Ryū Murakami’s novel Coin Locker Babies was published in 1980, a fact that surprised me when I learned it just a few moments ago. It is certainly not timestamped -I would have believed that this book had been published at any time between 1970 and the present. It is also rather surreal (not unlike the works of a certain other Murakami in that regard) but I would have assumed that it pulled quite a bit of its inspiration from the counterculture fiction of the mid-80s and the 90s, from William Gibson, from the splatterpunk movement, and so forth. Maybe Ryū Murakami was synthesizing the same kinds of inspiration in a similar way, or maybe the underground Japanese fiction of this era was a partial influence on the way certain subsets of Western counterculture writing started to go. Having not yet even begun to gestate at the time all this was taking place, and not being especially familiar with the direction of influence, I leave my wondering at that.
Coin Locker Babies is very dark and very strange. It employs both traditional realism and the extreme and surreal in such a way as to leave the reader disoriented and unsure -it’s an unreliable narrative, with no unreliable narrator to fixate on on to contextualize away the uncertainty. This is a powerful narrative technique, although it can sometimes leave the reader feeling a bit at a remove from the narration. The story is also nihilistic to such a degree that the characters, who are well-rounded and interesting, are also set off at a distance. We care what happens to them, but more out of curiosity than anything else. There is no investment and there is no sense of urgency.
While most of what I’ve said above might be construed as negative, the combined effects synthesize well. This book’s component parts fit well together, and the end result is both engrossing and inclined to provoke a deeper examination -a hard marriage to achieve. I blew through the last 180 pages of small, tight typeface in a single sitting, unable to put the thing down, and that doesn’t happen to me often.
Recommendation: Read it, but maybe take a pass if you are squeamish or have a compulsive need to find the people in your books to be “likable” or “relatable”.