Coin Locker Babies

I first heard of this book when Michael Wong, of Ideagist, visited my Japanese Literature Challenge 2 blog and asked me if I had a copy. I told him I’d buy him one, which I did, but when it arrived from amazon.com I had to see what it was about. After reading a few pages, I ordered him another, and sat down to immerse myself in this story.

Like so much Japanese literature I’ve read, there’s a quality of fantasy that’s hard to put one’s finger on. Is it the author’s imagination run wild? Or, as in a John Irving novel, is the bizarre not so bizarre after all? Somehow, after the first hundred or so pages, the reader doesn’t even mind if strange creatures come into the characters’ lives, or absurd thoughts present themselves to the characters’ stream of consciousness. It all seems perfectly natural, somehow, in a piece of well written literature.

Coin Locker Babies is about two babies who are abandoned by their mothers in train station coin lockers. “Two troubled boys spend their youth in an orphanage and with foster parents on a semi-deserted island before finally setting off for the city to find and destroy the women who first rejected them. Both are drawn to an area of freaks and hustlers called Toxitown. One becomes a bisexual rock singer, star of this exotic demi-monde, while the other, a pole vaulter, seeks his revenge in the company of his girlfriend, Anemone, a model who has converted her condominium into a tropical swamp for her pet crocodile. Together and apart, their journey from a hot metal box to a stunning, savage climax is a brutal funhouse ride through the eerie landscape of late-twentieth-century Japan.”

The theme of abandonment, and the pain that causes, runs throughout this novel. Regardless of culture, or life style choices, the distress which comes from knowing that their mother has left them becomes almost unbearable for these two young men. We see their choices, most of them which are self-destructive, in their pursuit for self-acceptance. Secondary, to me, was the plot line which in itself is enthralling; I chose to dwell on their emotional aspects first rather than the physical ones.

This novel looks at what it means to be a child and an abandoned one at that. It is heartbreaking and insightful, especially to those readers who may have been adopted themselves. Regardless of culture, regardless of age, regardless of reason, being adopted is painful. Yet there is comfort in exploring the issue, in knowing that other adoptees have similar feelings.

I found this an incredibly profound work, as well as a fascinating look into the Japanese world.

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23 thoughts on “Coin Locker Babies

  1. It sounds like it has that 'fantasy' quality, as you term it, that has made the few Japanese books I've read a wonderful experience. Not sure I want to read something this heavy, I usually stay away from stuff like this as it reminds me so much of work, lol! The cover is amazing. That is the kind of thing that would leap off the bookshelf at you.

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  2. I've been wanting this one so much Bellezza! In fact I almost picked it up the other day. Now it's definitely going into the cart next time I order something. I read Ryu Murakami for the first time this year with In the Miso Soup and it was an excellent book! Probably my favorite read of the challenge. Though it's a close tie with Haruki Murakami's After Dark. Love the cover of this one too!

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  3. Carl, I suspect this may be one of the reasons Murakami and other Japanese writers have a certain appeal with you: the fantasy aspect. Would you agree? The cover did leap off the shelf at me! It isn't something that would normally draw me to pick the book up, but maybe subconsciouly, it was afterall.Chris, you would so love this book especially with your understanding of teens. I want to read more of both Murakamis: Haurki AND Ryu!Kailana, this was the first time I read anything by him myself. I've heard so much of Miso Soup, but I'd never even heard of this title until Michael Wong asked me about it.

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  4. Oh definitely. Of course I have absolutely nothing…or almost nothing…to compare it to. The only other writer I've read is Natsuo Kirino. Out wasn't fantasy at all but I really enjoyed it.The fantastical elements…would it be magic realism? not sure…of Murakami's books are a huge reason I fell so hard for them. The way he expertly weaves those elements into his stories makes me feel like I am both reading something utterly new and utterly familiar. I'm so glad I read those 3 books of his last year and look forward to more this year.

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  5. There's 2 Murakami's? D.B thank you for this review, and to those of you who have commented. I have really taken a fancy to H Murakami's work, but now with your reviews I will need to seek out RM. There's not much time left for the Japanese Lit Challenge 2 – so will there be a no 3?

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  6. Wonderful review! I've only read In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami and it was great but very violent too. I've looked at his books a couple of times at the library but I felt I wasn't in the right mood. Just like I do have to be in the right mood for the other Murakami. I'm definitely going to have to read this one sometime though.

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  7. Carl, I'm glad you returned to confirm my question. It finally dawned on me that that could be one of the reasons you're so engrossed in Japanese literature (Hey, give me a year, I'll figure it out). I, on the other hand, don't necessarily adore fantasy. But, I am gaining a much deeper appreciation of it! Before, I would just lay a book filled with those "magical realism" elements down with scorn. Now, I can suspend my disbelief, and even enjoy those same elements.Tamara, to think that two short years ago I'd heard of neither Murakami, and now to know that there are two! Indeed, it is a wealth. 😉 Of course, I'd love to host Japanese Literature Challenge 3. Thanks for your interest!Tanabata, I want to pick up Miso Soup next. I've heard such fascinating things about that novel, as well as Ryu Murakami. I can see why he's become a best seller. He has a much more 'in your face' method than Haruki (I like Haruki's subtle style better, I think), but it's so engrossing!Rebecca, thanks for reading the review! By the way, I love picture of the girl reading on her back in the corner of your blog. Is that you, by chance?

