I’m just going to fess up right now: I’m a bit of a culture snob. I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened in my upbringing that led me to be this way – that I can’t check out a summer blockbuster without reading the reviews first, that I prefer listening to the local college or independent radio station to KISS (at least when I don’t have my iPod and car adaptor on me) – but at this point all I can do is play with the hand I was dealt. With books, this means that my elitism extends to the point that I can’t even look at any sort of mystery, crime novel, or thriller without a hefty dose of cynicism and distance. I don’t even really know why that is; maybe we should call it the “James Patterson exhaustion” effect. But I’m pretty sure that in the history of my book-reading life, I can only recall maybe three books that I’ve read that fall under this category: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Natsuo Kirino’s Out, and (I guess if you consider it a psychological thriller) Ryu Murakami’s Piercing. I was pretty lukewarm about all of these.
In my defense, I realize this is an annoying and extremely close-minded way to experience the world, and I couldn’t possibly proclaim that everything I’ve ever enjoyed was of the highest cultural value. But I say all of this to preface my review of Kotaro Isaka’s conspiracy thriller Remote Control, and admit that its target audience was probably not me.
But lo and behold! It was actually pretty good.
Remote Control takes place in a possibly now, possibly near-future Japan, where the city of Sendai has been outfitted with “Security Pods” in all public areas that can capture 24-hour surveillance in all directions, and can record and track nearby cell phone activity. It is here that the newly elected Prime Minister is assassinated during a parade by a bomb flown in by remote control helicopter. All evidence points to former deliveryman and accidental-actress-rescuing media darling Masaharu Aoyagi as the culprit in the assassination. But is he really the criminal everyone thinks he is?
Of course not. Author Kotaro Isaka makes things interesting by changing up the structure of the novel just a little bit. Like in a movie, he starts the novel off at a distance, letting the reader experience the assassination almost second hand, relying on information passed on by the news. Then, he slowly zooms in until the reader finally gets to follow Aoyagi, as he tries to figure out what in the world is going on.
Obviously, for any thriller to be enjoyable it must be exciting and keep the tension going at all times. And overall, Remote Control does exactly that, even when the narration switches from the fleeing Aoyagi to Aoyagi’s ex-girlfriend and bystander Haruko. The chain of events even makes sense, more or less, with things going right in ways that aren’t too far-fetched and things going predictably or plausibly wrong, just when you think it might actually work. There are implausabilities, of course, and even a little silliness (assassination by remote control helicopter? Really?); that just goes with the conspiracy thriller territory. The biggest plot misstep is more of a problem with character development – where we the reader are supposed to be sympathetic to a crucial helper of Aoyagi’s, who absolutely deserves no such sympathy no matter what the circumstance (to say anything more would be a huge spoiler, even if I hated the way the character was handled).
Looking at the individual elements of Remote Control show a handling of pretty standard tropes: assassination, an ordinary guy caught up something beyond his understanding, the possibility of shadowy government interference, so on and so forth. What makes Remote Control stand out among other thrillers, at least to me and my admittedly little experience, is its unsubtle and incredibly critical portrayal of the media, journalism, and the 24-hour news cycle – allowing the public to point fingers without the facts, manipulating and shaping public opinion before “truth” can even have a chance to emerge:
“If you confess, we’ll try to see that things go a little easier for you. This is a terrible thing you’ve done, but even so there might be extenuating circumstances, something in your background we can emphasize to get a little sympathy out of the media.”
“There’s nothing in my background and nothing in the foreground – I had nothing to do with this!” Aoyagi’s frustration was mounting.
“I mean, we could create the impression that something in your childhood led you to do it.”
“Create the impression . . .” The conversation was getting so weird that Aoyagi was unsure what he was trying to say.
“We can still stir up a little sympathy for you – it’s a matter of creating the right image.”
“You mean you’ll manipulate the facts,” said Aoyagi.
“The image,” Sasaki corrected. “That’s the nature of these things. Images may not be based on much of anything, but they stick to you like nothing else.”
And of course the security pods lead to direct (and in-text) associations with America and the invasion of civil liberties through the Patriot Act.
The description on the cover likens Kotaro Isaka to Haruki Murakami, which is accurate only in the vaguest and most over-simplifying of ways: the everyday hero caught up in an unexpected adventure, the language being easy to read, and an on-going reference to the Beatles’ song “Golden Slumbers” (which is actually the original title of the novel, changed in English, I assume, for headache-inducing copyright reasons). This is no fault, I believe, to translator Stephen Snyder, who keeps the language from stumbling so as to facilitate this page-turner to keep the pages turning – the greatest achievement for making this enjoyable novel accessible to potential readers looking for their next beach-side read.
Kotaro Isaka, although touted as a mystery writer on the back, has a number of books that looked interesting (and are non-genre) when I was scanning bookshelves in Tokyo, so I truly hope this work is successful enough to see more of his work translated into English. Is this thriller a literary game changer? Probably not, but I can’t deny that I was genuinely excited to see what was going to happen next. I can’t say I’m hooked to the adrenaline thrillers and mystery novels can bring, nor can I tell how this compares to other works in the genre. But for this anti-thriller snob, it was a heck of a ride.