Ghosts of Nagasaki, The
by Daniel Clausen (2012)
This is a quick read with interesting characters and a highly original concept. It suffered from bloat at times and may have functioned better as a novella.
The main plot is basically that our protagonist is haunted and has to figure out why. Not haunted in any sense you’ve ever imagined, but rather in the way that Hayao Miyazaki might depict it in one of his animes, in a way that only someone very intimate with Japanese culture could envision. I give Mr. Clausen credit for this unique take on ghosts and psychological turmoil.
For a large part of the novel the haunting seems to be about all there is, and it takes a long while to pick up. The protagonist’s brooding becomes tedious and not much seems to happen until about halfway through when a surreal barfight threatens to totally derail the entire proceedings. At this point I think there actually is a rail jumped, and the train is flying precariously through the air for about 100 pages, but amazingly and fortuitously it lands on another rail at the very end. This secondary rail is perhaps wobblier than the original, but it’s at least headed toward home.
I have little doubt that Clausen intended this “WTF?” sensation in his readers, it’s just that it loses effectiveness by being so drawn out. He has a gift for atmosphere, creating a suffocating, dream-like haze that his protagonist can’t escape. Unfortunately it too often feels suffocating for the reader as well. As I said in my terrible train analogy, the ending does rescue the novel and is even moving, but I’m still not sure if it totally compensates for what came before.
One thing I liked as much as the unique vision was Mr. Clausen’s indisputable respect for Japan, its culture and its history. Either he is one of the most talented mimics ever or he has clearly spent much time in Japan and has incorporated some of its best sensibilities. He also has a decent nose for poignancy, and even if he sometimes appears to strain too hard for it you still end up with gems such as: “The sun is coming down on the most perfect day of your life, and because the gods in the night sky are looking out for you, the sun never quite finds the nerve to set. 230”
After the tiresome brooding, the only other obvious problems are the stilted dialogue and the inauthenticity of the narrator’s voice. A lot of the dialogue is transparent exposition or a transparent proxy for the author himself. Also, the narrator’s voice feels too conventional and privileged to be the troubled-to-the-core foster kid. I’m not sure if Mr. Clausen has experience in foster care, but at times his protagonist feels like the sum of every fostering cliche.
This all shakes out to three-star status in my book: a highly original, atmospheric, thoughtful work of fiction whose reach arguably exceeds its grasp. I highly value originality in works of art, which is why I tend to weigh this book more on the positive side, even if I probably wouldn’t recommend it to my (less literate) friends.