Sunday, July 29, 2018

The goby and the shrimp

"The pistol shrimp digs out a little hole to live in. But every once in a while, something else comes and sets up camp in the shrimp's hole — a little fish, called a goby. The goby isn't a freeloader, however. In exchange for a place to live, he hangs out at the entrance to the hole and wags his tail whenever enemies approach, letting the shrimp know what's coming. It's what biologists call a symbiotic relationship."
In Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino, Detective Sasagaki has been watching the shrimp for twenty years, hoping to catch out the goby.

It starts with the murder of a pawnbroker. The shrimp is a little girl at the time, whose mother has an undefined relationship with the victim. And grim events seem to follow the girl throughout her life. She grows into an enterprising woman whose calm demands respect, or fear.
"You know how the sun rises and sets at a certain time each day? In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it's not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole lives. When people talk about being afraid, what they're afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade. That's why you're frightened, isn't it?"
It's a mostly enjoyable read that covers a lot of aspects of a changing society, from dance clubs, tea ceremonies, and matchmaking services to booming financial markets, pirated video games, and fringe sex trade operations.

This book sprawls more than the other Higashino books I've read, and has a large cast of characters. Apparently, the novel was originally published in a serialized fashion, which goes a long way toward explaining the pacing. Every chapter switches to a new scene, and for the first part of the book to a new set of players. To my mind the chapters were overly long and bogged down in stage-setting unnecessary to the main story. It makes sense for serialization but as a novel it could be tighter — it shouldn't take 200 pages to get one's bearings and feel invested in the outcome.

Still, the characters are mostly well drawn, and the at-times heavy subject matter is balanced with moral insight and good humour ("It was Akemi's stated belief that a life lived in fear of stinking like garlic wasn't worth living."). The title remains enigmatic to me.

An interesting perspective in the South China Morning Post:
Journey Under the Midnight Sun isn't a whodunnit or even a whydunnit but a what-exactly-is-being-dunnit. It is also an extraordinary work of popular fiction. You could read it as a potted history of modern Japan, an exploration of a crumbling social order (gender, class, money, obedience), a ludic literary puzzle that plays with genre expectations: Higashino's many allusions veer from mysteries to "classic girl's school story". But at no point does he forget his fundamental raison d'ecrire: to provide a tantalising mystery that keeps the pages turning.
See Contemporary Japanese Literature for a fantastic review that covers the problematic elements of this novel — notably the author's treatment of women and the detective's less-than-credible obsession with the case. While I definitely noticed these flaws, I chose to overlook them in my pursuit of entertainment.

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