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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My Annihilation

Nakamura Fuminori

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To purchase My Annihilation

Title: My Annihilation
Author: Nakamura Fuminori
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 256 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: My Annihilation - US
My Annihilation - UK
My Annihilation - Canada
  • Japanese title: 私の消滅
  • Translated by Sam Bett

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Our Assessment:

B+ : elaborate hall of mirrors novel, quite well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 14/2/2022 David L. Ulin
The NY Times Book Rev. F 30/1/2022 Jennifer Reese
Publishers Weekly . 26/10/2021 .
Wall St. Journal . 14/1/2022 Tom Nolan

  From the Reviews:
  • "It’s tempting to categorize his writing, which deals with crime, as noir, but in fact it supersedes genre, and perhaps even narrative. (...) This is not to say these plot lines are McGuffins, though they nod toward that convention of the form. At the same time, they are essential for what they tell us about the inability of the psyche to separate what it imagines from what is real. Subjectivity, in other words, although Nakamura has something bigger than that in mind. The issue is less what we see or think than who or what we are. (...) The effect is of a vast decentering, almost a state of vertigo." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "To say the plot is nonlinear doesn't suffice. It's not even a zigzag -- it's a scribble mark, one you can spend hours trying to decipher. (...) The writing is slapdash and while it's likely that slightly odd locutions such as “we met eyes” are due to a sloppy translation, it's possible that they are intentional, meant to destabilize the reader. (...) Every time you think you grasp what's going on, Nakamura reminds you that you are not in control here. Perhaps you are never in control. (...) By Nakamura's criteria, My Annihilation is a smashing success. The book brought about a feeling of intense, queasy bafflement. By my own criteria, however, it is a failure, because bafflement is not enough." - Jennifer Reese, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Nakamura expertly mixes a look into the criminal mind with a story of doomed love. This fever-dream of a novel will long linger in the reader's memory." - Publishers Weekly

  • "My Annihilation, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett, is a literary labyrinth of forking paths. Surgical memory erasure, subliminal messaging, sexual blackmail and suicide all feature in this bravura work, which evokes the feel of such diverse writers as Calvino, Highsmith, Kafka and Dick." - Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The opening page of My Annihilation has just a single line -- the warning: "Turn this page, and you may give up your entire life." Readers who do turn the page will quickly see that this is, however, (perhaps ? not so much ? not only ?) addressed at them, as the opening scene has a narrator reveal that he has found a manuscript, "left open to page one, as if it had been waiting here for ages to be read", which comes with exactly that warning.
       The narrator pays it little heed:

     "Turn this page, and you may give up your entire life." Or so the first page said. But I had no intention of giving my old life up. He might have left behind unfinished business, but it was no business of mine. All I wanted was his identity.
       As readers might already guess: it isn't that easy. Identity comes with a lot of baggage and it's hard to dissociate the one from the other; if Ryodai Kozuka -- so the name of the man which the narrator is adopting -- has some unfinished business, surely the narrator might realize that that may soon very much become his business too.
       He is at least curious enough to read the manuscript, in which Kozuka writes about his childhood and experiences. The manuscript is reproduced here in its entirety, the narrator reading through it, with occasional short breaks; it's not the only documentation woven into the novel, as there are various other pieces of writing that are similarly presented: My Annihilation is literally multi-layered, and these are peeled back at different times and in different ways to reveal (and obscure ...) more of the story.
       Reading the manuscript, the narrator observes that, at least in some ways: "Kozuka's story was similar to my own". More unsettlingly, he reaches a point where the manuscript reads:
     ... It doesn't even feel like this is me. It's all so blurry, like something shrouded in a distant fog. But evidently somebody is going to take my place. Someone willing to take over for me, accepting all the horrors ... I'm going to be saved.
       Even the narrator finds this somewhat disconcerting. But the rest of the manuscript, which then ends abruptly, offers little guidance as to what exactly Kozuka might have meant or hoped for.
       Meanwhile, while reading in this isolated room, the narrator has also mentioned that there is a suitcase there as well (hmm ... some of Kozuka's baggage, maybe ?). Reflecting on what he is reading, he mentions, as little more than an aside:
     I glanced at the white suitcase in the corner. The pages before my eyes that recounted his life story -- a lifetime wrapped into a package
       And, yes, when he has finished reading he decides to open the suitcase. And it is not empty .....
       Although this early part of the novel is, at its most basic, very simple -- a man sits in a practically empty room, and he reads this manuscript -- there are already several layers here, as the manuscript is both autobiographical, describing Kozuka's experiences, and also moves beyond that -- in, for example, considering the case of (real-life) Japanese murderer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who killed four young girls. Both Kozuka's own experiences and Miyazaki's describe violence against young girls and women -- a recurring theme in the novel -- and kinds of sexual frustration.
       Once the narrator has moved beyond the room, more is layered on. Eventually, the narrator reveals more about himself -- and that there was a woman in his life, Yukari. Yukari had experienced terrible things, and a doctor had treated her with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) -- one of whose effects is memory-loss. (That doctor also hypnotized her, and inserted fictions of his own into her now "patchy memory" .....) One problem, however, is that: "You can't just pick and choose the memories you want to disappear", and when Yukari undergoes ECT again, the narrator loses her.
       He can live with that, just, but when worse happens he can't hold himself back and vows revenge -- and this, then, ultimately is the gist of My Annihilation, an elaborately played-out revenge plot. It is a story about identity -- not least the creating and changing of identity.
       One of the files reproduced here discusses the ways in which the human mind can be affected, and concludes:
     What is a "self" ? Under a particular set of circumstances, it becomes impossible to tell.
       Nakamura plays this game to the hilt in My Annihilation -- beginning with his narrator, about whose identity the reader long has difficulty being very sure. (Of course, the narrator is presented from the first as someone who is changing his identity, discarding whatever his real one was -- though the way he puts it is that he is trading places with Kozuka, implying, of course, that that discarded identity then becomes Kozuka's .....) It is a hall of mirrors novel, the characters and readers alike being deceived by what they see and purport to know. Yukari was 'fixed', in the sense that her memory was wiped (and changed) -- losing much of her self in this way, but also being saved by no longer having to bear the horrible weight of that former self. When that didn't hold, the narrator (and the other man in Yukari's life) turn the tables on those they see as responsible -- but, again, playing with identities and memory proves not to be simple or straightforward.
       At one point, one of the characters tells another: "Your memory is hazy. So let me tell you who you really are" -- and it's far from the only time that characters try to impose some identity, on others or themselves. But the real selves remain, however hazily, presences too, bits bubbling to the surface, across the many layers of reality and fiction here.
       Nakamura's effort here is ambitious, and he pulls it off quite well. The pieces do fall into place -- there is relative clarity about the who and what as the novel nears its conclusion -- but for much of the time the reader too can feel in a fog of confused identities. The sexual difficulties of the various characters add another complicating layer (and a somewhat unpleasant taste to things, given how much violence is involved).
       My Annihilation keeps readers on their toes, and guessing, and there are some very satisfying turns and reveals here. It can be confusing, but it's the kind of confusion that one should simply go along with; ultimately, it works itself out quite neatly and well (though not entirely so: Nakamura can't entirely let go of all the ambiguities he's sown).
       It's a good, unpredictable mystery -- if arguably overly complex -- and an enjoyably constantly unsettling read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 January 2022

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My Annihilation: Reviews: Nakamura Fuminori: Other books by Nakamura Fuminori under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Nakamura Fuminori (中村 文則) was born in 1977.

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