7% Solution Book Club to Discuss: THE THIEF by Fuminori Nakamura

the thief

This Monday, June 1st, the 7% Solution Book Club will be discussing Fuminori Nakamura’s award-winning exploration into the world of pickpockets, The Thief. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month at 7 PM on BookPeople’s 3rd floor to discuss an eclectic range of detective fiction. Book club selections are 10% off at the register in the month before discussion.

– Post by Molly

Fuminori Nakamura, a Japanese novelist who bridges the gap between literary fiction and noir, broke out onto the international crime fiction scene in 2010 with The Thiefpublished in English translation through SoHo Press, and winner of the Kenzaburo Oe and David Goodis prizes. The novel tells the story of a pickpocket at the top of his game, yet increasingly aware of his own mortality.

The titular character mentors a young shoplifter, mourns the loss of his partner, and watches his choices narrow as he finds himself increasingly drawn in to Yakuza business, all while skillfully – nay, artistically – picking the pockets of Tokyo’s wealthiest. Nakamura lists some sources at the end of his novel, and his careful research into the techniques and argot of the pickpocket’s world shows throughout the novel.

The Thief is a mystery novel, a minimalist roman noir, but it also carries on the tradition of the outsider novel, telling the stories of the lumpen-proletariat realistically, without glamorizing the underworld. If Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal had been written with the same noir sensibility of The Stranger, it perhaps would have read like this. I thought of Jean Genet frequently while reading The Thief. 

The Thief is a novel about petty criminals, buffeted by forces they have no power against and may or may not ever affect them. It is set in a world where the gap between those who commit nonviolent crimes and the masterminds that occasionally (and dangerously) recruit their labor is such that no reader would lump each into the same dehumanizing category of “criminals.” The Thief is one of those fascinating explorations of underworld society where the authorities are those who are higher up in the criminal world, and the police exist only as figures to avoid, rather than as the prime impediment to criminal activity.

“This tension, between the neutrality of looking and the citizen’s burden of response, seeps from the narrative into the reader’s own sense of self, drawing attention to the voyeurism inherent in all fiction, but especially crime fiction.”

The cops are shadowy, ominous presences, appearing to the story’s characters in the same way that the prosperous may lay awake at night, worrying about the spector of home invasion. What matters to Fuminori Nakamura’s characters is that with which they can allow themselves to be concerned – namely, their day-to-day hardscrabble existence, mixed with the long-term fantasies of their broken dreams, or the fiendishly complex schemes they embark on that cannot possibly go wrong – at least, for the man in charge.

I chose Nakamura’s latest novel, Last Winter, We Parted, for last November’s MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, and while the two are very different narratives – Last Winter, We Parted follows a journalist’s investigation into the psyche of a murderous photographer who burns his victims alive – the two novels are equally obsessed with the act of watching others, and the overlap between observing others and targeting them.

Last Winter, We Parted stars a photographer whose obsession with capturing beauty leads him to kill his victims, while the protagonist of The Thief spends his days observing others intently, using observation to pick targets and execute theft – another blurring of the barrier between observation and action, recording the present and determining the future. This tension, between the neutrality of looking and the citizen’s burden of response, seeps from the narrative into the reader’s own sense of self, drawing attention to the voyeurism inherent in all fiction, but especially crime fiction.

It seems no coincidence that The Thief won awards named after Kenzaburo Oe and David Goodis – Nakamura’s writing seems to draw inspiration from both, or perhaps his writing just dovetails nicely into the bleak, noirest-of-the-noir characters and relationships of Goodis while including the stark minimalism and fate-defying humanity of Oe’s post-war Japan. Both Oe and Goodis were known for their desperate, yet moral, characters living on the edges of society.

Oe and Goodis each made frequent use of characters who, although doomed, continue up until the last second to live within their own code and do what they consider to be the right thing, and this adherence to their own ethics rested entirely outside of society’s ever shifting moral compass. Perhaps, for Goodis and Oe, two writers of the mid-20th century, adherence to ethics with no discernable reward was the only way to preserve humanism beyond World War II. Perhaps, for Nakamura, this notion of decency without benefit is as true today as in the blighted landscape of Japan after WWII, and the United States during the Great Depression. Perhaps, this notion should not cheer me, but it does.

You can find copies of The Thief on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. June is International Crime Fiction Month, and this month we’ll be traveling all over the world in our three mystery book clubs. On Tuesday, June 16th, at 2 PM on BookPeople’s 3rd floor, the Murder In The Afternoon Book Club will be discussing Jean-Claude Izzo’s underworld classic, Total Chaos, the first volume in his Marseilles Noir trilogy, and the Hard Word Book Club tackles Jacob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday, Turk!  on Wedesday, June 27th, at 7 PM in BookPeople’s cafe. 

Get to Know David Goodis

~Post by Daniel

“Goodis is a crime novelist, but only in the way that Herman Melville is a nautical novelist and Cormac McCarthy is a writer of westerns.”

– Nathaniel Rich (The New York Review of Books)

My introduction to David Goodis was through the work of filmmaker Francoise Truffaut. In high school, I fell in love with French New Wave films. Godard was always my favorite director from that movement, but one film that always stood out for me as very important was Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.

Shoot the Piano Player, I later discovered, was based on a crime novel titled Down There by David Goodis. After discovering this, I attempted track down any books of his I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, at the time, every one of his books had been out of print. It wasn’t until much more recently that people like Charles Ardai and Robert Polito, two very passionate crime fiction enthusiasts, have helped make his work more readily available.

Charles Ardai is writer and publisher at Hard Case Crime. In 2007 he gave us a Goodis novel which hadn’t been published in 50 years, The Wounded and the Slain. Then last year, Down There was republished under its original title for American Noir of the 1950s by the Library of America. Robert Polito, a devout fan of Goodis, was the editor responsible and went on to curate this year’s collection: David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s, also published by Library of America.

After finally reading his work, I can understand why he has garnered a strong cult following. Goodis has been writing for the genre since the early days of pulp rags. His themes are dark and familiar, but there is more to Goodis than that. There is something in his prose that clearly separates him from his contemporaries. His writing is smart and never exhausting.

A sense of gloom is carried in many of his novels, a dark cloud that washes over many of his protagonists. Many believe this was reflective of Goodis himself. He worked a short stint in Hollywood, which made him cynical. As a result, his books became darker. The books collected in David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s are a perfect example of this. The characters in the collection are often hopeless and lonely. He is the definitive “noir” writer. The word “noir” literally, and appropriately, meaning “black.” Oftentimes when something bad happens to one of his characters, and you think it couldn’t get any worse, he tops himself, the danger always escalating.

Goodis was never as highly revered as Chandler or Hammett, but he delivered a certain level of originality to the genre that makes him important. He undoubtedly belongs up there in the big leagues.