How Far Will You Go to Feel Intense Emotion?

  Zack Hara, the narrator of Todd Shimoda’s gorgeously-produced new novel, Oh!, can’t feel intense emotion. He’s left Los Angeles behind, and gone to live in Japan and teach English conversation. One of his students turns out to be a psychologist who studies the biology of personality, and Professor Imai begins giving Zack guidance in exchange for lessons. One little assignment follows another. Write a poem. Draw a picture. Commit a petty crime.

What Zack most fails to understand are the people who seek out suicide clubs on the Internet, who seal themselves into their cars and die in groups from gas fumes in Aogikihara Forest, where more people commit suicide than anywhere else in the world. The professor sends him to the site of one such suicide, to meditate on what sight the suicide saw last before he died.

When the police interrupt yet another suicide club, causing one member in the sealed car to cut the throats of his two companions before killing himself, the case becomes a magnet for Zack and his Japanese girlfriend Kumiko, trying to understand what led these young people into their pact.

At this point I’m starting to get creeped out. As far as this reader is concerned, Zack’s fascination with these suicides is getting a little too intense for my personal comfort, considering his obsession with emotional extremes. Zack’s determination to experience mono no aware, the sweet sadness of life, had better not be leading him to Aogikihara Forest. I’ve got a hundred pages to go.

Not only is Shimoda a consummate storyteller with a clean, relaxed, graceful style, but the book itself is a work of art. Have I mentioned that every chapter begins with a first paragraph in page-filling type and a little woodblock illustration beside each chapter number, and facing each chapter a beautiful, moody calligraphy watercolor abstract by the author’s wife? Chin Music Press has created a book of visual delight that is sure to cause a little mono no aware in book lovers.

  This is not my first Todd Shimoda experience. I fell in love with his last novel, the lavishly produced The Fourth Treasure, where he takes you into the complex, ancient world of shodo, the Japanese art of calligraphy, where every brushstroke reveals the artist’s spiritual life. The book is part love story and part detective story, with flashbacks to 17th century Japan.

The Fourth Treasure has a humdinger of a plot. Twenty years ago the great love between wealthy, married Hanako and the calligraphy master came to a terrible end. Now the sensei has suffered a stroke and lost the powers of speech and writing. Hanako is still working at the Tempura House in San Francisco. Her daughter, Tina Suzuki, a grad student in neuroscience at UC Berkeley, has just come across the perfect research subject – the speechless sensei who was her mother’s old lover, who may, in fact, be her own father. What could be a melodrama is told with restraint and relentlessly mounting suspense. You may think you know the ending. Believe me, you don’t.

And because of that, I keep hoping – maybe Oh! won’t end in Zack’s suicide. Maybe Zack will return to Los Angeles and be renewed by his time in Japan. Maybe he’ll learn all he needs to know about mono no aware from studying the suicide club, and not need to go there himself. Please don’t let it end in Zack’s suicide.

Time to find out. Zack, here’s hoping you don’t make a really big mistake…

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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