormal horror. And, yes, this is a very grim and disturbing novel too – with lots of bleak background details, traumatic flashback scenes and creepy psychological moments.

So, yes, this really isn’t a novel for the easily shocked. Still, the novel includes some moments of dark comedy (like Kawashima ranting at himself in his notes, some quirky background details etc..) that help to lighten the bleak tone somewhat.

As for the characters, they’re reasonably well-written and are the source of a lot of the novel’s horror. Most of the novel focuses on both Kawashima (who is disturbed by traumatic memories, fairly misogynistic and a serial-killer-in-the-making) and a sex worker called Chiaki who, unknown to Kawashima, also suffers from traumatic memories and violent impulses (and also has a hatred of men that rivals Kawashima’s hatred of women).

The characters in this novel are disturbingly compelling and the story devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation.

Interestingly, this novel also seems to be the literal opposite of another extreme horror novel I read in my early twenties called “Exquisite Corpse” by Poppy Z. Brite.

In Brite’s “Exquisite Corpse”, two serial killers end up having a beautiful romance that is filled with stomach-churning horror. Whereas, in Murakami’s “Piercing”, the fact that Kawashima and Chiaki are kindred spirits makes their meetings fairly awkward and eventually ends up cancelling out the horror of the story (since they both try, and fail, to kill each other before having a rather bizarre and ambiguous moment together the following morning).

In terms of the writing style, whilst I can’t comment on the original Japanese text, Ralph McCarthy’s translation is incredibly readable. It reads a lot like a classic pulp novel (a bit like a more modern version of Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson or Dashiell Hammett), with some more descriptive and poetic flourishes. In other words, this is a fast-paced, gripping thriller novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a lean and efficient 185 pages in length, this novel remains streamlined and morbidly compelling throughout. However, the pacing is definitely better in the first half of the novel than the second, although both halves are still reasonably suspenseful.

As for how this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Not only does the story remain grippingly compelling, but the story’s many moments of horror are still as disturbing as ever. Likewise, although there are some brief mentions of 1990s technology, the story has a timeless quality to it (and could easily take place in the present day or the 1970s or whenever). Still, there are a few elements of the story (eg: how Kawashima and Chiaki both despise the opposite sex) which, although integral to the story’s suspenseful drama, irony and dark comedy, would probably be considered “politically incorrect” these days.

All in all, whilst this novel doesn’t quite reach the horrific heights of some of Murakami’s other horror novels (“In The Miso Soup” and “Audition”), it is still a grimly gripping and deeply disturbing read. If you want a story with creepy characters, a grim atmosphere and a fast-paced plot, then this one might be worth checking out.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

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