Welcome to the ‘Literary Blog Hop’, a meme hosted by The Blue Bookcase for book bloggers who focus on reviewing literary fiction. This weeks’ hop comes with the question:
“What is your favourite book, and why would you consider it as ‘literary’.”
When I received news of this meme in my inbox, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to talk about a popular Japanese trilogy that has been on my mind ever since I read it about 5 years ago. The books I’m
talking about are known as ‘The Ring Trilogy’. The three books ‘Ring’ (1991), ‘Spiral’ (1995) and ‘Loop’ (2002) were written by Koji Suzuki and became a literary phenomenon all over the world. While ‘Ring’ is the most popular book in the series, ‘Spiral’ and ‘Loop’ provide an excellent follow-up to the chilling story of the cursed videotape that kills its’ viewers in seven days. Here is a short synopsis of each book without any spoilers.
‘RING’ – BOOK 1
“One night in Tokyo, four healthy teenagers die simultaneously. Autopsy reports list the cause as heart failure, but for journalist Kazuyuki Asakawa whose niece was among the dead, it seems something more sinister is afoot. Asakawa’s suspicions drive him to investigate further, which leads him to a strange videotape found in a mountain lodge the teenagers visited together over the holidays. At first, the tape is nothing more than a random series of unrelated images. However the images end abruptly, and what follows is an inexplicable message that condemns the viewer to die in seven days unless they complete a charm. But to Asakawa’s horror, the instructions have been erased. Now it becomes a race against the clock to find out the mystery of the tape, the truth behind the curse and who made it.
Soon Asakawa realises the images themselves are a series of clues, which point to a terrible secret and an insatiable revenge against humanity.”
‘SPIRAL’ – BOOK 2
“Dr. Ando suffers from nightmares. In his dreams he is trying to save his drowning son. But everyday he wakes to the cruel reality of his death and the fact that his marriage has all but fallen apart. The only thing keeping him going is his job – performing autopsies. That is, until his old rival Ryuji Takayama, turns up on the steel slab. In High School, Ryuji was famous for being a codebreaker. He would have remained undefeated, if it wasn’t for Ando. Yet here he is, and ironically Ando has the honour of doing the last duties. But Ryuji’s death soon turns out to be as cryptic as the codes they used to crack back in school. A blood test reveals the impossible truth that Ryuji died from a virus supposed to be extinct, and it turns out he isn’t the only one to have been infected. Being the only person ever to have beat Ryuji, Ando gets the unshakable feeling that his friend is controlling things from beyond the grave by chosing him to solve this mystery.
It’s not long before Ando’s investigation leads him to a videotape, and a crucial choice between life, death – and rebirth.”
‘LOOP’ – BOOK 3
“In the ‘Ring’, vendetta came in the form of a videotape. In ‘Spiral’, a mutating virus threatened the entire diversity of life. In ‘Loop’, everything about the ‘Ring’ universe is turned on its head, as the story opens on Kaoru Futami, a precocious ten year old boy born to an era on the brink of a cancer epidemic. This new, aggressive form of the illness is incurable; yet Kaoru has hope as his father lies dying in a hospital along with many other patients. Now a medical student, Kaoru sets out to discover the origins of the disease which takes him to the barren desert of New Mexico and the abandoned HQ’s of the elusive ‘Loop’ project. What he discovers there is an advanced artificial life programme designed to imitate all stages of human civilization. As Kaoru watches events unfold, he realises that a virus mysteriously wiped out the inhabitants of the virtual world; a virus that managed to escape the ‘Loop’ project and somehow find its way into reality.
Yet that isn’t all. Kaoru also finds himself facing a shocking personal truth and a destiny requiring the ultimate sacrifice.”
The reason I chose these books is because despite of their place in popular culture and the ‘hype’ generated by their film versions, I strongly believe they deserve to be recognised as literary fiction.
“The Ring Trilogy? Wait a minute… isn’t that mainstream fiction, Science-Fiction, Gothic horror? How the ‘Ring’ compare to the likes of ‘The English Patient’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’?”
Well, it can’t. Purely because of the difference in genres, but more importantly because books like the trilogy only begin to work on a literary level when it is perceived as a synergistic whole. In other words, you have to read them in order to get the full effect of the intricate way in which the seemingly disconnected plots come together to form the ‘big picture’. Suzuki also provides access to Japanese folklore, offering insight into how various supernatural beliefs developed in this culture. There is also the way each book takes mythological themes of death, life and rebirth and re-works them into a perspective the modern reader can easily relate to. One common problem is that literary fiction is often confused with the ‘Classics’. While the canon will always remain as a set number of key texts, literary fiction is the quite the opposite. If it can be regarded as a genre, it is the most flexible of them all, as literary fiction can turn up in any style of writing. To clear things up, I feel a great need to classify once and for all exactly what literary fiction means.
