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by Koji Suzuki

(HarperCollins, 304 pages. £6.99, paperback, November 2005.)

Review by Eric Brown

cover scanThere are bad books; there are very bad books, and then there is a category of books for which the word bad, or even execrable, does not fully describe the true awfulness of the works in question.

Spiral falls into this latter category. It's by far the worst book I've ever had the misfortune to review, and one of the very worst books I've ever read.

Mitsuo Ando, a pathologist, lost his son in a drowning accident before the novel opens. His wife has left him. He conducts an autopsy on an old colleague and packs the corpse's gut cavity with old newspaper, then discovers a slip of paper bearing six numbers protruding from the corpse's belly. There follows a series of mysterious deaths, seemingly from a form of smallpox. These lead Ando to search for a videotape, the content of which kills the subject seven days after they've watched it, but not before infecting the victims with a mutated DNA virus. Even a transcript of the tape is able to transmit this virus. The very future of the human race as we know it hangs in the balance.

The plot, stated so bluntly, is ludicrous. It's testimony to the weakness of Suzuki's writing that, using the rich fictive array of techniques available to him, he manages to make the story even more ridiculous in the telling.

It's sometimes difficult to distinguish bad original writing from bad translation, but Spiral contains several clues to suggest the former. Ando is grieving the loss of his son. We're told this, but not shown: Suzuki does not posses the literary skill to convey what it might be like to feel such grief: the washed-up-hero-suffering-loss is merely a cheap device to snare the sympathy of the unsophisticated reader. Ando does not come alive as a three dimensional, fully-rounded character; he's a name on the page to which descriptions of movements and thoughts are ascribed. The authorial observations are so banal it's hard not to wonder if Suzuki is a schoolboy. The setting is Japan, but the sense of place and descriptions are so vapid it might as well be downtown Chicago. The characterisation is non-existent. The dialogue is so stilted as to be farcical. The pacing is poor, padded with needless descriptions and clunking info dumps, and, the sure sign of a poor writer, tedious rehashings of what has gone before.

Here's a sample of the level of writing. Ando is in the morgue, about to dissect a corpse:

Ando lifted the body's right arm; no resistance, other than gravity. Proof that life had indeed left the body. This man had once prided himself on the strength of his arms, and now Ando could move them about as freely as a baby's. Ryuji had been the strongest of any of them in school; nobody was a match for him at arm-wrestling. Anybody who challenged him found his arm slapped on the table before he could even flex his biceps. Now, that same arm was powerless. If Ando let go, it'd flop helplessly onto the table.

So, according to Suzuki, an arm lifted without resistance is proof of death. Pity the poor sleeper examined by this coroner. And as if to hammer home the fact that the corpse is indeed dead, Suzuki reminds us not only that the arm was powerless, but if Ando let go, etc ...

This is tired, lazy writing at its worst.

There's more (much more: every page is littered with such examples), but here are just a couple more.

Ando lifts the corpse's brain from its head and, in case we don't know what a brain looks like, resorts to the clichéd description:

It was a whitish mass covered with innumerable wrinkles. Even among the elite students who were assembled at medical school, Ryuji had stood out for his brains.

If Suzuki had shown an aptitude elsewhere in the book for humour, even irony, I might have thought he was trying to be funny. As it is, this description is laughable for the wrong reasons.

And how about this one? Ando has found what he wanted in an apartment, and is pleased:

Still, he'd gotten his hands on the floppy disk, and he had to count that a success. He could hardly stand still as he took his leave. He'd check around work to see if anyone had a machine that could read the disk...

He could hardly stand still as he took his leave?

Another case of crass translation, or do they stand still as they take their leave in Japan?

Suzuki has attempted to combine autopsy chic with the genres of medical/scientific thriller and supernatural horror, but succeeds only in producing a farrago of jaw-dropping banality.

I have a theory that might account for how bad this book is.

Koji Suzuki, the perpetrator of Spiral, is not a human being. This would explain the lack of human empathy, the laughable characterisation, the dearth of dramatic tension, the inability to tell a compelling story, the crass dialogue and the sheer stupefying absurdity of the book, etc etc ...

Suzuki is not a human being but a computer program designed to mass produce fiction using all the ingredients of the best-seller, but which delivers merely a sad example of bad writing in every department.

I've wasted a day of my life reading Spiral, and this review has turned into an angry rant.

I'm not so much angry at Suzuki, if he is indeed human, or at the programmers who designed the computer software, if 'Koji Suzuki' is the pseudonym of a fiction writing program. I'm angry and depressed by the editors at HarperCollins who unleashed this rubbish on the UK market. Did anyone at HarperCollins read the book? Or did they bring it out because its prequel, Ring, sold 2.8 million copies in Japan, and was made into a successful Hollywood film?

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