by David Peace
288 pages, Knopf
Review by Marc Nash
Peace doesn’t let his reader settle into one of his novels. No careful build-up. No intriguing opening to prick the curiosity. Instead you are parachuted straight into the drop zone of the human psyche. Into the interior of a mind trying to wrestle its myriad of contending voices. Its anxieties, manias, ambitions and desires.
In the past, that has been the mind of a driven football manager The Damned United or a range of protagonists during the pivotal miners strike in GB84. But Peace, like the other British colossus of contemporary English fiction David Mitchell, has spent a good part of his writer’s life living in Japan. Occupied City is the second in a trilogy about Japan in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. What is interesting is not why both men chose to live in Japan, but opted to write about a key part of its history from being cultural outsiders.
In Tokyo Year Zero, the opener in the trilogy, the reader is conducted through a ravaged society largely through the eyes of a detective. Peace returns to the world of crime in Occupied City, but this time renders a much larger portrait of thirteen voices each with a differing perspective of the terrible crime at the heart of the book. A man has walked into a bank claiming to be from the Health Authority dealing with an outbreak of dysentery in the broken City. He offers to inoculate all the employees but is actually poisoning them with potassium cyanide. From this Peace weaves a masterful tapestry of lies, deceit, cover-up and conspiracy as each of twelve participants offer their groping towards the truth. The thirteenth is a contemporary author, perhaps Peace himself, struggling to separate truth from story-making and confabulation.
The structure is superlative, but in the acknowledgements Peace attributes Rashomon which took away some of the originality of his weave. The conspiracy is racked up and embellished through the countervailing versions of detectives, witness survivor, journalist, scapegoat, psychic, Yakuza gangster, Russian spy and American War Crimes investigator and finally the shadowy killer himself. Each is given the duration of a candle until it gutters itself out and thereby is timed out. The conspiracy revolves around attempts to keep the Japanese biological warfare research program a secret, at the same time as both the Russians and the Americans are vying for its trove of secrets. Dan Brown eat your heart out, this is based in a material reality.
But as wonderful as the novel’s skeleton is, Peace is undermined by its dilution of voice. The Yakuza and the second (maverick) detective are strong voices in the Peace tradition – the detective particularly demonstrates Peace’s masterful control of the non-linearity of human thought with repetitions, obsessions and veerings away of words – yet equally there are some more formulaic voices. The journalist, for all the leaks and briefings he is being fed, writes exactly how you’d expect a columnist to write. The scapegoat is rather a let down, seemingly the most guilt-laden of all, yet he is ascribed a history of nervous breakdowns and minor criminality that do not convince. The dry formality of the American military man does not keep up the pace of what has gone before. Even his letters to his family back home, as he lies in a hospital bed having himself been poisoned, fail to demonstrate Peace’s usual linguistic pyrotechnics, which of course is true to the rigmarole the bedbound man abides by.
All in all a marvelous structural treat, but one with less linguistic flair in places than one is used to from Peace. For that reason I would say if you are new to his work, start with the first book in the trilogy, or something from his works set in Britain. For those fans of his, I don’t have to say anything for we are all acolytes at his shrine of language and voice already.