Literary Fiction – A Short Introduction
The term itself is very difficult to pin down and is surrounded by a plethora of preconceived ideas, most of which are often negative to say the least. The words ‘literary fiction’ are often associated with highbrow art that is often written in a way to be largely unintelligible to the average reader, and more often than not, with a focus on garnering as many awards as it possibly can.
While some of these are tell-tale traits of literary fiction, I am glad to say that it isn’t as straight-forward or narrow as that. ‘Literary’ means ‘of words’, and a work of literary fiction often indicates one to be of considerable merit within its own respectful genre. It may also mean that the book is written with a focus on style, psychological depth or character development.The best thing about literary fiction, is that it often has something important to say about its subject matter or about the art of writing, which means a relatively new book can be classed as literary fiction.
These are traits carried by the books as each one takes the ‘viral’ theme and develops it in a new direction. While some people may not like the progressive changes Suzuki made in his follow-up novels, I thoroughly enjoyed them, as it challenged me to refocus my own theories and assumptions about the plot which taught me a lot about how important it is to keep a story as creative as possible. It was also wonderful to see a work that straddles more than one genre keep the plot balanced between the two. Even though horror and science-fiction do go quite well together, it is difficult to produce a story that is ‘credible’ enough to keep the reader involved, and this is a very important factor for both these genres. If you think of literary classics like Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, both depicted at the time, a fantastical future that was thoroughly make-believe. But what made them so popular for later generations was their grounding in the political and scientific theories at the time. Of course today’s critics hail them as works of immense foresight, as some of those fantastical things have become a reality.
Frankenstein’s monster was created by various body parts and resurrected through ‘galvanism’ or lightning. Today, doctors can perform amazing surgical feats such as skin grafts and organ transplants. We have also discovered that the human body has its own electrical current and cloning is now a reality. ‘Big Brother’ was the theme of Orwell’s dystopian story, as people are ruled by a despotic government that perpetrates mind control, constant surveillance of its citizens and torture. This scenario is not far off, as some governments i.e. China and Iran constantly monitor, block and censor information on the internet that goes against it’s policies. In a time where freedom of speech and thought has never been so relaxed; there are still parts of the world where people are punished for their thoughts.
In the ‘Ring’, the now extinct smallpox virus finds it’s way onto a video tape, which when viewed infects its audience in the form of a curse. In ‘Spiral’ this virus mutates, finding it’s way onto the internet and to millions of viewers. The result is an epidemic on an unprecedented scale. Contrary to popular belief, in reality the smallpox virus is all but extinct. It is still kept alive in two places; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in United States and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia. There have been rumours that the virus is intended for use in biological warfare.
The viral theme however does not end here, as in ‘Loop’ we are introduced to the concept of artificial intelligence; something that many programmers are working on. Lately gaming systems like the Nintendo Wii have made physical interaction a part of the gaming experience. There is a great desire to create an ‘intuitive’ relationship between man and machine. The iPad is a great example of how this what with the development of the ergonomic touchscreen and the facility to flip the screen any way you like. I feel that it’s only a matter of time before a totally independent artificial intelligence program is created. What something like this will bring only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, art often does imitate life which gives me the feeling that fiction offers us an uncanny glimpse into the future.
These are but a few of the big themes these books analyse. As technology takes over making our lives more easier, we tend to lose other things. We become alienated from the organic and the natural. What Suzuki tries to illustrate is what happens when the unnatural begins to control our lives as it changes it against our will. The symbol of the virus comes to mean many things. The mutation of it throughout the three books shows the relentless process of evolution and the fact that we haven’t arrived at out final state and we are still a work in progress. The creation of artificial intelligence (playing ‘god’) brings about the ‘curse’ or the cross all humanity has to bear for making something it cannot even begin to fathom. I could go on and on, but I would be giving away a lot of spoilers, and that wouldn’t be fair for those who wish to read and find out for themselves.
Oh, and for all those who think that Suzuki might have stolen the ‘world within a world’ plot from the Matrix films, think again. ‘Loop’ was first published a year before Matrix Reloaded was screened. How’s that for predictive fiction?