The science-fictional motif of lethal, infectious information — bad memes — is a fascinating one, with an extended history. One of the earliest instances is Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow from 1895. Chambers’s conceit is a malevolent play: read beyond Act II, and you go mad. And of course, Chambers certainly influenced Lovecraft and his sanity-destroying Necronomicon. Fritz Leiber’s short story “Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee” from 1958 twisted the medium of infection. Leiber postulated a sonic virus, what has since come to be called an “earworm.”
A decade later, in 1969, Monty Python brilliantly extended the notion with its skit, “The Funniest Joke in the World,” about deadly comedic warfare. In the 1980s, there was some sense that Max Headroom’s blipverts functioned this way. By 1991, the trope had been codified by Koji Suzuki’s influential Japanese horror novel, Ring, with its killer videotape. All unwitting of Ring, I myself wrote “Destroy All Brains!” on a similar theme, and the story appeared in early 1992 in the magazine Interzone. In 1995, with Kaleidoscope Century, John Barnes gave us “One True,” an entire alien operating system that could overlay human wetware. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest from the following year featured another videotape of debilitating power. And most recently, Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet imagined a plague of hurtful words.
Now, thanks to the good offices of Minnesota Press, aided by the excellent translating prowess of Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Behrens, English-language readers get to fill in a missing link in this fascinating lineage, with Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences, a fine novel from 1984 that extends the riff to the realm of surrealist poetry. A learned, easy-going foreword by noted critic Takayumi Tatsumi helpfully provides context for new readers.
Death Sentences begins in the contemporary world. A secret squad of officers captures two people “afflicted” like junkies with the evil poetry who are attempting to disseminate it. (The lead cop, Sakamoto, succumbs to temptation and tastes the junk, recalling incidents from both Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.) Then the novel flashes back to the genesis of the bad language. In the 1940s, surrealist poet Andre Breton encountered a young man named Hu Mei (or Who May), who was mysteriously able to channel this killer info from some alternate dimension. Thus the plague was let loose in the world, much like the opening of Pandora’s Box — a metaphor Chiaki thoughtfully invokes.
The corrupting texts — three poems which Chiaki brilliantly limns in eerie snippets — circulate, hand-copied, among the Surrealist set, destroying the famous readers. (Chiaki cleverly uses actual historical details to bolster this imaginary conspiracy, much in the classic Pynchon manner most definitively seen in The Crying of Lot 49.) But the wildfire eventually burns itself out through attrition of new victims. However, decades later, a long-lost trove of Surrealist documents surfaces in Japan, the Who May poems are translated and published, and the word-virus is freed to spread widely and kill again, thus prompting the formation of the vigilante squad — a campaign which culminates in a timeslip incident of surprising magnitude.
Chiaki’s prose is staccato and hallucinatory, brilliantly mimicking on the page the putative effects of the Who May poetry. Translataor Lamarre identifies a “vortex” style, perhaps seen most potently in the passage beginning on page 155, where two publishing house employees begin translating the poems only to fall into a fugue state. Reading the novel certainly has its hallucinatory moments, while at other times a certain cool and dispassionate tone prevails.
As with any novel of a plague in the post-AIDS era, Chiaki’s book opens itself to allegorical interpretations, both medical and ideological. Is the Who May “virus” — employing the vector of beauty, after all — analogous to deadly sex, a Gorgon seducing with pleasure? Is it a contrarian, anti-establishment brand of dissent, a willful abdication of the duties of a citizen-drone in modern society? Or is it some kind of religious, evangelical mania, a cult of the end times? Chiaki’s genius keeps these questions in perpetual suspension, resolving nothing, only offering teasing hints perpetually at the borders of comprehension.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.