Review: The Kyoto Man by D. Harlan Wilson

July 18, 2013 at 3:39 pm (Bizarro, Review, Writing)

A man transforms into a city, decimating the landscape and endless miles of life around him. It is a chronic condition, one he cannot control. Is it a metaphor for a super virus, ceaselessly spreading across an area and wiping it clean of higher life forms? Should we instead turn toward personal narrative? Perhaps the transformations stand in for some crutch like alcoholism or drug addiction turning a man into a monster bent on the destruction of his loved ones? Or is it just some guy helplessly metamorphosing into an ancient Japanese city to which he has never been, never seen, never studied? A mystery of apocalyptic proportions that even he cannot solve for himself? Such interpretations do not come easily or clearly with D. Harlan Wilson’s The Kyoto Man, a fun-house mirror shattering novel that switches form and function as fast and often as its protagonist. Understanding is slippery, and Wilson, who once declared  that plot was his mortal enemy, doesn’t make it simple for his readers, but half the fun is the ride, and the author’s absolute mastery of form and experimentation with the schizophrenic way in which the story is told make this book well worth the price of admission.

The novel opens after “The Stick Figure War,” a conflict which has left, in its wake, a series of timecrashes and zoneshifts. Our protagonist trips about through time and space without rhyme or reason, and in doing so loses whatever tenuous grasp on identity he once might have had along with the comforting solidity of reality. He encounters (and occasionally murders) various versions of the terrifying Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, a martial arts obsessed psychotherapist and various lovers, all of whom become victims of his metropolitan transformations. With each change, reality seems to slip a bit further down the hole, darkness growing omnipresent and meaning ruthlessly carved away. In one sense, it’s hard to say what The Kyoto Man is about, but in another, what isn’t it about? Pop culture, science fiction, kung-fu, personal responsibility, entropy, autobiography and more all woven together into a pastiche that bores its way into the reader’s brain like a power drill.

With each transformation, the nameless (or multiply named, depending on your point of view) protagonist careens back and forth between storytelling styles. Jumping from the relatively expected “criterion prose” to other voices within prosaic storytelling is a given, but then, the The Kyoto Man goes off the rails. The thousands of transformation tales take the shapes of everything from stage play scripts to sitcom episodes, prose explosions intentionally aping Cormac McCarthy to old world broadsheets. Even a wanted poster makes its way through the telling, not to mention various others that would best be left for the reader to discover. Perhaps Wilson is sitting behind his desk, reading reviews like this one, smashing his words onto the page and chuckling with secret knowledge that he’s setting traps for reviewers, playing with readers’ minds and creating chaos for no reason other than its being fun… well, the fun of reading The Kyoto Man often lies in the surprising and anarchic turns that his words take, so whether dripping with meaning or devoid of reason, The Kyoto Man is a must read for any reader who appreciates a heady trip through the surreal. The aftermath is simply picking your brain up off the floor.

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