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Lost in Translation for the noir crowd: a carefully plotted tale of a decidedly postmodern bent, with plenty of hip name-checking and lots of mind-altering substances to keep things moving.

Japan, as every Western reader and filmgoer knows, is relentlessly weird. Anywhere that you can buy a briefcase or a telephone in a vending machine and have a robot pal is likely to acquire such a reputation. Debut novelist Shuker, a young New Zealander, has been living in Japan for the last half-dozen years and knows firsthand how dislocating the place can be to foreigners, even the mostly young and worldly ones who populate these pages, banding together to survive in such alien climes. Center stage is a young historian, Michael Edwards, who has been researching what might be called Japan’s hidden history, unearthing testimonials that plenty of people would like to see disappear. (“I’d seen children tied with signal corps wire,” writes a Chinese survivor of a Japanese massacre. “Threaded through their bodies. Terrible things.”) Instead, Edwards disappears, as if in a puff of smoke. His fellow gaijin, inclined to heavy-duty drugs (“You only microwave a shroom to mitigate the dose”) and offbeat philosophizing (“ ‘Dude, nature abhors a vacuum,’ Simon says”), take their time in noticing. The reader, quicker on the uptake, is left to sort out their concentric rings of involvement with one another while steadily comprehending just what a distorted, tendentious mess Michael has gotten himself into by looking into Japanese history to begin with. His Euro-compatriots are forward-looking types, more interested in sex, gadgets and the next high and in the possibilities of self-reinvention than in the past; still, they find plenty of messes of their own to deal with. Shuker’s wide-screen narrative manages to embrace them all, and even, in the end, make sense.

Engaging, leisurely, at times otherworldly; reminiscent at turns of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (2000) and at others of the early Doug Coupland. A pleasure for readers with time on their hands—say, on the next night flight to Tokyo.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2005
ISBN: 1-59376-065-5
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Shoemaker & Hoard
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2005