The stories in Zoo may contain violence, corpses, and dismembered body parts, but they are detached, clinical works. Despite being billed as "A Masterpiece of Horror from the Hottest Writer in Japan," I didn't find anything in here that seriously freaked me out or made me feel creepy or (one of my favorite neologisms) squidgy. Otsuichi's preferred mode seems to be quite intellectual. Zoo could sit comfortably on a shelf next to such speculative/psychological/horrific tales as Peter Watt's Rifters sequence and his Hugo-nominated (should-have-won) Blindsight.
That said, not all (or even most) of the stories have any fantastic content. Consider the title story, published in 2002. A man's girlfriend was killed several months ago, and he's been getting daily pictures of her decomposing corpse in his mailbox. He's investigating her death, but as we follow him through a typical day we realize that he is not stable. He remembers some of their experiences together, and eventually his day and the flashbacks converge on her death. He is stuck in a loop, unable to move past what's been done, until finally something jolts him out of it. There's nothing speculative here unless you consider the fringes of psychological (and psychotic) experience to be speculative.
In most of these stories, it is the psychological state of the narrator that is key. With one notable exception (about which more later) all the stories are told in the first person. The narrators are people recovering from or suffering mental trauma—often from early childhood abuse. In some cases, we get the perspectives of children suffering from some fairly bizarre mental conditioning. This is the case in "SO-far" (2001) in which a boy believes that his parents have come to inhabit separate universes that only he can bridge. He thinks that one of them was killed in an accident, but which one is indeterminate—he can still see both, but they don't appear to see each other. Stated so baldly it is a transparent metaphor for children suffering through divorce, but we get the interior perspective of a child trying his best to be the bridge, and finally making a drastic mental adjustment to save his own sanity.
Some of the stories have solid fantastic content. In "Song of the Sunny Spot" (2002), a robot is activated to find the only survivor of a plague that has wiped out all of humanity. The man wants the robot to bury him when he dies. In the brief time they have together, the robot learns about what it is to be human, especially regarding mortality. "The White House in the Cold Forest" (2002), on the other hand, is fantasy: a boy who underwent horrific isolation and abuse at the hands of his step-family finally makes his way in the world. He takes to killing people and building a house for himself in the deep forest from their corpses. A little girl comes looking for her brother, and offers to take his place as a structural element. Her conversations with the killer could eventually lead him toward some measure of redemption, although the end of the story doesn't give you any certainty that he finally finds it.
There's only one story in the book that I found to be completely unsatisfying. "Wardrobe" (2001) is the story that isn't obviously written in the first person. It involves murder, of course. We think that we know the culprit, and that we're looking at the psychological consequences of guilt or some-such. However, at the end of the story it turns into a whodunnit story, leading to a twist ending. The problem is that once you know the twist, the rest of the story falls apart. At the story's end, you find out that the narrator isn't who or what you thought. Then you realize that they were withholding information from the audience for no reason other than to support the twist ending. It's hard not to cry foul on that one.
One of the reasons that I accepted this collection for review was that I'm very interested in genre fiction coming from overseas—I'm curious to see how fiction written in different places differs from what we're used to. The differences apparent in Zoo aren't huge; in fact, some of the stories appear to be set in Europe, especially "The White House" which features red-haired peasantry. Certainly some of the stories plug directly into what is commonly believed in the West about Japanese psychology. Consider the obsessive fixation on specific schooling in the story "In a Falling Airplane" (original to this collection). It involves an airliner being hijacked by a man completely devastated by his inability to get into the hallowed halls of Tokyo University—even though he is a success in other areas of his life. Another thing I noticed was that many of the stories eschew giving their characters names. In my ARC we don't get the first named character until page 99. This is also a trick seen in Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985); perhaps Murakami is a direct influence on Otsuichi, a much younger author. When it comes to Zoo there is one unfortunate problem with the translation (by Terry Gallagher): the dialogue doesn't come through that well. Most of the conversations fail to ring true, and they often seem childish or stilted.
However, what did shine through as something that I don't see often in English-language speculative fiction was an air of constrained energy beneath the fairly straightforward prose. All of these stories tend towards a "journalistic" or "transparent" style, favoring shorter, direct sentences. But there's an animating energy beneath the surface that feels like something trapped could spring forth at any moment. In "Words of God" (2001), a child discovers that he has the power to change the world at will, putting one in mind of the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" (1961). Despite his godlike powers, the child is still a child and narrates with a child's simple, direct sentences: "All of this was my fault. I did something wrong and I am so sorry" (p. 195). As the story gets weirder and weirder, we sense depths behind the scenes that the child is not aware of. The story resolves without ever bringing that abyss on stage, but it constitutes an unseen threat that lends tension to almost all the stories in the collection. Is this a consequence of the famously repressed Japanese psyche? It seems too easy an explanation, but it certainly makes for some effectively driven writing.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and blogs at the Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.