Masayuki Kawashima has a problem: he is plagued by the urge to stab his baby daughter to death with an ice pick. Between the intrusive imaginings of the day and the terrors of the night, the urge to maim his daughter haunts him every hour of the day. He can't sleep. He can't focus on his work. He can't bear to be around his wife, let alone their child. He can't function while this constant pressure builds and builds inside his head. He knows he has to alleviate it somehow, or he'll lose his mind or harm his loved ones - or both. So Masayuki develops a cunning plan.
He will lie to his wife about a business trip, rent a hotel room, hire a prostitute and then stab her to death. Then he will clean up the crime scene, get rid of the body and go home. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot of things have gone wrong in Chiaki Sanada's life. As a child she was abused by her parents, leaving behind a lifetime's worth of wounds that have yet to scar over, painfully represented by the self-inflicted cuts on her arms. Her childhood trauma has not only manifested physically. At some point she became addicted to several drugs that got her through the nightmares, but they too have warped her personality and her body, and she works in the sex trade to pay for her habit. Though Masayuki hires a prostitute's services for the night with some precision, he did not make room in plans for Chiaki. Chiaki is the ultimate unpredictability.
What follows is essentially a cat and mouse game. Despite being, at times, unremittingly brutal, Piercing also has a darkly amusing streak. Masayuki often laments his frustration at what he feels should be a simple (almost boring) task of killing a hooker. Chiaki, for the most part, is so out of her head that everything she does is ludicrous. At one point she ties Masayuki up with a lamp cord and goes off into the kitchen to make something to eat. I don't know what I expected.
Each chapter switches perspective from one character to another, keeping up a brisk pace. I usually don't like alternating points of view, but Piercing is just about short enough that this gimmick doesn't have time to become irritating. Via the switches we see that both Chiaki and Masayuki are essentially very similar, both in their pasts and their reactions to the situation at hand, sometimes evoking a rather nice symmetry in dramatic irony.
Somewhat grimmer is the concept that two people so similarly damaged can turn against each other in such a spectacular and depraved fashion, but Piercing isn't really a meditation about anything deeper than the lurid violence that glimmers on its surface, as it moves far too quickly to dwell on anything of substance. At just under 200 pages, it's a quick read. This is helped by an eloquent translation and general lack of loquaciousness in, I assume, the original prose.
Still, somehow Piercing is a bit more disposable than Murakami's other (thematically similar) works. In comparison with the genuinely tense first half of In The Miso Soup, Piercing could almost be set to the Benny Hill theme-tune for much of its progression. The characters were rather predictable, too, as if drawn from stock: a cute prostitute who was abused as a child and a smug man who doesn't need to read the instruction manual and ends up faffing up a simple bookcase (only, you know, with murder, instead of flat-pack furniture). For the most part, this was made up for in the sheer unpredictability of the plot. Quite apart from the grotesque attempted-murders, the end seems almost incongruous - some found this disappointing. One of the covers the novel has gives it away, too.
Unfortunately Piercing is considered slightly outmoded now, as it was originally published in 1994 (it doesn't sound that long ago, but to put it in perspective, it was a year after I was born). The English translation came out in 2008. Obviously, I liked it, but it is perhaps not essential reading.
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; paperback / softback edition (7 Jan 2008)