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  8. When I saw the cover of this one, I thought that looks so unlike you! But, it sounds great and I can see why you kept reading. You're making me want to go dig for my Murakami. I had to set it aside because of all those ARCs screaming at me and never went back, but there's definitely something surreal that surprisingly works in Japanese literature, isn't there? Everything is still vivid and I don't think I'll have any trouble at all picking the book up and continuing, when I get around to it (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, that is).

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  9. I haven't heard of Ryu Murakamy until now I will definitely put this book at the top of my 'to buy' list.Thank-you for this great reviewI hope you have a nice week-end

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  10. I know what you mean about the quality of fantasy found in Japanese literature. It's almost a surreal quality, and in fact sometimes it is rather surreal. I've read Kobo Abe's 'The Woman in the Dunes,' as well as a couple books by Murakami. Both authors have that fantasy edge to them.At the same time, there's something I find dark, possibly depressing, about Japanese writing. It's not necessarily as grim as so much of Russian writing, but it's there. It's like being in a dream. Things happen that seem impossible in regular life – very much a dreamlike state.But I love everything I've read by Japanese writers. I also love the Russians. I just have to be in an up mood to read their books!

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  11. Bookfool, you know me so well! That cover is anything BUT one that would first appeal to me. The aspect that caught me, though, was the adoption. I couldn't read enough about that having personal experience with it. It's so surprising to me that the feelings which accompany adoption are universal regardless of culture. Also, this is Ryu Murakami not Haruki; I have Haruki's Wind Up Bird Chronicles which I can't wait to read either. They're in a big stack with all of his other work I bought on eBay. Let's talk when we finish Wind Up Bird Chronicles. Well, and before then, too, of course. ;)Madeleine, I was messing with my gmail and I accidently erased your email before I could respond to it. I'm so sorry! But, I am glad you're back, and March will be here before you know it. New life in the Spring, right? I'm thinking of you!Bluestalking, you have made a few wonderful points here, not only about the surreal quality (which I think is almost a better adjective than when I used 'fantasy'), but about something dark in Japanese writing. There is! I find the same thing. I'm not sure why, though, because I know so little about their culture. I am a huge fan of Russian literature, and I like how you drew a comparison between the two because I see it, too. There's a certain darkness, and a certain mysteriousness or surrealness, in both of them. I liked to read Russian literature in the Winter especially.

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  12. "In your face" is a great way to describe Ryu Murakami's style based on the one book of his that I've read and what I've heard of his other books. I agree that I think I prefer Haruki's subtler style but they are both fascinating. In response to Bluestalking's comment about Japanese lit having a darkness and sadness to it. I think the Japanese spirit is infused with melancholy. Silent suffering is practically revered here. And just look at the obsession with cherry blossoms. They're essentially celebrated because they're ephemeral and this translates into the belief that something so beautiful simply can't last. Gosh, now I'm starting to feel all melancholy. LOL.

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  13. Tanabata, I love the insight you give into Japanese culture. You open my eyes to countless aspects of it, from the literature and art to the cherry blossoms, festivals, and spirit. Thanks so much for leaving such valuable comments, and of course, for being my friend!

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  14. Thanks for the recommend. This sounds like one I'll want to read. I've seen this author on the bookstore shelves (right next to Haruki of course), but haven't read yet.

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  15. B,I'll talk to you soon, off the boards. I need to ask you some questions about Persephone but I'm having trouble keeping up with myself, these days. I wasn't paying attention to the first name, although I knew there are two Murakamis. I've only read that bit of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, nothing by Ryu. I've found Japanese writing, in general, can be really bizarre but magical — much like Latin American writing, it just works. I so agree with your thoughts. Yep, we'll have to talk. LOL

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  16. Terri, I found his writing so powerful. I hope you enjoy it, too, when you try it.Bookfool, ask away about Persephone. When you're ready, of course. 😉 It's true what you say about Japanese writing being magical, but bizarre, and I think your connection to Latin American is a great one I hadn't thought of. Like Water For Chocolate, and House of Spirits come to mind; like much of the Japanese literature I've read you're in the middle of the story going, "What?! What's happening HERE?!" Then you have to suspend your belief and go on. Wow, I'd love it if you'd join in the next time around because you have such good ideas and insight.

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  17. Yes, I think that someday when I have the money I might buy me this one. What you talk about the Japanese is valid in their work with fantasy. I have to give it to their culture. Being politheistic [not sure of spelling] and having such insight both on technology and connection to nature and the system of relations and hyerarchy that binds them, brings out this outlandish flavor that stretches and bends what Western cultures have created as perception of the world.

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  18. Thanks to all for the conversation about Japanese lit. I've been a student of human behaviour for more than 20yrs, and have only just started reading fiction in the past 5 yrs. I love how much you can learn from fiction. Since starting the Japanese Lit Ch 2, I've been spell bound by H Murakami (although I'm looking for some of R's work now). I like the analysis of the surreal sitting with the dark, and the sadness and melancholy infusing the real life possibilities. I thank so many of my bookish mentors for encouraging me on this journey.

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  19. Tamara, it makes me so happy that you find this challenge rewarding. I, too, gain so much knowledge from the comments left by others. It's just wonderful to have our knowledge enriched by one another, isn't it?

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  20. I came into the comments thinking that the book sounded heartbreaking and not something I would read until I got to BF's comparison to Latin American writing and the titles you suggested (Water for Chocolate, House of Spirits) so I think I might have to read this book after all and give the genre a chance.

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  21. I just posted by review on this book and linked to your review-I recommend it with some reservations I express in my review-I will read more of his works

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