Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 16 Oct 2018

Patient X by David Peace

You should never go to a David Peace book expecting a straight-forward, linear narrative and you can pretty much guarantee that the line between fiction, non-fiction, biography and autobiography will be so blurred  that you’ll always be unsure which side of the divide you’re on. Peace’s new book, Patient X, is a perfect example of the author at the height of his powers, deploying his almost hallucinogenic stylistic techniques with consummate skill.

Peace lives in Japan and teaches contemporary Japanese literature at Tokyo University but when it comes to Japanese literature and culture his influences really lie in an earlier period of Japan’s literary history and he’s especially influenced by the work of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa is most often described by critics as a ‘troubled genius’ who took the art of the Japanese short story to a whole other level. His most famous work is In A Bamboo Grove which provided the inspiration for the movie Rashomon and you find a longer review of one of his short story collection elsewhere on this site.

Peace’s book is subtitled ‘The Case-Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’ and is, I suppose, a biography of sorts – but it’s a very David Peace idea of biography. The book comprises of twelve episodes in Akutagawa’s troubled life but reimagined in an incredibly fractured and textured way – it almost feels as if Peace isn’t interested in description so much as trying to climb into the very skin of his subject and to feel the life he lived.

All of Peace’s books use an almost incantatory style , heavy with repetition where the shape of the words on the page are almost as important as the words themselves. He takes liberties with punctuation, fonts, even splitting pages into newspaper-like columns to achieve the effects he’s looking for and there’s always a barely suppressed sense of rage or incipient violence in the urgency of his delivery. To properly appreciate Peace’s style you really do have to try reading it out aloud and picking up the embedded rhythms. I have been fortunate enough to hear Peace reading a small extract from one of his books and the impact of his style is shockingly powerful.

Akutagawa’s life was short – he committed suicide at the age of 35 – and Peace’s twelve episodes take us through that whole life; from inside the womb waiting to be born until that moment of suicide. Along the way there are some truly remarkable pieces of writing. Although the atmosphere and sheer power of this book will stay with me for a long time, one episode stands out for me with a looming, dreadful presence. Akutagawa’s great mentor was the author Natsume Sōseki and Peace recounts for us a story Sōseki tells his pupil about an encounter on the streets of a desolate, fog-bound London.

It’s a moment in the book that also caught the attention of Ian Sansom when he was reviewing Patient X for The Guardian:

“One of the most complex and memorable stories in the book, the phantasmagoric “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom”, is an imagining of Sōseki’s famously miserable time spent in London, as retold to Akutagawa. Dense with literary allusions, the story reads like something by Edgar Allan Poe set in Edwardian London with a Japanese protagonist, and concludes with a nod and a wink to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “

This book, like most of Peace’s output, isn’t what you’d call an easy read – it requires the reader to help with the co-construction of the narrative and to be part of the drama. That is true whether he’s writing about football, serial killers, the miner’s strike or the first two parts of his Tokyo trilogy and it’s certainly true too of Patient X. He treats the reader as an equal, as an intelligent part of the whole reading experience and it’s an assumption that I respond to and very much admire. Others though might find they have to get in synch with the mind-set and the style before they can relax and really enter into the worlds he creates. It is very much worth the effort though and, as you can probably tell, I’m a big fan.

The book isn't yet available in paperback but you can find the hardback in your local independent bookstore if you can't wait.


Terry Potter

October 2018