John Updike once wrote down a few good rules for reviewing books (or any other media, really), with the first one being “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I did my best to keep this rule fixed firmly in my mind—or “engraved on my liver”, as they say in Japan—while reading Akira Arai’s A Caring Man. I had to do this for one simple reason: I kept comparing it, unfairly I suspect, to another book I felt was thematically similar but superior in execution, Ryū Murakami’sCoin Locker Babies. The two even share something of the same plotline: a young man abandoned by his biological mother and with the mindset of an outsider sets in motion a plan to take revenge on the society that failed him.
I know by now, though, that most people are less interested in the question of which book is “better” than they are in whether or not this particular book is any good. It is a good book, up to a point (and I’ll get to that in due time), but I had the shadow of the earlier book hanging over me all the while I read this one, and I would be dishonest if I didn’t cop to that. Babies is the far more artful, experimental, unabashedly “literary” of the two, while Caring Man is the more rigorously plotted, accessible, and upmarket-thriller story. It isn’t a groundbreaker and it won’t live forever, but it wasn’t meant to: it was written to give the reader a good ride. And for the most part it quite aptly provides said ride, but I do have to admit the ways it fumbles its own ball are annoying.