The many good-to-excellent stories collected in ZOO are perfect reasons for Otsuichi fans to pick this one up. The few clunkers among them are a good reason for other readers to consider seeking out one of his other English-language publications first.
Translation: Terry Gallagher
Adaptation: Terry Gallagher
What They Say
Ten stories of horror and science fiction from Japan's hottest young author. In one story, the last man on Earth turns out to be a robot. In another story, a man builds a house from the bodies of his murder victims. And in the book's eponymous story, a man sees his girlfriend's corpse decomposed one Polaroid snapshot at a time!
Terry Gallagher's English translation reads fine, at least in terms of grammar and flow.
That said, I want to take Otsuichi to task a little bit for not having more narrative or thematic variety among the stories collected in ZOO. Even though none of the stories are connected by plot, they tend to run together after a while; two of the chapters in particular ("The White House in the Cold Forest" and "Kazari and Yoko") tackle almost identical basic themes, albeit with very different storylines.
Contents (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Despite the remarkable consistency in voice (sometimes even to a fault), ZOO can be surprisingly uneven in terms of storytelling quality. Well, "uneven" probably isn't the word I'm reaching for; most of the eleven stories collected in ZOO are good, or at the very least fairly entertaining, with only a few that struck me as being monotonous. I think a big factor is that Otsuichi seems to never get enough of twist endings: a full ten out of the eleven stories collected here (not to mention most of the other stories from Otsuichi's English-language canon) have gimmick endings of some kind. Not surprisingly, the best stories among the bunch would have stood alone well from their endings; my least favorites, in contrast, treat their endings like a crutch.
Among the many that did work for me, my favorite is probably "Hands of God". "Hands"'s protagonist accidentally discovers that can will things into being by just saying them forcefully enough; the catch is that he can't undo any of the things he wishes for, although he can (and does) convince people to be completely oblivious to them. What makes this story particularly interesting is the depth to the narrator's personality and motivations, making this one of the few stories in ZOO where the narrator stands out as a character rather than someone trying as hard as possible to sound disconnected from everything going on around them. The reader is meant to understand that the narrator's a mostly good person who makes rash decisions and is genuinely penitent for his actions; while the reader isn't supposed to completely sympathize with some of the abhorrent things he does, Otsuichi made his life relatable enough to suck me into the story.
I also really enjoyed the two dark comedy pieces, "In a Falling Airplane" and "Find the Blood!". "Airplane" deals with a manga café employee and failed salesman aboard a hijacked flight, who spend the flight negotiating the sale of a euthanasia drug that will allow one of them to die in peace before the airplane crashes. In spite of the deceptively morbid premise, the story succeeds mainly because of its absurd side, with would-be heroes tripping over a tin can and the main characters shushing the hijacker during their heated negotiations. (It also succeeds in spite of one of the anthology's weaker endings, which is only vaguely connected to the rest of the story by a throwaway bit of dialogue.) "Blood" is only slightly less dark, as it deals with a man who's been stabbed with a kitchen knife and will bleed to death unless he receives a transfusion. Like "Airplane", though, it crams in a lot of goofy gags, mostly involving the narrator's self-absorbed family and their incompetent live-in doctor. I'm actually thankful that Otsuichi didn't stretch this one out more than about 20 pages, since these are the kind of jokes that work well in a quick short story but could become stale in any other context.
But as I said earlier, not every story in this collection works quite as well as the ones highlighted above. "Song of the Sunny Spot" is, for a post-apocalyptic tale, surprisingly dull: along with the titular "ZOO" and "Wardrobe", it seems to exist only as a vehicle for springing a twist ending on the reader, with none of these endings being strong enough to justify the corresponding build-ups. The slasher story "Seven Rooms" likewise collapses under the weight of its underwhelming ending; I'm fine with open-ended resolutions when they're done well, but "Seven Rooms" just left me feeling that Otsuichi ran out of ideas and decided to use that as a feature. "The White House in the Cold Forest" is an improvement over these, partly because an unexpectedly surreal subplot where the neglected protagonist builds a house out of corpse. Nevertheless, it's noticeably sloppier than the superior "Kazari and Yoko", a later story in the anthology which recycles "White House"'s themes of familial neglect.
ZOO is a solid read, and one I'd recommend to Otsuichi's existing English-language reader base. That said, a few of the stories collected here are heavily flawed in their narrative approach; for that reason alone, first-time Otsuichi readers may want to check out Goth or one of his contributions to Faust before picking up ZOO.