If you were to ask me whether or not I think Miri Yu’s Gold Rush (trans. Stephen Snyder) is a good book, I would sidestep that question. I would tell you that the story–of a 14-year-old Japanese boy who murders his father–is essentially compelling. I would tell you that Yu’s evocation of a child adrift in a dangerous city, in a dangerous home, in a fractured mind, is often very powerful.
I might also tell you that I was never bored; indeed, sometimes this novel was entirely too interesting; I almost put it down any number of times. I could tell you that I think Gold Rush is as thoughtful and disturbing as any of the literary antecedents it directly or indirectly draws upon, including Yukio Mishima’s Temple of the Gold Pavilion and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But I don’t know whether or not it’s good, overall; I’ll get back to this.
I do know that I think Yu paints a very powerful portrait of a kid with nothing to tie him to anyone:
At first, Kazuki seemed like a boring rich kid and Reiji wanted nothing to do with him, but then the four of them went out for a hamburger. As he listened to Kazuki, he began to sense that all the polite talk and nice manners were fake, meant to cover up something that was badly cracked, like dabs of glue barely holding together a shattered pot. But the pot was crumbling anyway, the cracks spreading out like waves, surfacing in a pattern of petty crimes.
Now, Reiji is otherwise represented as pretty damned stupid. He’s a minor character, really only inserted into the narrative to do two things: 1) Show what a horrible, tough, cruel world the urban teenage world is (Reiji is, after all, an unrepentant rapist and extortionist!); 2) Show how few options for real, safe friendship there are in Kazuki’s life.
These are both very, very important factors in our broken young hero’s story, but I don’t think this is deftly done. And what’s a shame about this is, I think the shattered pot image is good–but would have been infinitely better if delivered by the narrator and not a character as intellectually challenged as Reiji turns out to be.
Kazuki doesn’t participate in the gang rape that opens the book and which made me very nearly give up on it after a mere 30 pages or so. He is shockingly violent in other ways, however; soon after the opening gambit of extreme casual sexual violence, Kazuki beats a dog to death with a golf club–in his father’s office, in front of his father’s employees, for no reason that anyone, including Kazuki, can fathom. He is breaking, quickly and spectacularly.
That breakage is meant to be all the more terrible and tragic because, Yu shows us, this isn’t really his natural–or, at least, not his entire–identity. He is surprisingly gentle with his older sister after their father kicks the ever-living shit out of her, for example:
Kazuki put the pillow he’d brought from her room under her head and spread a blanket over her. He made a mental note to add his sister to the list of people to be pitied, and he vowed to protect her when the day came when he would be in charge. But if it was true that her suffering was due to the fact that there was nothing she wanted to do, then what could he ever do to help her? He heard a faint sniffling from under the blanket.
‘Isn’t there anything you’d like to do?’ he asked quietly.
The sniffling gradually stopped and the house was silent. She must have fallen asleep, he thought. Up to this point, he had taken care of his brother with the help of the housekeeper. From now on he would have to look after his sister, too. At most, his father came home two or three times a week, so there was nobody but Kazuki to take charge. The house had been placed under his jurisdiction, but it didn’t exactly bother him. In fact, he was proud to have taken on the duty of watching over the family.
Kazuki–14, extremely violent, gentle, lonely, proud, lost, convinced of his incipient adulthood in the way only a kid can be. His parents are entirely absent in various ways, his only guidance coming from a yakuza and a bar owner, two rough men who feel a strange fondness for this boy who comes increasingly to frighten even them. No one, really.
