The Thrill Has Gone in Yasutaka Tsutsui’s ‘Paprika’

Yasutaka Tsutsui is something of an institution, or perhaps a legend, in the landscape of Japanese literature. The author of 78 books—34 novels and 44 collections of stories—Tsutsui’s output is jaw-dropping; straddling the boundary between traditional science fiction and avant-garde weirdness, Tsutsui claims a degree of respectability that few “genre” authors enjoy.

This year, Vintage Contemporaries released Paprika, Tsutsui’s 1994 novel of psychiatric intervention, corporate espionage and dreams-turned-reality, promising everything from an “inventive and loopy style” to “a surreal thrill-ride.” For readers overstuffed with everything from Game of Thrones grimness to Cormac McCarthy bleakness to the formulaic “redemption” of much contemporary literature (cough cough, Anita Shreve, cough cough), these promises make Paprika sound like a breath of fresh air.

Sadly, the book fails to deliver on these lofty promises. It’s engaging enough, and there’s certainly a lot going on—maybe too much at times—but for all the potentially-trippy subject matter and opportunity for a “surreal thrill-ride”, this is a surprisingly staid book. Plot developments are doled out with excruciating slowness, while on the sentence level, the language is simply dull. For a book so heavily invested in dreams, this is a bewildering development.

The story is fairly complicated from the get-go. At some unspecified time in the future, psychiatrists in Japan are using experimental machines to enter and observe patients’ dreams. This is not without controversy, as the potential is there for the negative influence of the patient to wash back and affect the therapist, with potentially disastrous results.

So far, so good. But mixed in with this storyline is a complex web of corporate intrigue, as executives squabble with each other over who gets credit for what, who is aligned with whom, who is trying to get someone else fired, and so forth. Maybe it’s all terribly witty to someone engaged in that milieu but The Office it ain’t, and to me it’s tedious as hell. Meanwhile, another plotline involves nominal protagonist Atsuko and her struggle to conceal the true identity of therapist and dream-diver Paprika, while yet another involves Paprika’s attempts to treat corporate bigshot Noda.

The scenes with Noda’s dreams, which really ought to include some lively writing and off-the wall imagery, are unforgivably dull. Maybe that’s what dreams often are—reminiscences of school days and the like—but there is little sense of menace or weirdness here, and it feels like a lost opportunity. Later in the story, as events threaten to spiral out of control, the oddball imagery does make itself more evident, and the writing gets livelier too. But given that it takes half the book for anything interesting or sinister to really get started, it’s questionable whether readers will ever make it that far.

Tsutsui’s sentences are serviceable and workmanlike, conveying information with little fanfare or zing. If this were truly a mind-boggling head-trip, then such an approach would make sense: no point gilding the lily of over-the-top subject matter with over-the-top linguistic pyrotechnics. As mentioned, though, this is not the case; many scenes happen in the gray offices and boardrooms of corporations, and the gray prose that flatly delineates those scenes is as dull as the characters inhabiting them.

Maybe some of this can be pinned on the translation, but I hate to go there—”lost in translation” is a cliché that far too often gets the author off the hook. Andrew Driver’s translation seems sturdy enough, but even he can’t create inventive language where the writer has failed to do so. Maybe the cadences of Japanese don’t carry over into English’s more staccato rhythms, but even so, this wouldn’t affect clunky vocabulary choices or bland, pedestrian descriptive passages.

Another difficulty is the constantly-shifting point of view, a cardinal error made by many young writers which is really unforgivable for an author of Tsutsui’s stature. In general, a narrative is limited to a particular point of view on purpose, so that information is limited to that character; the reader only knows as much as the character does. The reason is simple enough: if point of view flips around uncontrollably, then there is no reason why the reader should be unaware of any information possessed by any character. Of course, sometimes the point-of-view shift is deliberate—think of As I Lay Dying—in which case, interesting tension is created when the reader learns something that one character knows but another does not. In such cases, the POV shifts are part of the structure of the book, and because they occur on a regular basis, the reader accepts them.

In the case of Paprika, point of view flits around often, sometimes within a simple dialogue exchange, but there is no pattern to it. A conversation told from one character’s viewpoint suddenly hops to another for the space of a sentence or two, then back again, for no reason other than the writer wanting to make a comment about the second character’s thoughts or feelings. This raises the question: Why that particular moment? Why not the moment before, or after? Why not tell the whole story from that point of view? And when information is revealed later in the story, why has that information been withheld, while other much less important information been revealed?

For having such potentially thrilling subject matter, this book is quite disappointing. Readers interested in contemporary Japanese literature might wish to take a look, or those curious about sci-fi from non-Western traditions. The rest of us, though, are apt to feel that this story is so slow to get rolling that we’re dozing through it ourselves.

RATING 4 / 10