ZOO by Otsuichi
Haikasoru, 2009, 258 pages, 978-1-4215-2587-7, Trade Paperback, $13.99
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Horror
Short story collections aren’t my usual reading fare, but then neither is dark fantasy (or horror…or however you’d care to classify these stories). Nevertheless, I was remarkably interested in reading Zoo—I’d finish one story only to find myself impatient to start the next. For the most part, I was satisfied with the work contained in this collection, and I’d probably recommend specific stories to someone else who was interested in the genre.
There is, however, a certain lack of clarity in a few of the stories that I found somewhat frustrating (though I’m beginning to think that this is simply a hallmark of Japanese storytelling and not an issue specific to this author). Vagueness has never been something I’ve particularly cared for in my reading, unless it’s used with care. Likewise, I tend to feel a little put out when the ending of a story has a twist that comes so far out of left field that it seems like the author simply couldn’t decide on what to do and threw something together at the last minute.
But you take that chance when you pick up a collection, and I was prepared to find issue with at least one or two of the tales.
The first story, for which the book is named, isn’t my favorite, but I suppose it has its own qualities. It’s reminiscent of the movie Memento and, if you’ve ever seen it, you can take a guess as to what happens. I suppose the most curious aspect of this story (and any others like it) is in determining just how someone is capable of deluding himself so thoroughly that he forgets what he’s done despite still knowing that he did it. Personally, I can’t fathom it, which is probably why I have trouble with this type of narrative. I can think of one or two ways in which “Zoo” might have been more satisfying to me, but I imagine other people will like it just fine as it is.
The only other story that was noticeably disappointing was “Wardrobe.” Cut scenes and convenient misdirection lead up to what was, for me, something of a cheat. The narrative continuously builds up suspicion on one character only to hurl it out the window at the very last moment and foist it onto someone who was barely present for the majority of the story. I got to the end and made the face that I typically reserve for unnecessarily dense academic essays. This is never a good reaction.
My two favorites are, easily, “The White House in the Cold Forest” and “Seven Rooms.” Strangely, both of these stories were responsible for a show of squeamishness on my part. Not due to any excessively gruesome bits, mind (there’s very little of that in this collection, actually…at least, not to the point that you can’t stomach it), but rather to descriptions of smell and touch. Saying that certain elements of the story and description “grossed me out” is, perhaps, a pedestrian way of describing it, but it’s also the most accurate. In “The White House in the Cold Forest” I found the visual description to be quite provocative, and “Seven Rooms” was the most straightforward of all the stories (which, for me, is a draw).
Following those two, I definitely enjoyed “Kazari and Yoko.” This was another straightforward narrative, and one that could exist in any genre. The topic here had more to do with extremes than anything else. The noticeable differences in how Kazari and Yoko are treated on a daily basis manifest in their behavior and in how others perceive them. And while it’s not essential to the story, I suppose, I’d be curious to find out exactly why their mother behaves as irrationally as she does. Overall, this is definitely a good story that is likely to make an emotional connection for most readers.
I recall receiving a text message about “Find the Blood!” that noted how the opening was rather comical (in a good way, of course). I’d have to agree, and there are other aspects of the story that continued to amuse me throughout. The events themselves were a bit frantic, and, for some reason, I was reminded of the old Clue movie starring Tim Curry. Whether or not you like the ending will depend entirely on your own preferences—I happened to like it, but then I was probably imagining some future storyline that would feature the culprit.
As far as the rest of the stories go, I’m largely ambivalent toward them. Not that they didn’t each have their own good qualities, but they simply didn’t stand out quite as much as the others (either that, or parts of them were confusing). The exception, perhaps, is “Song of the Sunny Spot” which, though I don’t list it as a favorite, certainly left me with a positive memory. It’s one of the stories that I found most emotional, especially toward the end. And when I discovered the truth about the dying man, it became all the more interesting. It’s certainly one of the more understated science fiction stories I’ve ever read, and I think that suits it well.
Overall, this collection was decent with a few stand-out stories. Should I come across anything else from this author, I’d be likely to read it.