June 6, 2017
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The novella Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa is, in his words, a remix. He states, “To take your love for the original and situate it in the present,” and he does exactly that with Slow Boat. A nod to Haruki Murakami’s extraordinary short story, A Slow Boat to China, Furukawa takes the original story of a man having three encounters with Chinese people and puts it into a more contemporary setting. Slow Boat centers on a man’s attempt to leave present and past Tokyo behind, and his three relationships that mark each attempted escape.
A prize-winning Japanese writer, Furukawa is often touted as acclaimed author Haruki Murakami’s prodigy. A fitting title for the man whose new book re-works the titular author’s famous short story into his sprawling novella.
In Furukawa’s Slow Boat, the funny and sometimes annoying narrator is reminiscent of a Murakami protagonist; a young male who is a loner, doesn’t quite fit in, and is at odds with the world around him. Furukawa takes this blueprint and expands on it to make his leading man funny, ridiculous, and at times downright unlikeable.
“Children’s Day: A day for the children, for their happiness and for their mothers. Give me a break. As soon as I saw all the carp floating over the city, that was it for me. What the hell is this farce? Toyko’s full of carp (or streamers acting like carp). What are all theses fish-mouths trying to say? It’s a giant farce.”
— Slow Boat, Hideo Furukawa
The narrator has this Holden Caulfield outlook on life. The “everything is garbage and everything sucks” kind of mentality. It gets tiring after awhile and makes the narrator harder to like at times. But I also believe Furukawa doesn’t want you to truly like the main character. The story is more of an unapologetic look into this man’s life and relationships, and the reader is expected to listen and take what they may from it.
The narrator recounts his life by his attempts to escape Tokyo. A place where he feels trapped. He believes he is cursed and recounts each attempt in different sections of the story. The first attempt was after meeting his first girlfriend in sixth grade at summer camp.
“She is a girl who could only speak in movie scenes. Film is the only language that she identified with her entire life.”
Language is an important thread throughout this novella. The narrator is constantly talking about the Japanese language, the language of dreams, and then the movie language which he and his first girlfriend spoke together. “Language has its limits, but it’s all we’ve got. For understanding each other or misunderstanding each other or whatever,” he states when he begins to understand how his first girlfriend speaks. Language is what the narrator failed to master in every relationship.
In each section of his life, he has to communicate in a new language. With his second girlfriend, it is through sex, and his third is through food and passion. All these languages he learns only to come up short and ultimately fail to leave Tokyo, watching each girlfriend leave him behind. This insightful look into communication and the way people express themselves is a very lovely part of this story. The author carries this through the entirety of the book. In a way, this book is Furukawa’s language to express his admiration for his mentor Haruki Murakami.
At times the story becomes confusing. Towards the end, there are chapters where there are multiple characters talking about things that don’t seem to be about the main plot, instead focusing on the culture of the time period. One story reminisces about the Starbucks obsessed culture, taking place in what I think is the present. Honestly, I can’t put my finger on what that was about. Another is a long tale during the late 1980s, early 1990s about great trash cans at a train station, in which, after an act of terrorism, they remove all trash cans from all train stations. These moments, when they came up, are jarring and made it difficult to find footing in the story.
Overall Slow Boat is a faithful remix of a classic short story. Infused with Furukawa’s humor and wistful story-telling, it’s a novella that at times can be difficult to get through but the parts that are lovely make this book worth checking out.