Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Narita Ryougo is an incredibly smart author, though you might not realize it from a cursory glance at his work. Best known as the author of Baccano!, Durarara!!, and Fate/Strange Fake, Narita tends to write colorful ensemble pieces with a lot of flash and not a lot of depth. Durarara and Strange Fake have a bit more meat to them, but Baccano is essentially just a series of farces in novel form.
Unlike my subjects for the past two weeks, though, Baccano is pretty widely considered to be quite good as a whole--there's not much ambiguity there. The question, then, is not so much "Is it good?" as "Why is it good?" It seems somewhat counter-intuitive that a work like Kakegurui can have a strong, ambitious concept and yet still come across as unequivocally weaker than something that's overtly and intentionally fluff. I think the answer, though--simplistic as it may seem--is that Baccano is an exceptionally well-executed work, to the point where its style is its substance.
In the afterword to the third volume of the series, Narita discussed his structural approach to the novel and wrote that his driving concept behind the series was "to use this structure, which is one of a huge variety of [literary] techniques, to write a story that's as dumb as possible." Essentially, Narita's approach to Baccano is to apply high-level technique to a meaningless (but fun) narrative. Baccano is ultimately an exercise in form, stripping any attempt at significance in order to focus entirely on the execution of its plot. It reminds me, in a sense, of an étude, a type of short musical composition intended to emphasize, practice, or teach a particular musical skill rather than to convey meaning or emotion. The very best études--think of Chopin's, for example--are such magnificent demonstrations of skill and style that they transcend the intentionally shallow nature of the piece to become their own sort of masterwork.
Baccano reads so smoothly that it's easy to miss just how much technical precision has gone into its writing. The series, as I mentioned earlier, plays out much like a farce, with a large cast of characters interacting in passing, and with the absurdity of the resulting mix of coincidence and confusion generating the work's humor. Each novel is an ensemble piece, featuring several mostly-unrelated characters and switching frequently from perspective to perspective. This style of novel is crazy hard to write in a way that produces the intended effect. It requires careful diagramming of exactly what is happening and when, and what each character does and doesn't know. It necessitates maintaining multiple distinct and internally consistent narrative voices, as even in third-person each perspective's narrator reads a little differently. Perhaps most importantly, it requires each perspective shift and narrative moment to further the overall plot in a smooth and cohesive way despite coming at it from different angles and--sometimes--different times.
Baccano (as with Narita's novels in general) is a breezy read. There's next to no friction--it's super easy to follow everything that happens and to keep each of the characters straight. Everyone has a unique and distinctive voice, and their goals and personalities are crystal-clear. This makes it easy to enjoy the doors-slamming-shut-at-just-the-wrong-time absurdity that makes farces so fun, and it plays out just as smoothly and clearly as it would on a stage. Farces are, I think, much easier to write for the stage than they are in a novel context because in a theatrical setting everything is presented directly for the viewer at once. The timing is created by the actual flow of time (and by the actors, of course--comedy is hard to perform, but I'm specifically referring to writing, in this case), where in a novel the pacing and comedic timing need to be developed through the intentional use of words and visual spacing. This is not intuitive, and it's not an effect Narita could achieve if he didn't know exactly what he was trying to accomplish. Reading Baccano is like watching a talented dancer--it makes something incredibly difficult look like the easiest thing in the world.
The story that results from this is a joy to read. Volumes 2 and 3 of Baccano center on three separate criminal organizations coincidentally trying to rob the same train at the same time, which is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. The shifting perspectives are laced with dramatic irony that never fails to generate a laugh, and the way the plot unfolds and certain characters are revealed to be connected to other characters almost has the feel of detective fiction, except the "detective" is nothing more than the absurd chain of coincidences that drives the novel forward. Every character is exactly where they need to be at any given time to an extent that should seem completely unbelievable and yet somehow just works.
Reading Baccano, I can't help but admire the artistry that went into its creation. It isn't a novel that you come away from thinking deeply about any particular philosophical questions, but it is a novel that leaves you with a sort of breathless glee at the way every interlocking sub-narrative clicks together just right to resolve all of the seemingly-unrelated problems in the same climactic moment. There's no real substance, but there's a heck of a lot of style--so much so that the lack of depth seems pretty much irrelevant. There is no "why" for Baccano's plot beyond "because it's fun," and yet the sheer technical strength fills the gaps left by the lack of thematic purpose.
In the afterword I quoted earlier, Narita also wrote the following: "I'd like to write all sorts of other things in the future, from more long series to one-shot stories, and I want to get good enough to write dumb stories and stories that aren't dumb, stories with absolutely no substance and stories with quite a lot of substance, and stories with all sorts of different orientations."
I do believe that a stronger thematic foundation is generally going to lead to a stronger overall work, but Baccano is a demonstration that a purely technical exercise can take on artistic strength of its own. The series may be meaningless, but it's also brilliant, and it's a testament to Narita's authorial capability that he was able to write like this even relatively early in his career.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition