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In the Miso Soup - Ryƫ Murakami

”I had just turned twenty, and though my English is far from perfect I was working as a ‘nightlife guide’ for foreign tourists. Basically I specialize in what you might call sex tours, so it’s not as if my English needs to flawless. Since AIDS, the sex industry hasn’t exactly welcomed foreigners with open arms--in fact, most of the clubs are pretty blatant about refusing service to gaijin--but lots of visitors from overseas are still determined to play, and they’re the ones who pay me to guide them to relatively safe cabarets and massage parlors and S&M bars and what have you. I’m not employed by a company and don’t even have an office, but by running a simple ad in an English-language tourist magazine I make enough to rent a nice studio apartment in Meguro, take my girl out for Korean barbecue once in a while, and listen to the music I like and read the things I want to read. “

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Red Light District

Life maybe wasn’t going well for Kenji, but it certainly wasn’t going poorly for him either, but there is most assuredly a before and after in his life. The after begins when he meets the American tourist Frank.

There is something not quite right about Frank.

Kenji has formed some opinions about Americans over the years.

”What’s good about Americans, if I can generalize a little, is that they have a kind of openhearted innocence. And what’ not so good is that they can’t imagine any world outside the States, or any value system different from their own. The Japanese have a similar defect, but Americans are even worse about trying to force others to do whatever they themselves believe to be right. American clients often forbid me to smoke and sometimes even make me accompany them on their daily jogs. In a word, they’re childish--but maybe that’s what makes their smile so appealing.”

Usually Kenji just escorts guys around showing their options for “entertainment” and then if they insist, rarely so, he accompanies them into the clubs and service oriented places. Frank keeps him close, even starts to consider him a friend, and at one point insists on getting his picture taken with Kenji. This required very close contact.

”I’m not saying that Frank revolted me, but I wasn’t about to press my cheek against his. Just the fact that he was a man made it bad enough, but Frank also had that weird skin. No wrinkles, though he was supposedly in his mid-thirties, but his face wasn’t what you’d call smooth, either--it was shiny and flabby and artificial-looking.... Frank’s cheek was cold and felt like the silicone they use in diving masks.”

There are new places springing up where men stand in line for a chance to talk to teenage girls. Good lord who would want to do that!!! Married women are going to clubs to talk to men who are willing to buy them food and drink for a chance to just be with them for a half hour. There are handjobs available. There are blowjobs available. There are places where you felt as if the dirt and grease and dead skin of all the previous horny, lonely customers were rubbing off on you.

Frank seems to want to do it all and he wants Kenji with him every step of the way.

Frank is starting to freak him out.

When the body of a young Japanese girl is found horribly murdered Kenji can’t help but think that Frank was somehow involved even though he has no proof and no reason to think that he was except that Frank is getting weirder and weirder the longer Kenji knows him.

This is a short book, but Ryu Murakami shows a great deal of patience with the plot. He lets the tension build like one of the better Alfred Hitchcock films. There are wonderful thoughtful observations about contemporary Japanese culture and even some unexpected levity. Some of the humor comes at those points, vintage Murakami, where you laugh and feel immediately guilty that you laughed at something so horrible.

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Ryu Murakami

This is certainly not as uncomfortable to read as Almost Transparent Blue. The violence though graphic, Murakami knows no other kind, is contained to one scene and by the time it happens I’m already starting to wonder if the bad boy Murakami is going to show up. There is no sex, well plenty on stage left and right, but none on center stage. I know, shocking, especially given the nature of the plot. As Kenji is drawn further and further into circumstances that he couldn’t even imagine finding himself just days before, he scrambles to make his brain engage and either do the right thing or choose to live another day. The struggle is deciding which one.

My Almost Transparent Blue review with more thoughts on the works of Ryu Murakami