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Something happens when you read

24th September 2012 - Gavin Read

A surreal Japanese work of science fiction led Gavin Read, from our Charing Cross Road branch, to explore the power of writers to weave spells with the words they employ.



Death SentencesKawamata Chiaki's Death Sentences had me from the premise. Between 1940s Paris and New York, a young Surrealist writes poetry that lulls its readers into another dimension, and/or kills them. It's unclear whether these two consequences are different and, differing or not, whether they're bad or good. Meanwhile - decades later - a crack team of detectives run around trying to smother contraband copies of the illicit text. André Breton and other real-life Surrealists are characters. Mars is also involved.

Yes, Mars the planet.

First published in Japanese in 1984, this odd find is now printed in translation through the primarily academic MIT Press. It's a gift to the reflective, imaginative mind, but it's not a perfect novel; I found the writing a little detached, not quite immediate or immersive enough for a book about falling prey to the power of words.

Of course, it's a lot to ask for a text about a text that phases you out of reality to go ahead and phase you out of reality. A book with that premise is as good as sold, as far as I'm concerned, but Death Sentences has still more to offer. It's morbid and mystical, quality sci-fi that puts forward literary as a genre, atmospheric and aesthetic, to rival things like gothic or cowboy. It's level-headed writing about characters losing themselves, and the danger - and delight - of such dissolution. It's also a serious examination of the everyday magic of fiction.

And when I say magic, I do mean that it a very literal sense.

Ostensibly a science fiction study of Surrealism, Death Sentences conveys the notion - dangerous and delicious - that death lurks immanent not only in secret chants and rituals, but even in twentieth-century Western art poems. The young poet who writes the offending texts doesn't really know what he's doing; rather, through experimentation and divination, he chances upon the deathly code.


The eponymous Sentences are magical because they have an effect on the reader. Following the verse alters their being, sends them off into another state. Words and the order of words are dark arts, and the writer who channels those other spheres writes lines that are incantations, spells, that lead the reader through.

Pacing, rhythm; word choice, syllables: the spell-like nature of writing can be grounded. But the narrative, the notions you string together in your head, are a state of mind, an irreducible psychological phenomenon.

On the Origin of StoriesI've been trying to get to the bottom of this with the help of non-fiction, like Marie-Laure Ryan's slightly hardcore Narrative as Virtual Reality, and Brian Boyd's evolutionary On the Origin of Stories. Jonathan Gottschall's recent The Storytelling Animal, a pop-sci relative to Boyd's text, deploys recent experiments in cognitive psychology to argue for the anthro-evo function and development of narrative, both fiction and non. He sees stories as mental run-throughs, as intellectual and emotional training exercises that prepare us for real possibilities. When we go through the motions, when we - for example - read about something happening, our brains off-gas joy and apprehension in patterns closely akin to when we really do those things ourselves.

It strikes me, then, that what happens within Death Sentences isn't so dissimilar from what happens when you read at-all. The words, strung together, carry you through; the narrative isn't just a construct to consider but a process, a passage, shaping you as you go. There's the familiar notion of 'books that change your life' - but even a passing affair immerses you in a kind of a temporary psychotic headlock. Comprehension is, lest we forget, a phenomenon; something irreducible, something quite literally magical, happens when you read.


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