I was clicking around the always excellent Guardian Books page, source of many a mid-work literature fix, when I came across this interview with Hannu Rajaniemi. He seemed endearingly down to earth, is a fellow Murakami fan and his novel, The Quantum Thief, sounded like an interesting concept, so I followed the link to the first piece he had published, Shibuya No Love.
I enjoyed the story, but it’s clearly the work of an inexperienced, though talented, writer. It can be instructive to read the work of less polished authors, though, because the visible seams make it easier to understand what works, and what doesn’t.
Without ruining too much of the central mystery, the story revolves around a little gadget called a “quantum lovegety” which helps the protagonist, Riina, find a boyfriend. The Murakami influence is obvious from the start, not only in the modern Japanese setting but the conversational language and use of magic realism. There’s even an obvious nod to Murakami in one character’s love of jazz and cats.
I was immediately struck by the fetishisation of Japanese culture. Whereas Murakami is famously global in his references, so that it sometimes seems like his stories could be set in any modern city, Rajaniemi makes the setting conspicuous. Within the first few paragraphs, Hachiko, takoyaki and Hello Kitty are all held up like a host of glowing neon signs announcing “THIS IS MODERN JAPAN”.
It’s a balancing act to communicate a foreign country without overdoing the cultural references. Here, the sheer volume of references to Japan distracts from the overall story. While Riina’s status as a foreigner explains her ignorance of the quantum lovegety, IMHO the story might have been better if she was a just a naïve Japanese girl.
Similarly, using the original language is best for untranslatable concepts, such as otaku or neo-jinrui, but using “kawaii” where cute would have sufficed was a step too far. Because of the frequency of Japanese words, I was glad that the author didn’t opt for the convention of putting foreign words in italics, as it would have made them even more conspicuous.
That being said, Raianiemi’s depiction of Shibuya is spot on. “Shibuya was like a graffiti: clashing, bright, screaming colors over a drab concrete surface, the clothes shops and holograms and neon signs and rainbow crowds a stark contrast to the utilitarian 90s architecture .“ I also liked the description of Japanese culture as having “labyrinths of the new and the old”.
Another less than effective element was establishing the sci-fi world. In fantasy or speculative fiction, it’s important to quickly communicate that you’re in a different world, and what its boundaries are. It wasn’t until more than halfway through the story, when Riina begins to interface with the quantum lovegety, that I was sure that the people in the story had some kind of technological enhancements, and that I was dealing with a futuristic Japan. On the second read through, I noted that early on it states that Riina’s father has “good protocol/etiquette software”, but I originally thought that this was just an artful, modern way of saying that he had good social habits.
The dialogue demonstrates a common beginner problem (that I also have): it’s naturalistic and functional, but no-one speaks for long, or says anything particularly interesting. This problem can be overcome when you realise that good authors write dialogue that could never be spoken in real life.
Finally, the ending doesn’t work. “The statue seemed to be looking at her sadly with its bronze dog eyes, and she knew that it was still waiting, waiting for love in Shibuya.” The repetition and echoes of the story’s title are cheesy. The story would be better off without the last paragraph.
All of which sounds negative, but like I said at the beginning: I enjoyed it. The idea of the quantum lovegety was engaging, because it captures the way that technology allows us to live proxy lives, but even more timelessly, it captures the shallowness and unreliability of memory, the rush or youth, and the fleeting nature of relationships.
Shibuya No Love is a good beginner’s story. The link is at the top of the page. What do you think?