This may be, finally, the review that gets my license revoked. Because in offering my thoughts on Kenji Siratori’s new book, Blood Electric, I’m going to be compelled to say a few things that literary critics (particularly literary critics working for avant-garde online publications) just aren’t supposed to admit.
Billed as “the new Japanese cyberpunk classic,” Blood Electric is a story about the first awakening of an artificial intelligence. Or at least, this is what the back cover of the book tells me and I’ll have to take their word for it: because the first uncomfortable admission that I need to make here is that I didn’t understand this book. At all. Reading through the pages of Blood Electric is an exercise in endurance comparable to tackling Naked Lunch except without the flashes of insight that make Mr. Burroughs’s work worthwhile. Just to make the point clear, opening Mr. Siratori’s book to a random passage we find:
I feed it drugs of masses of flesh and external fear=cell: the techno-junkie device that controls//The internal organ consciousness of self was downloaded::the mimic of cadaver-feti that the logic circuit of self rapes::the hologram of memory lack to the head of amoeba DNA-channel in the virgin form::cut cable of the city that caused it excretes the nightmare of android nature//
Reading page after page of this, I find myself at a loss.
Clearly Mr. Siratori is doing something very cutting-edge with language here; he is evolving a new kind of syntax and grammar in order to capture the grotesque futurescape and thoughts of an infant “artificial intelligence” that he envisions. And perhaps from his perspective – or from the perspective of other connoisseurs of this type of post-coherence cyberpunk – nothing could be more right or appropriate. Unfortunately, that doesn’t much help the rest of us.
Initially, I supposed that Mr. Siratori might be drawing upon computer programming languages for his new grammar (after all, this is a book about an artificial intelligence being born) but as a former software engineer who spent nearly a decade working in more languages than I have fingers, I can honestly report that this doesn’t seem to be the case. Initially, I supposed that the language of Mr. Siratori’s book might become more “human” as the novel progressed and his AI protagonist learned how to speak, but again no dice. And in the end, I came away from this book as baffled as I began.
Blood Electric presents itself as a map without a key, a puzzle that the reader is asked to decipher. Unlike other such puzzles however (I think, for example, of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange) no clues to cracking the code of the book are presented to the reader, and no insight into what we might gain by going to all the effort of working our way into Mr. Siratori’s tortured prose. And without some inducement to do so – some glimpse of human emotion beneath the surface of the words or promise of revelation – it simply seems like a waste of time to trudge through these chapters of convoluted gibberish.
This is not to say, of course, that experiments in pushing the boundaries of language are not worthwhile in general. To make the effort to do something new with words, to find new means of expression, are without a doubt among the loftiest goals that an author can strive for. The crucial point however is that to be worthwhile, these attempts at new forms of expression must communicate something. Writing an incomprehensible book is like painting a canvas pure black: a formal gesture that needs to be carried out once, but that hardly bears repetition. Similarly, it’s worth keeping in mind that the great experimentalists of the past are recognizable by the fact that from the distance of years they no longer seem very experimental at all: they found something that worked, and that became absorbed into our consciousness of language to the point where their stylistic innovations are now commonplaces. What people who point out the greatness of Joyce’s Ulysses forget is that Proust made virtually all the same “breakthroughs” more than a dozen years earlier in Swann’s Way with greater comprehensibility and eloquence than Joyce ever managed.
It’s possible, of course, that I am simply missing the point of Blood Electric entirely. Perhaps in another decade, writing of this type will seem as natural as Kerouac’s rhythms or Proust’s nonlinear internal monologues seem today. But I very much doubt it. For readers who enjoyed the above passage of Blood Electric, whoever you may be, perhaps this book is for you; for the rest of us, I can only recommend Mr. Siratori’s latest novel as an example of how to alienate an audience completely.