Shuichi Yoshida (author), Philip Gabriel (translator), Parade, Vintage, 2015. 230 pgs.
Juxtaposition is arguably part of the big city charm. Tokyo in itself is already a city of juxtaposed buildings and streets and as Shuichi Yoshida zooms in on a handful of urbanite youths living together, we see that within the confines of an ordinary apartment, they too, are juxtaposed. Parade is a dark thriller that packs a discreetly hard-hitting plot and a thought-provoking picture of urban life, where social structures, just as much as physical ones, are essentially superficial and temporary.
The novel is an engaging immersion into the lives of five different Tokyo urbanites. Despite the confined living space shared by five individuals and their together-ness as roommates, themes of loneliness and detachment are prominent through each character’s narrations. While the characters deliver edgy monologues on interpersonal relations, city life, and apartment living, we almost forget that the novel is a psychological thriller. Yoshida’s prose, translated by Philip Gabriel, is gripping all throughout, making this a fast read with some sneaky misdirection on the novel’s plot to set up a sucker-punch ending that comes flying out of nowhere.
The story is told through five chapters, each with a different narrator. Kicking things off is the narration of Ryosuke, 21, a college student. He works a part-time job at a Mexican restaurant during evenings and is romantically pursuing Kiwako, the girlfriend of a university upperclassman. When he is not outside, he mostly hangs around the apartment with Koto, a 23-year-old woman from Sapporo. Koto, narrator of the second chapter, normally spends her entire day by the phone, waiting for her television drama actor boyfriend to call. Whenever they have a date, she and he would arrange for quick trysts in hotel rooms.
Early on, Ryosuke and Koto each sense something strange going on in the next door apartment. Ryosuke had seen on separate occasions at least two young girls emerge out of it in tears and Koto had spied a politician enter it as well. The two of them would devise a plan to investigate this while some more mystery builds up in the background. Reports surface on television of an attacker at-large within the neighborhood. Several women have already fallen victim to the attacks, with gruesomely bashed-in faces. Police have even started going door-to-door to issue warnings to neighborhood residents. This sub-plot silently brews as the characters barely take notice of this and continue on with their own businesses.
One morning, Koto encounters 18-year-old Satoru emerging from the bathroom, assuming he is one of Ryosuke’s university friends. Satoru plays along but when the roommates discover that he doesn’t seem to be who he says he is, they start suspecting that they had let a thief unimpeded into the apartment. It turns out that it was Mirai, a 24-year-old illustrator and manager of an imported goods boutique, who had ferried in this young wayfarer on one of her countless drunken nights out. Mirai is brutally honest and provides a refreshingly cynical perspective. She regularly hangs out at gay bars and this is how she encounters Satoru, who had been homeless until he ended up in the apartment.
Satoru makes a living as a male prostitute by night but by day, he occasionally shoots speed and breaks into other people’s residences. That much we know through his narration but as for what he tells the other characters, Satoru plays a bit of camouflage. Mirai however, sees right through his fraud: “He simply has no respect for the past…these false histories he was spouting were becoming way too convenient.” But having been homeless previously, Satoru knows that selectively molding one’s image to others is fundamental to survival in the city. “I mean it’s all made up anyway,” he tells Mirai when she suggests he talk about his childhood memories.
The eldest roommate and the novel’s final narrator is 28-year-old Naoki, a professional at a film company. He has been an original occupant of the apartment with his now on-off girlfriend Misaki, until Mirai, and then Ryosuke moved in. Misaki eventually moved out to live with a middle-aged boyfriend instead and that’s around the time Koto moved in. Naturally, the younger members treat him as an older brother figure. Other than that, Naoki is a protein-shake-drinking health nut and spends his free time jogging around the neighborhood.
The five roommates keep loose and casual relations with one another but surely, this was to be expected for any group of individuals living together. Each of them came to the city from different backgrounds, carrying different burdens and secrets, and fighting different personal battles. Koto compares their living arrangement to that of an internet chat room and as Mirai observes, everyone is merely putting on situation-appropriate faces. For Satoru, the apartment is all a stage for “people-playing-at-being-friends.” It’s true that each roommate, in a certain sense, role-plays for the sake of living in harmony but in doing so, they also foster indifference in their lack of emotional investment in one another.
The roommates merely share an apartment and the occasional meal; otherwise, everyone is left on their own. At this point, that simple two-bedroom apartment becomes a sort of microcosm of a city, at least on the level of the individual. Paradoxically, despite the city—an artificially vast landmass of a dense web of streets and lofty skyscrapers— being a space that lots of people populate and share together, indifference and loneliness hang heavy in the air. This becomes the norm in a place where everyone bustles along with his or her own agenda. In such environment, detaching oneself and alienating others become equally easy. In the story’s late stages, one of the characters feels heavy isolation, ignored by everyone else (“unjudged, unforgiven, null and void”). It’s in this scene where even the perceived sense of alienation is chillingly oppressive.