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Monday, December 7, 2009

ZOO by Otsuichi (ARC)

Title: ZOO
Author: Otsuichi
Reviewed Format: Advance Reading Copy in UK trade paperback
Release Date: September 17, 2009
Pages: 300

ZOO is a collection of short stories by acclaimed Japanese horror author, Otsuichi. It’s translated, which always begs for an original reading to see what, if anything, has been lost or gained in the switch to another language. The writing isn’t too descriptive. It borders on the extremely bare-bones, minimalism to the point where I began to imagine the narrative in comic book form with illustrations to fill in the emotion I felt was missing from the text (my rating reflects this--it would be a 4 star otherwise). To be fair, my only other experience with Japanese horror was The Ring and that as manga. I can never bring myself to watch the film (or any Japanese horror film), but I was so scared by the end of reading the comic I gave it away when I was finished. That being said, I steeled myself for jumping into ZOO. With time and distance, I was sure I’d appreciate the tingly terror Otsuishi’s writing would elicit.

While some of the stories read quickly, there’s always some lingering emotion left over that makes you want to stop and think about what was just read. Because this is an ARC, I won’t quote the book, but I desperately want to. There are some gruesome scenes that, when combined with some of the more incredulous and ridiculous dialogue and behavior clash against my sensibilities of propriety. I think there’s a certain appreciation that comes with Japanese horror that has to be taken into consideration before anyone attempts to read something like ZOO. It’s not Stephen King by any stretch of the imagination. There’s always something a little ridiculous and weird in the premise of a Japanese horror story--something that require a strong suspense of belief in what you’d expect to happen or what’s accepted behavior, or turn of events. There’s a lot of fantasy that has to be believed in order to appreciate the fiction created. Also, there’s a lot of corny dialogue that begs for re-writes, but don’t be put off. A lot of the stories have an underlying creepiness about them that stay with you long after the story’s been put to rest. And that, I think, is the benefit of reading Japanese horror.

The title story, “Zoo,” is about a man who receives a photo every day of his decomposing ex-girlfriend. It’s also the name of a movie they saw when she was alive about the process of decay--which, as it turns out, is both metaphorical for the photographs and the protagonist’s life. “Zoo” is a shocking, troubling story about a man desperate for recognition, and the horrific actions he takes to ease his conscience. His narration style he adopts can get irritating, especially as the story progresses; his speech and actions become more and more ridiculous, but it remains a haunting piece.

The stories that follow trace a pathway from the awesomely gruesome to the relief of freedom and avoidance of death. All of these stories (not a single exception) deal with death in some way--death by way of murder. After a few stories, I began to get tired of this premise. The surprise was ruined if someone was always going to die; I could expect some awful, terrible death at the end, at the beginning, somewhere in the middle of each story. The suspense wasn’t there. But on second thought, perhaps it wasn’t death for the sake of death that I was supposed to focus on. Perhaps it was a collection built upon that title story, with death as decay: a thing to be studied over time as it faded away into something almost unrecognizable from that first unexpected glimpse. Or, perhaps, something to be watched through the metaphorical bars of language, enclosed in the cage of Otsuichi’s narrative. The impact of being inundated with so much loss, so much careless and senseless death isn’t fully understood until the last story, “Seven Rooms.” When a brother and sister discover they only have six days to live, it begs the question: is it better going to your death knowing that it’s coming or living without that anxiety, despite dying in the end anyway?

As I reflect back on the collection as a whole, I felt this message really spoke of the stories as one entity. The journey from the first to the last is an experience in preparation for the final, and what I felt to be, the best of the bunch. The impact the final story makes as I close the book, is even more appreciable in light of everything we’ve come to expect by that point in the collection. The relief is larger, the freedom sweeter, and hope lingers in the air like sunlight.

If you decide to pick up ZOO (I recommend this to horror fans in general, if anything, to experience another avenue of the genre), keep in mind this: there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Once you finish, I think you’ll know what I mean. Many thanks to Simon & Schuster UK and Ally, in particular, for always being so awesome and generously providing me with this review copy!

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