Scandal,  Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

Have you read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy? There’s something so earnest and formal about it, and I couldn’t help but recall my experience reading it when I was between the covers of Shusako Endo’s Scandal. Maybe it has to do with the situation of literature in the 1980s, but there’s a sense of tautness, of an almost oppressive seriousness in this work. It’s not an exceptionally difficult book to read, but it’s not exactly fun either.

Endo writes with a specific psychological end in mind: he wants to get to the very bottom, to unearth some of the ugliest aspects of human being, and discover in that darkness how close they can come to the light. Scandal appears to be modeled on The Divine Comedy, taking the reader deeper into the abyss of the main character, Sugaro, through nine chapters that progressively get tighter, tenser, darker and darker, until the ending line. It’s a very anxious work, and almost all of the characters live in estrangement from others, and often from their own desire.

Translated from Japanese by Van C. Gessel, the language employed in Scandal is sort of hard-boiled, and there is definitely a sense that detective fiction and film noir have been major influences in the way that Endo has crafted this story. There are a few characters that seem to emerge right out of these related genres, and the plotting builds tension just like a classic whodunit. But then again, there is also thematic content that morphs these generic tropes into  a vehicle for carrying the burden of some much grander ideas.

Sugaro is a novelist, and in the description of his oeuvre seems to have been working through many of the themes that Endo has tackled in his previous work; the tensions between sin and redemption, East and West, Christianity and Japan. The book follows sixty-five year old Sugaro throughout the streets of Tokyo’s Yoyogi district. As Sugaro stares down his imminent death, he pits his faith in Christ against his writerly fascination with sin, nay–evil. As the battle unfolds, it becomes apparent that the only possible outcome is his own defeat. The plot revolves around Sugaro’s attempts to outrun a scandal that threatens to break, and while I wont spoil anything, the final two chapters are definitely the most rewarding.

I think that this gesture of laying the work out as a metafictional account of Endo’s own trials was only partially successful in bringing the story to its own life. While it offered a surprisingly bleak description of the cowardly hunger that a man in need of stories might face, and a moving exploration of the myriad risks that an author negotiates in working with the variable qualities of humanity, readers, and the book industry, it also made manifest a character who is perhaps too desperate to preemptively direct the readers attention. This may not be a flaw in the work. It may have something to do with my own distaste for the character that Endo has created.

It’s possible I am willfully transferring that dislike onto Endo and Scandal as a whole. Even if that is the case, I think that Endo’s treatment of basic psychoanalytic principles, both as implied and explicitly addressed, anticipate and perhaps encourage this reading experience. There is a sense of argumentation that runs through this work, and it’s formal structure and literary allusions achieve perhaps too exactly the mood of isolation that affects the characters on the page. Its ugly parts are not  quite ugly enough, and I never felt that the darkness in the story had much depth, because there was very little in the way of light.  In my reading, Scandal, while a good enough book, doesn’t quite make a virtue of the terror it appears to be engaging, and so manages to overshoot in the dark, just missing the mark.

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