Spiral by Koji Suzuki
The sequel to Ring, the famous horror thriller that spawned a million movie versions, has been released in English Translation courtesy of Vertical, Inc.. Fans of the film, or of the earlier novel, would do well to seek it out. It is a sequel that is not only successful in its own right, but it also improves the first novel in retrospect.
Most visitors to this site are familiar with Ring, whether they have read the book, or watched the Japanese, Korean, or American movie adaptations. Each version is slightly different, but the basic premise remains the same. A videotape is discovered which, when watched, causes the viewer to die within seven days, unless they do something which the videotape instructs, something which unfortunately one of the viewers had erased as a prank. Our protagonist watches the tape, then the clock starts ticking while they slowly unravel the secret of the videotape. At last, our hero discovers the solution: propagation. Only by making a copy of the tape and passing it on can you stay alive after the seven day period. And so in the End, in the interest of self preservation, The Ring Virus is poised to be unleashed onto the world. The imagination runs wild...tape after tape, copy after copy, slowly but inexorably spreading all over the world. Armageddon.
But though Ring has been adapted into not just one but three successful films, and helped launch a new wave of Asian horror films, it's sequel, Spiral (or, in Japanese, Rasen) did nothing of the sort. It's film adaptation was, by all accounts, stiff, leaden, and dull, and even if you wanted to see it, it was hard to come by (It's available now on Region 2 DVD from the UK). The third in the series, Loop, has yet to be made into a movie in any country. The movie adaptation of Spiral disappointed audiences to such an extent that another sequel, a purely cinematic sequel, was created by the director of the Ring, Hideo Nakata, and released with much more success (a sequel to the American film, also doubtless not based on Spiral, is in the works).
So Ring is a hard act to follow, the big brother who gets all the attention. Spiral is the neglected middle child. But nevertheless, the book promised to be intriguing. I wanted to know what happened next. The mystery of the Ring Virus was solved in the first book, so I expected the second to be less of a mystery and more of a straightforward survival story, people falling victim to the virus, last outpost of humanity, that sort of thing.
But Spiral is nothing of the sort.
Instead, the novel surprises by approaching the Ring virus from another viewpoint, a new protagonist (Mitsuo Ando, a coroner and medical lecturer) who discovers the deaths, probes into the research done by the reporter in the first book, and realizes that we still only have half the story. Copy the videotape before your seven days are up and you survive? No, it's not so simple. Everything you thought you knew about the Ring virus slowly unravels, and a new, more scientific, more detailed understanding emerges. Spiral twists back onto the first story, weaving new threads into the narrative, connecting the dots in a slightly different way than the way it was first unraveled. It is an incredibly refreshing, bold move. It is literary convention that when we follow a protagonist through a mystery, a mystery that he solves at the end to his own satisfaction, the reader too accepts the solution and we know it is true. Here, Suzuki tosses aside the satisfied problem solver of the first book, and starts over with someone else, who punches holes in the previous theory and arrives at a new truth.
Ando unravels the mystery with some help from beyond the grave in the form of strange cryptographic messages which he has to solve. It reminded me somewhat of The DaVinci Code, but here the codes were quite clever, and you got a sense of cryptography as an art, as opposed to in The DaVinci Code, where it seemed only the most simplistic and obvious codes would do. Comparing the two books, I find Spiral much more interesting, mainly because the ending wasn't lame, obvious, and cliche, like the ending of The DaVinci Code. The ending of Spiral was more along the lines of surreal and disturbing.
Koji Suzuki is often called the "Stephen King of Japan" in his promotional materials, a claim which is as obnoxious as it is obviously not true. On the other hand, Suzuki's writing style is a dead ringer for Michael Crichton: thin characterization; poor, or completely absent, descriptions of people, places, and things; a fast paced story that reads more like a screenplay than a book; and a few asides in the narrative while the author fills you in on whatever technological breakthrough he is using as the springboard for the story. In Spiral, we get a lot of discussion about DNA, along with some examples, and later even some electron microscope images. If someone told me it was written by Crichton under a pen name, and I didn't know better, I doubt I would have been able to tell the difference.
The comparisons between Koji Suzuki, Michael Crichton, and Dan Brown are not positive ones. They all write with a style-less bluntness that is easy to read but lacks in poetry. Most readers are used to this kind of writing, though, so it can hardly be said to be a negative point. Still, those looking for something with the depth and richness of Haruki Murakami will be disappointed.
The book moves at a fast pace, and though its timeframe is four months as opposed to the first novel's one week, it is still an extremely quick read, the narrative constantly propelling you forward with a sense of urgency and dread. Pick it up on a Sunday afternoon, and you're likely to go to bed at around two in the morning having finished it in its entirety.
Available at amazon.com