I demand two things from a composer: invention, and that he astonish me. — Karlheinz Stockhausen
This is the third time, or maybe the fourth time, I have tried to write a review of Genichiro Takahashi’s Sayonara Gangsters. The first time, I couldn’t even think of anything coherent to say, and ended up with a thousand words of sub-Lester Bangs drivel that wasn’t even worth laughing at. The second time (and maybe the third as well), the document vanished completely from both computers where I had a copy. Either I’d stupidly never saved it in the first place, or Amanojaku had come along and talked my PC into dumping the drafts into the memory hole.
Each time I’ve sat down to write this thing, I run into the same issue anew: How does one talk about a book that is both quite cheerful and flabbergastingly strange, often right in the same sentences? It’s tempting to call the book critic-proof, but that’s an adjective usually reserved for works with a built-in fanbase who will buy the book no matter how savagely the critics treat it. It doesn’t really apply to something so merrily bonkers in its own way that a review threatens to not do it justice. And yet I suspect the mere fact that I can’t pigeonhole the book or even figure out where to begin describing it is, in its own way, praise. Few books resist classification that defiantly and come out the other side not only unscathed but all the more readable for it.
The surface of the book is actually quite simple, even if the events that unspool aren’t hidebound by anything as earthbound as logic or sense. It takes place in a vaguely dystopian future (although I’m not even sure if that’s a fitting description), where people choose their own names, ending up with such contorted concoctions as The Nakajima Miyuki Songbook and Sayonara, Gangsters. The latter is the hero/narrator’s chosen name; “Songbook” is his girlfriend — herself an ex-gangster. His occupation: poetry teacher and sometime father.
Gangsters isn’t just plotless, it’s an embodiment of Mark Twain’s warning that those attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. This isn’t a bad thing, since the book has been written as (and works best as) an accumulation of little details rather than as a conventional story. One of the poetry teacher’s students is Virgil, reincarnated as a refrigerator. Another is from Jupiter. At one point Thomas Mann vanishes completely from literary history, which creates terrible problems for one of his longtime fans. The titular Gangsters themselves show up, and make life (as such) very difficult for our hero and heroine. Characters die, but don’t stay dead, or discover they were never born to begin with. And then there’s that ending, which is really off the wall, but for it not to be like that would be even more bizarre.
The only other book I’ve read that comes remotely close to Gangsters in either style or manner is one I suspect most everyone here neither knows of nor has read, but here goes: Boris Vian’s Foam of the Daze. It has the same sprightly tone, and also the same anything-goes ethos. The pieces don’t merely fit together, they spontaneously self-assemble and then run off arm-in-arm to have a Las Vegas wedding and then a Mexican divorce. Describing it was likewise impossible, or at the very least a test of one’s own capacity to embrace strangeness for its own sake. But it was difficult to read it and not be amazed, on every page and most every line, with Vian’s omnivorous imagination.
The stock word to describe most of this is “post-modern”. Those of you familiar with DeLillo or Pynchon or especially Snow White-era Donald Bartheme probably read all of this and nodded with familiarity. It’s the same basic approach: the fractured non-narrative, the jokes that masquerade as meaning that masquerade as jokes, the way the work itself is its own initiation ritual to a member of the elect. If you read it and get it, congratulations: you’re one of the club. If not, you can go hang back with the rest of the losers still clutching their weatherbeaten copies of Walpole and Tolstoy.
Thing is, Gangsters never feels that snobbish or forbidding. The charm of the story is on every level, from the playful surface down to the underpinnings. It’s not just a Great Big Metaphor by itself, but a cheerful razz at the way things are turned into Great Big Metaphors by Artists, and then horribly misinterpreted by everyone else. Open mouth already a mistake, as the Zen masters are wont to say. Takahashi does an end-run around all that by committing the mistake first and then opening his mouth. He invents and astonishes, and not always in that order. Why restrict yourself?