Fuminori Nakamura tells me exactly how he would steal my wallet. In Japanese, he explains that the trick is to lift it out of my back pocket with his three middle fingers. By foregoing the thumb (the clumsiest finger), it makes the rest of his hand more difficult for the victim to detect. Nakamura also says that if he were a better pickpocket, he would be able to lift my watch. (I check my wrist, even though I don't wear a watch.)
Nakamura doesn't steal wallets for a living, but he learned a lot about it while doing hands-on research for his novel The Thief, which concerns itself very much with the life of a Tokyo pickpocket. After a botched robbery, the nameless protagonist finds himself at the mercy of the thugs who set up the job. There's a sense of dread that pervades each page, and a surprising Camus-like ennui that provokes existential and deterministic motifs. The Thief is a swift but gloomy literary thriller, light on its feet but sinister in its intentions (much like a good pickpocket).
But for how grim his books are, Nakamura is a surprisingly affable, almost giggly presence. I have a hard time imagining that such a pleasant person could spend so much of his time exploring the darkest recesses of humanity. We meet at Café Grumpy in New York. Nakamura is visiting the States for the first time, both to attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where The Thief is a Book Prize nominee, and to support his newly translated thriller, Evil and the Mask, out June 10.
Tonally, the books are similar. But where The Thief maintains an anonymous, distant narrator, Evil and the Mask is very much concerned with its anti-hero's name, or more specifically, escaping one's name. Fumihiro Kuki is born into a wealthy family set on being "a cancer on the world." The one bright spot in Fumihiro's life is an adopted sister of whom he feels protective (and with whom he has a disturbing relationship). To keep her safe, he is often forced to do terrible things. Evil and the Mask is concerned with a twisty sense of morality: is Fumihiro born evil, and can he escape the cruelty associated with his surname?
Whereas The Thief succeeds because of its simplicity, Evil and the Mask is a muddier affair. It's a longer, much more ambitious novel than The Thief, and perhaps a better one. And without giving away the ending, there's actually a bit of optimism in the closing pages of Evil and the Mask--not a lot, but when something is so bleak, even the slightest hints of hope are a welcome surprise.
When we arrived at Café Grumpy, it was sunny outside; by the time we leave, it's overcast and starting to rain. Even though I don't have a jacket or an umbrella, I don't mind. I'll look for cracks where the sun shines through.