The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a difficult novel in many aspects: it’s deliberately cool (icy is going too far–icy is too extreme in a novel that pointedly avoids extremes), distancing, and, I would suspect, philosophically disagreeable to most of us on a scale ranging from aggravating-to-repellant. It’s also, in its own self-contained way, something of a masterpiece, although it’s one that I have to admire at arm’s length. Spoilers are below, but it’s not the kind of book where spoilers really matter.
It’s story is simple and minimalistic. Noboru is a thirteen year-old boy in a pack of other thirteen year-old boys who all, under their pontificating “chief,” are devout nihilists, obsessed with aesthetic ideals in general and aesthetic ideals of heartless masculinity in particular. Elements of more naturalistic boyhood creep in, of course: Noboru longs for a hero. He thinks he has one when his mother takes up briefly with Ryuji, a sailor temporarily in port, but Ryuji proves frustratingly human, too prone to sloppiness and sentimentality. (Interestingly enough, Ryuji too, in his twenties, has some of Noboru’s own frustrated bleak idealism, and thinks often about his longed for special destiny and a connection between sex and death–he’s disappointed to find himself falling in love with the boy’s mother, just as he’s disappointed to have found that the sea is not the adventure he’d hoped for.) When Ryuji returns to marry Fusako, the boys decide to kill him as they killed a kitten earlier in the book. There’s implications of slow and deliberate infliction of pain. The ending is what really gives the book its power, as it cuts away at exactly the right moment, with Ryuji feeling intimations of his “great destiny” just as he drinks the tea the boys have drugged to knock him out.
If the ending is the single best moment, it’s because it uses the novel’s coolness and the wavering humanity of its philosophically-invested characters all to its advantage. Noboru’s hand trembles when he offers the cup. Ryuji, still longing for his destiny, takes it. The last line seals the scene’s power. The effect overall is one of flawed humanity colliding into something destructive but powerful, and so the scene has all the feel of a green sky before a terrible storm. To end right on the cusp of that is really marvelous writing, as it leaves the reader completely satisfied while still shuddering at the picture that’s already formed of what will inevitably come next. You don’t have to see the storm; you just watch the sky change colors, and you know.
It’s a moment worth reaching, but the way to it is sometimes difficult. The novel is beautifully written and well-translated, but the characters are distant, prickly, and react in ways that seem like deliberate choices against the human. Reading it (and me being about as far from a nihilist as a person could be) is a constant act of struggle with the characters not even because what they’re doing is wrong but because what they’re doing seems so strange and almost immature. Noboru spies on his mother’s undressing and lovemaking from a peephole and it’s one of the more human moments in the book, because it’s at least rooted in visibly, messily human problems about sex and family. When Ryuji tries to be philosophical with Fusako but stumbles back into talking about, say, the weather, it’s funny. But when Fusako is disappointed in his “ordinariness” as a likable, friendly young man, when Ryuji thinks obsessively about how he has this idea of having sex with a woman and dying through it–I blink. Really? You expect that of Noboru and his friends, who are carefully trying to prune away all sentimental and ordinary human impulses, but the entire world of Sailor is formed of people who react coldly and counterintuitively to simple pleasures. The one possible exception is Fusako’s customer, an actress striving in vain for an award, who seems the most human person available: vain but not entirely self-obsessed, longing for achievement, struggling to cover up her failures, tone-deaf to how she comes off to others, friendly if miscalculating in her friendliness. It’s not, suffice it to say, a novel where she’s well-regarded by anyone. She’s messy and honestly, she’s too involved in things.
This makes for a very strange, disconnected reading experience in a world that I can’t quite recognize, but then again, there’s that ending, which so perfectly caps everything that came before it. It’s certainly a novel that I will remember.