In the years since Aoyama lost his wife to cancer, he developed a rapport and closeness with his son Shige. Now a teenager, Shige seems to have developed some extrasensory wisdom along his life and although he tends to call his father Pops, he is a pretty good and clear-sighted boy. Thus, it is without a hint of the trouble to come that he asks, “Why don’t you find yourself a new wife, Pops?” (7) That is both the first line of Ryu Murakami’s novel AUDITION and the instigating event. It is also the clarion call for titanic forces to turn against Aoyama and introduce drama (and ultimately horror) into his life.
AUDITION is of course the novel that inspired the infamous cult film of the same name. The prose and screen stories are rather similar; however, the film jumbles the timeline a bit and adds in a bit material in the finale that was at best alluded to in the prose version. Almost half the film’s running time is, in fact, relegated to the last two chapters of the novel. It remains pretty true to the book nevertheless. In fact, much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from Murakami’s text.
The story begins as a search, turns into a relationship that borders on obsession, and end in a very dark place indeed. Aoyama is the owner of a film company, specializing in documentaries. His friend Yoshikawa is a producer of film dramas and genre pieces. In his forties, Aoyama also feels shy about investing time on unworthy candidates and is looking for a way to avoid wasting his or their time. So, Yoshikawa suggests auditioning some women for a movie that doesn’t exist – movies cease being produced between the casting and the principle photography step all the time – and thus calls in some favors to get advertisements on the radio. There are four thousand applicants, which Aoyama helps whittle down to seventy for the actual audition process. Yoshikawa warns him to avoid falling for the photos, which are easily manipulated, and to pay closer attention to the essays. Even before the audition has begun, Aoyama is smitten with the essay and photo for Asami, a woman who identifies with the story because of a personal accident in her youth which ruined her chances to perform ballet professionally. At the audition, Aoyama’s interest is deepened. However, Yoshikawa is disturbed by the woman for reasons he cannot specify. As Aoyama pursues a relationship with the woman, he learns she has a troubled past but he is drawn to her strength. Here is a woman who suffered physical abuse and yet who managed to overcome it through her dedication to ballet. Several friends in his life are put off by Asami, but he is heedless of their views. Like a moth to flame, Aoyama is drawn closer and closer. After a few months, he proposes and Asami runs from him. She will return with realistic fears about being hurt, asking that he love only her. Assuming she wants a statement of fidelity, Aoyama agrees. However, Asami has not been told he has a son. And a family dog. When she wants all his love, she means she needs it ALL.
AUDITION is told in a spare but compelling style. Ralph McCarthy’s translation seems a solid effort to capture Murakami’s prose. I have read a few of the author’s previous works, and one of them – the twisty serial psycho piece IN THE MISO SOUP – was also translated by McCarthy. It too was a solid translation.
The one thing AUDITION is not is a traditional horror novel. Instead, it falls into that odd landscape of literary fiction, veering toward the disturbing side. The first three quarters of the book feature nary a murder, a bloodletting, or an evocation of gross atmosphere (no thunderstorms or the like). However, the book does establish a sense of subtle but inevitable impending doom through a variety of moments:
A copy of Newsweek sits on a table, featuring a provocative photograph of a homeless boy from New York City:
At sixteen, the caption read, this boy has never been hugged. Aoyama gazed for some time at the kid’s face. It was the face of a human being who’s been constructed exclusively of wounds. Not time or history of ambition, nothing but wounds.
The face of a person who could probably kill someone without feeling anything whatsoever. (43)
This is the kind of face he would see again, though it would be worn by a much different person than the boy in the photograph.
Take Yoshikawa’s response to Aoyama’s worries about the audition:
“Look, our main goal is to find you a wife, isn’t it? Don’t tell me you’re starting to feel guilty. There’s no going back now, pal. Anyway, what’s so terrible about what we’re doing? We’re looking for your bride, your wife, the woman you’re going to care for for the rest of your life. I mean, if you were just trying to find a mistress or whatever we might have to worry about divine retribution, but . . .”(45-46)
Take Aoyama’s hostess friend Kai’s response after meeting Asami:
“Nice person, bad person –that’s not the kind of level this girl is at. I can see you’re crazy about her and probably won’t be able to hear this, Ao-chan, but I think you’d be better off staying away from someone like her. I can’t read her exactly, but I can tell you she’s either a saint or a monster. Maybe both extremes at once, but not somewhere in between.” (133)
There are many more.
