John Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flat." Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" William S. Burroughs's "Junky." The semi-autobiographical novel of disaffected youth and their abusive love-affairs with drink, drugs and sex is certainly not without literary precedence. Over the years, it has become a genre, one which shocks people with its honestly, and lures with its romanticism of the life of a fringe wastrel, who looks no further than the next drink or fix, living life in pursuit of pleasure.
Joining their ranks is "Almost Transparent Blue," the debut novel by Japanese virtuoso Ryu Murakami. This first novel, written while still in collage, won the prestigious Akutagawa award and skyrocketed Murakami to fame and financial independence. Telling the semi-connected tales of young junkies Ryu, Kazuo, Yoshiyama, Moko, Reiko, and Kei, the book is a decent into the underbelly of 1970's Japan, fresh with Jimmy Hendrix music, exotic black men from the local military base, and the numbness of emotion that comes from living in a drug-haze.
Like his predecessors, Murakami has detailed the life of the Bohemian as an attractive and repulsive existence. Attractive, due to the seductiveness of a life lived for base pleasure, animalistic sex and a constant supply of drugs. Repulsive, in the vomit and blood and pain that of necessity accompanies such a lifestyle. You wonder which characters will escape, which ones will die, and how much of this did Murakami experience first hand. He never makes it quite clear, naming the lead character "Ryu" after himself, and leaving the reality of the elusive "Lily" up in the air with the last paragraph.
Very much a product of its time, both the music and the stereotypical "otherness" of the black people are striking time stamps. Unfortunately, the translation is dated too. With Japanese literature, you can always tell how old a translation is by how the translate tofu. Here, it is called "bean curd," since tofu had not entered the standard English language yet. Also, some strange choices were made by the translator, such as changing Kei's Osaka dialect into an American Southern accent.
However, flaws aside, "Almost Transparent Blue" is a powerful milestone in Japanese literature, and a good book as well. A short, quick read, it will linger long after the last page is read.