Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace (Knopf)

It is the world after the Apocalypse, bombed, burned-out and ravenous. People starve while lice feast on their skin and in their hair. Lured by the promise of food, young women follow men they have never seen before, and little boys play at being soldiers, joined by little girls who play at being streetwalkers. The smell of death is well known; it's the stench of rotten apricots. Nothing makes sense and no one is who they appear to be. The Victors are the only people who are not locked in a nightmare, and criminals are the rulers of the marketplace. The war is over and this is Tokyo in 1946.


In this broken city, corpses are not unusual and people are haunted by death. Black scorched concrete and the charred remnants of houses stand as memorials to the thousands of people who died in barrages of firebombs, while the noise of jackhammers working to rebuild what was destroyed punctuates every other activity. For Detective Minami, a Tokyo policeman, the dead from the past are so real to him that only sedatives will allow him to sleep. He’s a man whose life is almost robotic. He works, he brings food to his family, he makes quick visits to a woman who he says "haunts me."

"I am one of the survivors," he tells himself bitterly and repeatedly, "one of the lucky ones."

The bodies of young women who were raped and strangled are found in a city park, and the police begin the task of discovering their identities and finding their killer. Minami becomes immersed in a hell that is composed of his war memories and of the terrible truths that he is forced to learn by doing his job, and by finding a murderer whose past he shares.

And we join him there. This is not a novel that leaves the reader unmoved and unscathed. Through Minami, we become inhabited by the world that he roams through. His repeated phrases begin to drive us as crazy as his body lice drive him. His hunger becomes ours and we feel the bile that he persistently vomits rising in our own throats.

David Peace uses the cadence of rock and roll and the onomatopoeic language usually associated with comic strips to carry us deeply into this book, along with words that are so piercing that it often feels as though he is writing in a whole new language. His artistry and his storytelling hold us captive in a landscape that we would prefer not to see, and yet his skill makes it impossible for us to turn away.

Once in every couple of decades, just when fiction seems as though it is really and truly dead, along comes a book that turns upside down and inside out everything that we think we know about storytelling. Like On the Road, Catch 22, or All the Pretty Horses, Tokyo Year Zero redefines what a novel can be, and what a novel can do. Read it.