Monday, June 7, 2010

Occupied City

Occupied City, by David Peace, is the second in a trilogy of disturbing crime novels set in occupied Japan immediately following World War II. (The first is Tokyo Year Zero and the third, to be published later this year, is currently titled Tokyo Regained.) To say that this a challenging, densely-textured book would be an understatement. The story is based on an actual event that took place in occupied Japan in 1948: A man posing as a health official entered a Tokyo bank shortly after closing, informed the employees that a customer with dysentery may have made a deposit that day, and suggested that as a precaution they all drink an antidote he had brought with him. What he served them was actually a deadly poison, and twelve people, including the custodian, his wife and two children, died agonizing deaths. Four people survived and were discovered crawling in the street outside the bank. The case set off something close to hysteria. The hunt for the killer was complicated by the fact that none of the survivors could agree on a description of the man. In addition, US authorities got involved to the extent that newspapers and police were manipulated and sidetracked for "security reasons." A middle-aged painter was eventually convicted of the crime on flimsy evidence. He maintained his innocence until the day he died, at the age of 95, in 1987. His family continues a campaign to have him exonerated. The "real" killer has ostensibly never been identified. An added twist was a possible link to Unit 731, the notorious facility wherein the Japanese performed biological, chemical and surgical experiments on live humans. The unit was discovered in the aftermath of the war, and US authorities hurried to cover up its existence, sensing that the "research," for all it's hideousness, was valuable and that it might fall into Russian hands.

If this sounds like it would make for a gruesomely thrilling tale--it does. But Peace couches it in unusual literary terms. He relates the story in Rashoman-like fashion, presenting conflicting points of view and resurrecting the ghosts of the dead along with the troubled spirits of the living. In Occupied City a terrified writer is haunted by twelve "voices": the twelve murdered victims, two police detectives, a survivor of the massacre, an American scientist, an amateur "occult" detective, a journalist, a gangster-turned-politician, a Soviet investigator, the convicted man, the relatives of the dead, and "the Killer"--whoever that may be.

As if this weren't complex enough, he employs numerous typographical devices to indicate, for example, a man documenting his own approaching madness in diary form (huge chunks of text are typed, then crossed out), or the three simultaneous thought processes of a young journalist riddled with jealousy when he suspects his wife is having an affair with an American soldier. To top it all off, a virtual encyclopedia of Japanese names and places is closely woven into the text.


As excited as I was at the prospect of recording something already considered to be a minor literary masterpiece, a first glance at the book had me scratching my head. A second, closer reading had me in despair. A third go-round found me ready to pick up the phone and tell the acquisitions department that they had wasted their money. Seriously. For the first time in a thirty-year audiobook career, I was pretty sure I had an unrecordable text on my hands.

Look, I'm not easily daunted. The Story of Civilization in eleven volumes? Been there, done that. Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones? Piece of cake. The novels of Roberto Bolano? Yeah, we pulled those off pretty well, if I do say so myself. But this?

Leave it to my wife and fellow Blackstonian Tanya Perez, herself a voracious consumer of audiobooks, to pick it up where it lay rudely discarded on the coffee table, read it in one day and declare, "We can do this."

"I can't," I said.

"Well, I will," she replied.

So, for the past two months she's been analyzing, organizing, collating and casting. I got the "easy" part--directing. Various sections were farmed out to various narrators with explicit instructions on how to handle certain aspects of the text, among them: Justine Eyre, an Audie Award-winning narrator who happens to speak fluent Japanese; audiobook veteran Stefan Rudnicki, who lucked into the role of the mad Russian investigator with the crossed-out passages; actor Bronson Pinchot, who voices the frustrated American official in charge of ferreting out the secrets of Unit 731; and Daisuke Tsuji, an actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The anchor of the project is Japanese-American storyteller Alton Chung, who brings a unique sense of dramatic characterization and poetry to various roles, including the Writer, the Convicted Man and the Killer.

The project has come together magnificently, though we still have another week of recording and a fierce editing job ahead of us. You probably won't see Tanya's name on the package, but she deserves the lion's share of the credit for rescuing this unforgettable book from the "unrecordable" bin and bringing it to life in audio.

Occupied City and the first book in the series, Tokyo Year Zero, will be available in audio from Blackstone on August 1st.

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