Juxtaposed with the romantic plotting, the result is a disconnect for the reader. This is a doomed relationship and perhaps Aoyama himself is doomed. Of course, he is so drawn in that he cannot heed the warnings and turn away. This is a ride he must sit through to the bloody end. And boy, does it get down, dirty and gory in the finale.
However, the book is not in the vein of, say, Brian Keene. If I were to draw comparisons with contemporary American authors, I might suggest it is a pairing of Joyce Carol Oate’s modern gothics with one of David J. Schow’s quieter but nevertheless ruthless short stories. In fact, if those two authors collaborated on a novel that tried to update a classic Greek work to pick at the difficulties between men and women in the modern day, it might read a lot like AUDITION.
As I considered this train of thought, I really started to see elements of Aeschylus’s tragedy AGAMEMNON in this piece. That play, of course, is about a Spartan hero and king who has returned home following the Trojan War with a war bride (Cassandra) in tow. His wife Clytaemnestra plots Agamemnon’s destruction, and though he gets plenty of warnings, he does not believe or does not understand them. By the play’s end, Agamemnon becomes a victim of violence in his home by those he believes to venerate him. While AUDITION is not a direct scene by scene reference on this story line, it does draw from the same source of inspiration. The first piece in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy (which is composed of AGAMEMNON, THE LIBATION BEARERS, and THE EUMENIDES) is choked with foreshadowing of blood, doom, and despair. The story was well known to Greek audiences, of course, so they would fixate to these details as a sign of King Agamemnon’s unstoppable fate. In AUDITION we have similar elements applied in new ways: a man in power (owner of a documentary production company) who gets lost in powerful passion and is therefore blinded to the omens and portents of waiting doom until they come to pass. The story itself has become archetypal in the nearly two and a half millennia since its first writing and performance, and while I cannot say that Murakami is necessarily aware or familiar with the play, its subject matter seems to have cast a shadow upon his novel. AUDITION is therefore a new addition to the sort of commentary that has been going on for centuries through the medium of story.
Another intriguing piece about AUDITION is the narrative’s obsession with truth and lies. The dichotomy and the way these lead to drama, passion, and ultimately horror are intriguing. Aoyama makes a living in the realm of telling truths, his particular branch of film is documentary after all. However, he relies upon a lie to find a candidate for his new wife, and that reliance leads to guilt and a kind of situational blindness. In fact, it drives a wedge between Aoyama and his friend. Yoshikawa makes a living by creating lies that are believable enough to nab production money interest, and he uses that skill in an attempt to help Aoyama. Versed in deceptions as he is, he innately suspects something “wrong” about Aoyama’s choice but his warnings are not understood. Asami has woven a web of deceptions about herself and her past, ostensibly to cover over painful history. She may be trying to deceive herself or she may be fully aware of what she wants and how to achieve it, but Asami still wears lies like armor. However, what she demands is complete honesty and forthrightness from her partners, and any perceived untruth is grounds for harsh and total judgment. Is she a tool of the divine retribution Yoshikawa off-handedly suggested the two men did not have to worry about? Perhaps. Does Asami serve not only as a character but as a representative manifestation of the psychological complexities that will forever keep the characters isolated from one another? This seems a bit more realistic, in terms of the narrative. I did not use the word obsession lightly above. There is a crazed attentiveness to truth both between the characters and in the plotting. The text seems to be pondering how useful an understanding of truth really is without an equal understanding of deceit. As well, it seems to argue that even a passing understanding of deceit is akin to a spiritual taint, which will lead only to trouble. In the world of AUDITION, the old chestnut about the dangerous knowledge of good and evil has been rewritten to remove it from difficult to define generalities to the specific of the dangerous knowledge and application of truth and lies. Provocative.
Murakami’s shocking work may not be for all tastes, but it is an intriguing piece in its own right. Although not a traditional horror genre story, per se, it delivers some fascinating observations on the psychological and physical threats underlying relationships between we flawed humans, building a non-traditional narrative that evokes an atmosphere of intellectual doom.
This week’s work is available in eBook and paperback copies. Other works from Murakami are also available and are worth a read as well. I enjoyed IN THE MISO SOUP and ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE, but there are other titles (e.g., PIERCING) I have not yet tried.
Next week, we will jump back into our ConsideringWestlake series with a look at the second Mitch Tobin novel MURDER AMONG CHILDREN. This one is available as an eBook thanks to the fine folks at Mysterious Press and Open Road Media. If you are in a detective mood, grab a copy and give it a read.
Aeschylus. THE ORESTEIA. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1966.
Murakami, Ryu. AUDITION. Translated by Ralph McCarthy, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.