Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so beautiful, or that feels so right in my hand. I didn’t have much interest in guns before, but the moment I saw it, all I could think about was making it mine.”
The “I” here is a young man named Nishikawa. He’s probably in his 20s, because he’s a university student, but beyond that, there’s not much to glean from his personal life, because he’s not one for introspection. Much more fascinating is his new object of obsession, and like a man sleepwalking through life, Nishikawa finally seems to have a purpose: to use that gun.
For a debut novel, there is a lot to like here. Despite some clunky and repetitive prose, Nakamura knows how to ratchet up the tension, as we slowly progress from Nishikawa simply owning the gun, to taking care of the gun, to bringing the gun around with him, until finally, feeling like he needs to shoot that gun, at something or someone. Even as readers we know this is a foregone conclusion, but Nakamura, particularly as we barrel into the climax, knows how to employ multiple bait and switches to keep us guessing as to Nishikawa’s ultimate fate.
What’s most satisfying about The Gun, though, is how fully realized Nishikawa is as a character for whom self-analysis is not only difficult, but pointless. Where The Gun really succeeds is as a portrait of a young sociopath, vaguely aware of traditional morality but ultimately succumbing to his own desires against all else. His obsession with the gun is chilling simply because of how easily he can justify his own compulsions, and treat them as practically mundane:
I rarely yearned for anything out of the ordinary. It didn’t much matter to me if everyone else had the same things as I did. The thing was that I had found it. The same way that, for instance, some people found pleasure drawing pictures or making music, or they relied on work or women, drugs or religion, I felt like I had discovered what I was passionate about. And for me, that thing was nothing more than the gun. There was nothing wrong with me. That’s what I realized. And I started to relax.
So what makes a sociopath? Nakamura gives us no easy answers, but simply a number of clues that might lead in one direction or another; perhaps it’s a combination of all of them, or none at all.
Written initially in 2002, The Gun, despite being written in Japan, is a thoroughly post 9-11 novel, and one that still hold weight in today’s America, a country divided between the threat of ISIS and terrorism and the homespun problems of domestic gun laws. In one section, Nishikawa goes to the library to find news stories about the missing gun, and glazes over a litany of issues that still resonate eerily today:
The vast majority of the articles were completely irrelevant to me. Whether the Americans had dropped a bomb somewhere in Afghanistan, or whether their strategy would succeed-these kinds of things had nothing to do with me right now. What Japan’s reaction would be, or whether Japan would become entangled with it-such questions did not interest me at the moment either. A kid had died after being bullied, and his parents had sued the school and the bully. There was a fire somewhere, and it was difficult to say whether it had been arson or an accident. There was a festival. Funds were embezzled, and the culprit had fled. There was a scientific discovery. Two trucks had collided. Someone had been run over. An intellectual whose name I didn’t recognize gave his opinions about the United States, offering advice to the Japanese government. Politicians quarreled, talking earnestly about something or other. Two entertainers died. It seemed like the information I was looking for was not to be found in any of these newspapers.
The descriptions above are vague, yes, but in its blandness the reader sees how very little progress the world has seen in the last fifteen years.
One thing that’s not made explicit, but tacitly alluded to (why would it, in a book written initially for Japanese readers) is that the whole reason finding this particular gun is extraordinary is because guns are illegal in Japan, and not “just a part of everyday life, nothing particularly unusual about them” like they are in the United States. So is Westernization to blame, influences from a violent, external cultural force?
Not quite, or probably not entirely (Japan certainly has its share of crime, murder, and suicide). Is it instead, perhaps, a lack of culture? Nishikawa is constantly referencing the boredom and monotony of his existence, and is essentially a person with no particular passions or desire for the future, until, at least, he finds the gun. But Nishikawa is far from the only character affected by ennui. All of Nishikawa’s friends and acquaintances are of dubious moral standards or at the very least, not particularly driven. There’s Toast Girl, a nameless, casual sex partner who doesn’t mind sleeping with Nishikawa as long as her boyfriend doesn’t find out; Keisuke, his sex-driven, womanizing “friend”; his neighbor, who it becomes clear is beating her son; and finally, Yuko, a classmate for whom Nishikawa may have some deeper feelings for, but who is equally apathetic about her future and why she even bothers with university in the first place. Is perhaps The Gun a criticism of meaningful opportunity and engagement for Japan’s Millennial generation?
Finally, and somewhat less successfully, is a rather humdrum Nature vs. Nurture question. It turns out Nishikawa was more or less orphaned when his real father abandoned him (being raised instead by foster parents), and whom Nishikawa visits on his deathbed in the course of the novel. The connection is more or less made explicit when Nishikawa suddenly remembers how at the orphanage, he had trained himself with a coping mechanism of: “if I didn’t think about things, then I wouldn’t be unhappy.”
Nakamura seems content to let all these factors influence the reader’s perception, and it ultimately works because, instead of an easy answer, what the reader gets is a surprisingly complex character study of a very unreliable narrator. In his writing career, Nakamura would also go on to receive great acclaim for another character study disguised as run-of-the-mill thriller with The Thief, the first of his novels to come out in English from Soho Press. The Gun is an admittedly rough genesis of what would become Nakamura’s ultimate strength, and why he’s more Patricia Highsmith than James Patterson: a literary bias toward character over plot machinations. And despite his penchant for the darkness in his character’s souls, in the end, Nakamura betrays his slightly more optimistic outlook for humanity: the fascination and impulse for destruction is human, but the act is not. The problem is that the line dividing the two is awfully thin.