David Peace grew up in Yorkshire. So he moved to Tokyo in 1991, age 27, because who wouldn’t? And once settled in Japan, he began to write the fiction that would make him successful. In English. Mostly about Yorkshire, because . . . well, because David Peace is one of the best and most peculiar writers in English today, and he apparently needs distance to allow himself to slip inside the minds—conscious and unconscious—of the people about whom he writes.
Sometimes the people involved don’t much care for the invasion. In 2006, for example, he wrote The Damned Utd, which he called an “occult history”: a novel fictionalizing the true story of 44 days—the brief 1974 tenure of Brian Clough as manager of the Leeds United football team. Occult is certainly a word one might use for the book. A 2009 movie version presented the actual history of Clough’s strange stint in Leeds, but it couldn’t re-create the strangeness of Peace’s narrative as it slides through the thoughts of its characters, from the abstract mind’s soccer strategies to the reptile brain’s rage for dominance. One of the people who appeared as a character in the book, Johnny Giles, ended up suing for defamation and forcing the publisher, Faber & Faber, to make changes in the text.
Peace published another fictionalized true-history football novel in 2013, Red or Dead, about Bill Shankly and the Liverpool team, but it wasn’t as successful as The Damned Utd, and, anyway, Peace seems to have a horror of being pigeonholed as a writer. He first came to public attention in Great Britain with a set of more-or-less hardboiled stories called the “Red-Riding Quartet”: Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999), Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000), Nineteen Eighty (2001), and Nineteen Eighty-Three (2002). The novels are based in part on police efforts to solve the (again true-history) killing spree of the Yorkshire Ripper that began in 1975.
Except the books were really about police corruption and the weirdness of England in the 1970s and 1980s, a setting from his youth to which Peace has returned again and again. Refusing to be known as a thriller writer, he turned in 2004 to GB84, a fictionalizing of the 1984 miners strike that paralyzed Britain. In interviews, Peace has suggested that he has ideas for a novel about the rise of Margaret Thatcher and another about the 1970s Yorkshire cricket star Geoffrey Boycott.
But all those years in Japan, hours and hours spent reading in the national library, finally added up to new material for his fiction, exploring topics other than Yorkshire in the 1970s. Of course, he had to imagine his leaving Tokyo in order to find the distance to write about his adopted city. In Tokyo Year Zero (2007), he took up a Japanese policeman’s hunt for a serial killer during the American occupation after the Second World War. The underlying events, Yoshio Kodaira’s rapes and murders, were true history, but it’s as though Peace needs truth to begin his novels the way the Mississippi needs the small clear waters of Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to get going. Far downstream, the river is a flooding monster and the water anything but clear.
Peace returned to England to publish his second Japanese novel, Occupied City, in 2009—although he would claim he had difficulty focusing on his writing in his home country, and he fled back to Japan in 2011 to write his second British football novel, Red or Dead. Occupied City told the (true-history, naturally) story of a murder case in Tokyo. In 1948, a man appeared at a branch of the Imperial Bank, claiming to be a public-health officer sent by the American authorities to inoculate the employees against dysentery. What he gave them was poison, killing ten of those present and incapacitating the other six. He then pocketed a small amount of money and disappeared. An artist named Hirasawa Sadamichi was convicted of the crime, although doubts about the case have endured even beyond his death in prison in 1987.
Peace’s fiction has always moved through the minds of more than one of his characters, but in Occupied City what had been an incidental technique becomes the central device of the novel. We get stories of the bank poisoning, the police manhunt, and Hirasawa’s behavior from a dizzying array of perspectives. So many, in fact, that the possibility of determining the truth disappears behind the narratives, like the horizon fading into an indistinguishable gray behind a cloudburst.
“It’s just like Rashomon,” everyone who read Occupied City felt compelled to declare, comparing the book to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film about the impossibility of discerning truth in the swirl of multiple characters relating their self-serving versions of an event. Occupied City wasn’t really a direct homage to Rashomon; the comparison was too facile a way to describe what the novel was attempting. Still, there is this fact: David Peace’s latest book, Patient X, takes up the (real) life of the writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose short story “In a Grove” was the basis of Kurosawa’s movie.
Subtitled The Casebook of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Patient X is not exactly a fictionalized biography of the man considered by the Japanese to be the founder of the nation’s modern short-story tradition. It’s not even a novel. Patient X consists of 12 mostly unconnected vignettes, drawing in other characters as Peace lays out events in Akutagawa’s writings and life.
The origin of the book was the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. Peace was asked to contribute to a story collection to raise money for damaged libraries, and the 2011 disaster sent him back to the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo—an incident that affected Akutagawa profoundly, as Peace relates in the story “After the Disaster, Before the Disaster,” which would then form a central chapter in Patient X.
Suffering from both deteriorating physical health and a set of hallucinations he connected to the family history of his mother’s mental breakdown, the Japanese writer killed himself in 1927 at age 35. Peace cannot quite reach down to the reason Akutagawa’s “vague insecurity” about the future would issue in suicide; he proves a little heavy-handed in the claim he’s made that Japanese militarism and nationalism following the 1923 earthquake is being mirrored by the rise of Japanese militarism and nationalism today.
Nonetheless, the kaleidoscopic effect of Patient X gives English-language audiences their best chance of insight into the strange mental amalgamation that allowed Akutagawa to construct his fiction. Peace sees the Christian strains in the art, including the odd and interesting ways in which Christianity was connected in the mind of Japanese intellectuals to the modern strength of the Western nations—connected to modernity itself, as Japan sought to position itself both militarily and artistically as a modern power.
Patient X draws out as well the contradictions involved in the importation of Western art forms—the modern short story, for an on-point example—into Japanese artistic culture, as Akutagawa struggles to construct his miniatures. And he sees the incipient madness that always flowed within the writer: both the electricity that would power his fiction and the overload that would undo him.
All this is not to say that Patient X is a good book. Even in the midst of David Peace’s signature fictionalizing of true history and penetration of deep mental states, the fiction feels disjointed and confusing, a much tougher nut to read than the Red-Riding Quartet or The Damned Utd. But Patient X is also brilliant, coruscating, maddening, and fine. The real thing in a time in which we have so few real things.