David Peace
Patient X

When David Peace moved to Japan in 1994, the first book he read was Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashōmon and Other Stories. So began the writerly romance between one of the 2003 Granta-crowned Best of Young British Novelists and the father of the Japanese short story, which finds form in Patient X, a biographical novel-cum-strange literary seance.

Akutagawa isn’t an idol many would seek to invoke: we meet him as a madman locked in an iron castle. The author’s lifelong fear of losing his mind, as his mother did during his childhood, has apparently come true. What follows are tales told to a scribe who claims “accuracy and fidelity”, but it’s difficult to discern where biographical fact ends and grim fairytale begins.

While Peace is known predominantly as a crime writer (Red Riding Quartet), his novels are always grounded in meticulous research, and here his archival impulse is strong as ever. Fragments of newspaper clippings and Akutagawa’s letters, diaries and other writings appear throughout these fragmented stories. If you’re not an Akutagawa devotee, however, it can be difficult to find your footing.

Peace partially seeks to unveil the magic trick of how life translates into art. But for the character of Akutagawa, it’s not a one-way path. Just as his “legion of selves” bleed into his characters, his creations trail him like ghosts. The mind that can conceive such fantastical tales walks a tightrope, where missteps plummet him into paranoia and delusion. The chaos of the Great KantŌ earthquake of 1923 seems an externalisation of Akutagawa’s psyche.

The prose often descends into incantatory and rhythmic repetitions, which can capture the fractured mind with raw lyricism: “Here, death and hell, endless death and endless hell … here without end”. It can also be infuriating, reading like an undergraduate who’s fallen for the Modernists: “... you are happy here, happy here in this happy house, this happy house next door to poverty.”

An increasingly tormented Akutagawa, who died by suicide in 1927 at 35, confesses to a friend a recurring dream. In a desolate iron castle, a doppelganger sits writing an epic: “... a long poem about a creature who in another room is writing a poem about another creature who in another room is writing a poem, and so on on, and so on ...”

This dizzying image of infinite regress could easily be read as the novel’s leitmotif, with its stories within stories and uncanny repetitions. And so on, and so on.  TM

Faber, 320pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2018 as "David Peace,Patient X ".

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Reviewer: TM