Review: Death Sentences

An ambitious novel filled with great ideas, but marred by flat writing and an unclear message.

Death Sentences
Chiaki Kawamata
Translated by Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Behrens
University of Minnesota Press

One of the preeminent concerns throughout my adult life so far, usually with regards to culture in its various forms but also in my relationships to fellow human beings, is whether or not I “get it.”  I’m sure that fact speaks volumes about who I am as a person, but it seems to me that whenever things become popular, or critically received, or generally accepted by the culture at large, and I stand outside of that consensus, my immediate thought isn’t: “Oh, this is different; oh, it’s not for me; oh, everyone is deluded and I am obviously right,” it’s: “Oh my god, what’s wrong with me, why am I so dumb, what am I missing here?”

Why I got into literature—and in my tiny, amateur way, literary criticism—is thus beyond me.

Okay, enough about me (it’s always about me, isn’t it?). But I do say all of this to preface the following declaration that Death Sentences was an extremely frustrating read, because I don’t quite get it. But I really, really think that this time, it’s not my fault.  Death Sentences had the potential to be a great novel—it’s there, in the final product too—but it’s so very, very flawed. Flawed in the fun, page turning kind of sci-fi way and flawed in the intellectual, metaphor for contemporary society sci-fi way.

And I wanted so much to love it.

The premise of Death Sentences is that in 1940s Paris, an unknown poet connected with the Surrealist movement founded by André Breton, writes a handful of poems that act like hypnotic spells, including one that enslaves the reader like a drug and then ultimately kills them. Through both innocent accidents and deliberate actions, copies of the poem circulate until it becomes a threat to society, and a special police force in contemporary Japan is founded to hunt down all copies of the poem and destroy it. The reader even ends up on a terraformed Mars for a portion of the novel. And in telling this strange story, Death Sentences jumps between genres until it is not only sci-fi, but also hard-boiled detective fiction, historical fiction, and horror/thriller.

This all sounds pretty great right? The idea of connecting surrealism and sci-fi makes perfect sense, and Death Sentences, in it’s own way, is even a kind of Japanese response to George Orwell’s 1984, another undisputed classic. So where did it all go wrong?

Well, the biggest problem with Death Sentences is that Kawamata isn’t the best writer. His style is just incredibly flat. This mainly manifests itself in the fact that roughly half of the “paragraphs” in Death Sentences are only a single sentence, and I would say that three-fourths of the paragraphs—in the entire 240-page novel, I remind you—are less than three sentences. This isn’t an exaggeration, either. Turn to any given page and it’s like this. There are countless strings of sentences that would actually make more sense as a single paragraph. I get that one-sentence paragraphs are supposed to be dramatic, and punchy, but when a 200-page novel is made up almost entirely of one or two-sentence paragraphs, all that drama, and tension, and momentum, flies right out the window. Instead of this novel being a non-stop thrill ride, which I assume is what Kawamata intended, it becomes the exact opposite of that: a slog.

(Incidentally, I do not blame the translators for any “bad writing” in English because I feel that they were simply honoring the original and working with what they were given. However, I wonder, had this novel been taken on by a major publisher and not a university press, if an editor would have forced some structural changes, i.e. tightening up those sentences into longer, more logical, and more appealing paragraphs. And I wonder if, in that scenario perhaps, the English translation might have been better than the original. A scandalous proposition, maybe, but I do wonder…)

Structurally, Death Sentences is kind of a mess as well. I had no problem with the idea of switching genres between sections. The portion in 1940s France and New York City was probably my favorite part of the novel. But right in the middle of the story is an 80-page stretch in modern Japan that describes how a small publishing company gets a hold of the mysterious poem and publishes it in a collection, thus bringing about its widespread dissemination. It’s obviously a critical section, but the details lie almost entirely in the details of production and the personal lives of the people who work the publishing house. There are long stretches of these 80 pages where the poem itself is not part of the story at all, and because of the structure of the novel, we already know that the poem gets published and spreads. And it’s not enough time to care about the characters, because they’re not really involved in the rest of the story. In short, this section is much too long and slows all sense of momentum to a halt.

Perhaps this section is going for a “banality of evil” type situation, which could be intellectually satisfying (but it won’t be, see below), but on a basic structural level, it’s problematic to say the least.

On an intellectual, metaphorical level, well, frankly, I was left scratching my head. Without giving too much away, there’s an obvious parallel between Death Sentences and 1984 in regards to the evils of a government being in charge of the control of information. Death Sentences even takes that message further and attacks capitalism as a force of corruption, by connecting a thread from the private company that sponsors the poem’s publication that leads to a special police force that operates outside the law and, in the end (and this is kind of spoiler-y, if that sort of thing bothers you) a private, corporate owned militia that are the real controllers of a future Mars society.

This is all well and good, but what of the killer poem then? If the poem represents information, or art, or some other ideal that shines light into darkness, or the minority force that spreads secretly throughout an oppressive majority, why is it presented as a force of evil? Even before government interference, this is a poem that enslaves the reader into its strange reverie and ultimately kills them. This is a force that is bringing down the destruction of society, a force that kills its very tenants and disciples.

Is the message that it’s better to die than live in a capitalist society? That death is better than control? The poem as drug is not shown to bring any real enlightenment, or even, as hinted at by the back cover, definitive evidence that the poem brings them to another world, some better, extra-dimensional society.

The magic poem as a symbol is muddled, unclear to me, and that’s why I walk away from Death Sentences not “getting it.” If I didn’t “get” Death Sentences because I am a terrible, one-dimensional reader, than that would actually bring me relief. If the poem represents something clear to you, something that justifies its existence as a force against what is supposed to be an evil, 1984-type situation, please, please let me know.

This has been perhaps the hardest review I’ve ever had to write. Death Sentences is certainly not the worst book I’ve ever read, and in many ways I respect it. It’s extremely flawed to be sure, but there are so many reasons I wanted to like this book, it makes it that much harder for me that it couldn’t live up to its ambitions. I don’t like criticizing something this much, but reading it was so frustrating, the only thing I can do is just let it all out.

Because ultimately, the fact of the matter is, I want books like Death Sentences to be translated and published in English. There is so much unambitious garbage written in English alone that crowds the market and keeps weird, idiosyncratic literature like this from finding an audience. Yes, I had some major problems with Death Sentences, but at least those problems came from trying to be something different, and great, and failing, and not from being generic, formulaic, or trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

So if you’re out there, publishers, give me more of this. Because even if I walk away frustrated and ranting, I will at least go out and buy this, and read it, happily.

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