Indeed, the only emotional or spiritual connection Kazuki forms in Gold Rush is with a piece from his father’s fine collection of antique swords:
…feeling as though someone was watching him, he looked up and caught sight of the display case that held the collection of swords. He got up and walked over to the case, placing his hand on the knob. A few months ago, he had taken advantage of a moment when his father was out of the room to try the door, but it had been locked. Now, however, it swung open easily. He pulled a scabbard from the case with a flourish and slowly extracted the blade. For a moment, he was mesmerized by the beauty of the steel; a chill ran up his spine and he shook himself. For the first time in his life, he was in the presence of a perfect entity, a thing that lacked nothing, with nothing extraneous. He held his breath as a cold, spectral light engulfed him. Reaching out, his finger traced a slow arc along the blade, leaving a thin trail of blood. Perhaps the sword had become beauty incarnate precisely because it was no longer permitted to perform its true function: to kill. But even if it were allowed once more to do what it was meant to do, Kazuki doubted there was anyone in the world worthy of killing with this perfect blade. Certainly not this man, not his father.
Soon, the pot shatters, as it must–and Kazuki murders his father with one of these swords. He buries the body in the basement and then…tries to go on living as he has been, but as head of the family. This is, I think, the novel’s real strength–the way in which Kazuki tries so hard to create a normal life out of what he’s done, even as his crime eats him alive. His seamless mental jumps between mortal terror at detection and trying to manage his odd little family’s day-to-day lives is incredibly effective because it speaks to him being both horrifically damaged and just a dumb teenager unable to grasp the consequences of his own behaviour.
Gold Rush is not a subtle novel. What’s wrong–lack of family stability, a lack of meaning, a lack of basic care–is not only clear, it’s hammered into readers too frequently. We know. The first half of the novel, before the patricide, could be probably about half as long as it is–and without excising any of the moments of action or revelation. Cutting away some of the superfluous commentary, both by the narrator and by the self-absorbed Kazuki, wouldn’t mean losing anything important. This is a good book that might very well have been very good had some judicious editing occurred. (By the way, I’m not unaware of the fact that I’m being rather too wordy in this review myself. I bow down before the superior power that is karma.)
Kazuki’s sad and terrible attempt to create a home out of violence is doomed, of course. He is eventually convinced to turn himself in for the murder. In a not entirely unpredictable display of his extreme youth and clinging naivete, he spends his final day of freedom at the zoo, a place rife with meaning for his life both past and future:
A fundamentally sacred animal like the elephant, when shut up in a zoo, lost its sanctity. Of all the animals here, the elephant was least suited to life in the zoo. It should never live anywhere but in the forest or on the savanna. The merciless sunlight that shone down on the concrete rocks and drinking trough revealed to Kazuki the absence of myth in this place.
The absence of myth. Yes. This short, painful phrase is really, I think, what Yu’s been building up to here. As much as Kazuki’s bad choices have been born out of delusions brought about by neglect and a lack of outside intervention, they’re born more out of a lack of any greater narrative with which to make sense of his life, or to devote his life to. No narrative of family, of individual desire or talent, of nation, of friendship–nothing at all binds him to his fellows or, indeed, to himself except in the ways of barest survival.
This absence is, besides the more obvious moments with the sword (and the bar where Kazuki spends a great deal of his childhood being called The Golden Pavilion) what ties Yu’s novel to the works of Yukio Mishima. This sort of deep absence led Mishima to publicly commit seppuku in 1973. What makes Yu’s terrible vision of urban youth running amok more excruciating than Mishima’s despair is that she offers no solution. Mishima believed that cultural re-immersion in a grand old warrior past would solve any number of social ills; Yu merely notes this destroying lack and the book ends.
I think it would be much better if it were not so bloated with its own important commentary. And I don’t know, to be honest, if the extremes of violence that are described in such horrific detail help or hinder things–I am willing, more than willing, to consider the possibility that I’m just too old to judge fairly of such things. If I wanted this much reality, I would read non-fiction or watch the news; I’m certain that 15 years ago, I would have felt differently. Now I’m going to have read three Wodehouses in a row to recover my mental equilibrium! I don’t have the stomach or the energy for such things any more. I worry this is the lit crit equivalent of breaking a hip; nonetheless, there it is. I would probably read Yu’s work again, but not now, not for a little while.