What would it feel like to sever somebody's Achilles tendons? That is the question obsessing the psychopathic anti-hero of the latest thriller by Ryu Murakami to be translated into English.
We get an inkling that he isn't wholly right in the head on the first page. It is late at night, and Kawashima Masayuki, a 29-year-old graphic designer with chronic insomnia, is staring at his newborn baby asleep in its crib. "Like a laboratory animal in a cage," he thinks. This is not a man flushed with fuzzy paternal warmth.
The sense of suppressed cruelty blooms a paragraph or two later. Murakami describes a pale moonbeam that "sliced" through a gap in the curtains, "slashing" across the baby's pink blanket. When Kawashima slowly slips an ice pick from his pocket, we know that it's time to call for the men in white coats.
But Kawashima is also aware that his behaviour is not normal. Terrified that one day he might actually stab his own child, he concocts baroque homicidal fantasies to channel his destructive energies elsewhere.
He longs to suspend a Tokyo hooker from a ceiling and use his ice pick to soundlessly pierce her porcelain-delicate flesh. When he reads an article about a murdered prostitute whose Achilles tendons were severed before she died, he is fascinated to learn that the fibrous tissue makes a sound as sharp as gunshot when it is snapped. In fact, he finds this detail so absorbing that he decides to test it out for himself. He lays meticulous plans to lure an S&M call-girl to a hotel. The only contingency he does not prepare for is that Sanada Chiaki, the prostitute who turns up, is a loony erotomaniac even more volatile than he is. What was set to be a straightforward thriller suddenly veers into a perverse love story between two schizophrenics.
Piercing is an off-kilter, amoral and viscerally upsetting novel. But it is never less than compelling. Murakami writes about violence with disturbing nonchalance. Some of the more lurid sequences, such as the one in which Sanada has a panic attack and repeatedly stabs herself in the thigh with a Swiss army knife, will not appeal to many readers. I finished the book concerned that I had been so easily sucked into its whirlpool of gore. Surely this often uncomfortably misogynistic and explicit writing is in dubious taste?
Yet, as in his previous fiction, Murakami underpins the pornography with psychological substance. We learn that both Kawashima and Sanada were abused as children: he by his mother, who tortured him with lit cigarettes and industrial ammonia; she by her father, who repeatedly raped her. This vicious cycle of child abuse and adult violence enthrals Murakami: it features, for instance, in his 1997 chiller In the Miso Soup, published in English last year.
The psychological back-stories also tap into another Murakami concern. He contrasts the inner turmoil of his characters with the "poker-face" façades they present to the world. There is much internal monologue but little dialogue in Piercing: despite their shared experiences, Kawashima and Sanada find it almost impossible to talk. When he looks at her, he sees "disconnected, oddly glazed eyes"; later, she thinks his eye looks "like the eye of a broken android".
Again, this is something Murakami has touched on before: Frank, the creepy American psycho at the heart of In the Miso Soup, has a "poker-face" that masks depravity. This disjunction between inner and outer selves can be read in a number of ways, but for me it represents Murakami's characterisation of the isolating experience of life in the modern metropolis.
When Kawashima surveys "the glittering expanse of late-night Tokyo" from his hotel room, passers-by on the street look like "moving dots". In Murakami's world, the murderous impulses of his central characters loom large. Everyone else shrivels to vanishing point.
Of course, few of us daydream about slicing up women with an ice pick. But many of us sometimes experience eddying anxiety that we choose to keep to ourselves. Murakami has always been good at atmosphere, and it is this sense of paranoia and panic that he so vividly evokes here.