In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

In the Miso Soup is narrated by Kenji, an unregistered tour guide to Tokyo’s sex district, tailoring his services to foreign, English speaking visitors. From the moment he meets his latest client, Frank, an overweight American tourist, he senses something is off about him. There is a strange tautness to his skin, a dangerous twist to his smile.

Kenji’s anxiety turns out to be far from paranoid and his sixteen year-old, high school girlfriend, is a tantalizing addition to the plot. Will she meet Frank? Will she become part of his horrific holiday?

All the way through the novel, which turns a tour of Tokyo’s sex trade into an exploration of Frank’s sick mind, are the considerations of what it means to be alive and why being alive should have any value.

The front cover of In the Miso Soup quotes its Guardian review, ‘Reads like the script notes for American Psycho – the Holiday Abroad’. This quote was not only the reason I bought the book, it set the novel up for a continuous internal game of comparisons which I ultimately decided I wasn’t qualified to judge. Not qualified because if this novel was to be anything like American Psycho it needed to be a critique of society specifically, in this instance, Japanese society. And while there was indeed a great deal of criticism that spread beyond Japan, the psycho at the novel’s heart is American, which strikes me as an easy way out: why use a foreigner? That is where my ability to compare falls apart: I don’t know enough about Japan and Japanese culture.

I understand that young people in Japan and elsewhere feel a sense of loneliness and futility in the face of social media and technological advance etc. etc. and this novel certainly explores whether vestiges of meaning can be wrung from a life all about connections that never seem to go beyond the surface, the touch screen if you like. And yet, should this really suggest a ruthless cull, a virus that wipes most of us out, is really the answer?

I enjoyed reading In the Miso Soup and was impressed by how nervous I felt about completing the book (wait and see). Whether it does more than reiterate themes from American Psycho though, I’m not sure. Whether that is even the right avenue for exploring the novel, I doubt.

In the Miso Soup treats violence seriously, but how deeply it has thought about its manifestation of that violence and the reasons for it, I can’t be certain. Frank claims to be ill, but I wonder if sickness excuses his monstrous deeds when in fact the real horror would be to warn us not of what mad people can do but of what sane people might do. Perhaps this is what Frank means when he says, ‘And now with all this social surveillance and manipulation going on, I think you’ll see an increase in people like me’ (p171).

Next week I’m reading Unthology 7 edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones.