4th September 2009

The dust jacket of Ryu Murakami’s latest novel, Audition, somewhat pompously describes the author as “renaissance man for the modern age.” This contention is amusingly backed up by citing of his previous incarnations as drummer in a rock band, and TV chat show host. Clearly, there is someone at either Bloomsbury or the original publishers in Japan who does irony in spades.

This quality is noticable by its absence in this psycho-sexual thriller, which races at breakneck speed through the story of Aoyama, documentary-maker. We learn that since the tragic death of his wife, Ryoko, seven years ago, Aoyama has had no serious relationships. But now his teenage son, Shige, and his best pal, Yoshikawa, have decided that he should get married again. The overbearing Yoshikawa’s idea is to stage auditions for the female lead in a bogus movie, but what Aoyama will really be auditioning for is a new wife.

This morally dubious but highly interesting premise is strangely never developed in the plot, to the point of being completely20unneccessary, as the lovely Yamasaki practically jumps from the pile of resumes into Aoyama’s affections right at the start of the selection process. Basically, no other applicants need bother showing up, and perhaps to his credit, Ryu Murakami refuses to let Aoyama or the reader waste their time on them.

So Aoyama starts to woo his dream girl, depite the predicatable warnings of his close associates that there might perhaps be something not quite right about Yamaskai. You would imagine that a 42 year-old-man might have the savy to be a little concerned when an unattached, twenty-four-year-old, compliantly, demure honey from Geisha Masturbation Fantasy Central starts hanging on their every word. But love is nothing but blind and while Aoyama does uncover a history of abuse in the troubled ex-ballerina’s childhood, he’s convinced Yamasaki has transcended this hurt to become model wife material.

The first two acts of the novel, the audition concept, and the romancing of Yamasaki by Aoyama, are about as perfunctory and economical as modern writing gets. Yoshikawa, the best pal, lays the whole film audition scam out over a few pages, literally without drawing breath. But while the prose is taut and spare, it would be wrong to suggest it lacks depth. The build-up contains some interesting and intelligent reflections on relationships in Japanese society, and there are acute observations about how the loss of Ryoko has affected Aoyama, and the most sympathetic character in the book, his fifteen year-old son, Shige.

The main problem with Audtion, though, is Yamasaki. It’s difficult to take her seriously as a character as she shows us only two faces; angel and monster, and we never get any real sense that the abuse she suffered could have precipitated such extreme psychotic behaviour. In this respect, the novel becomes another parable on male fear of female sexuality. Feminism has obviously never penetrated Japanese society in the same way it did in the West, and while we have to accept it as being of its place, it would be unthinkable to see a major male, English-speaking writer, in almost any genre, write20a major female character like Yamasaki.

The book’s tendancy to race to the finishing line is no bad thing, because it’s in the third act that Ryu Murakami’s writing is at its strongest, in what is a genuinely shocking and grisly climax. Those who know his previous novels, particularly Piercing and Almost Transparent Blue, will know that his strongest suit as a writer is how he portrays tripped-out, hallucinagenic sex and violence, and both the sexual congress between Aoyama and Yamasuki in the hotel room and their subsequent violent denoument are mesmerising and compelling. The prose in these passages is elegiac and affecting, but Murakami does not spare us the blood and gore. Certainly, dog lovers might be advised to skip this novel.

Although I really wanted to know more about Yamasaki, and felt that the underdevelopment of the audition concept was an opportunity missed, Audition is a highly compulsive, one-sitting read, and it should add to the Renaissance Man’s growing fanbase in the English-speaking world.


Originally featured in the Guardian.