Jon Courtenay Grimwood, to my mind, is one of a handful of contemporary writers to have successfully made the whole concept of “genre” moot. I might point out that there are many who are working at it, but Grimwood just does it.End of the World Blues, his latest book, is a good case in point: the narrative moves between two universes, that of Kit Nouveau, former soldier, bar owner, petty criminal, and general screw-up, and that of Lady Neku, who may be a runaway street kid from Tokyo who just stole fifteen million dollars, or the scion of an unimaginably ancient family from the far future. We’re never quite sure whether we’re reading a detective story or a science-fiction story.
As seems to be the case in Grimwood’s fiction, there is a central mystery that carries the book, although it seems buried under layers of other mysteries and only gains prominence as the story progresses. We first actually meet Kit in Tokyo as the owner of Pirate Mary’s, an Irish bar in Roppongi, which is, shall we say, not the nicest part of town. His wife, Yoshi, is a Living National Treasure, a potter whose every new work is awaited with great anticipation. She dies in a fire that burns Pirate Mary’s to the ground, started by a gas leak. So say the police. Another story involves a bomb and flammable liquids, and leaves open the question of targets. And then Kit is located by Kate O’Malley, former gangster and the mother of the woman that Kit loved — if he’s capable of loving anyone — who is, in theory, a suicide. Kate doesn’t like Kit very much, but there’s some question as to whether she actually likes anyone.
And just to be honest, this is all much more complex than a bare summary of the situation can possibly reflect.
The central mystery seems to be whether someone is trying to kill Kit. It’s a distinct possibility. The question is not so much who — there are many candidates — but why.
In the meantime, Grimwood has constructed another many-layered mystery that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go, although I have to say that I found that it took a while to get caught. The first part of the book is fragmented, even more than I’ve noticed in Grimwood’s work in the past, and it takes a while to get the story sorted out; but ultimately the structure of the book gives such a good picture of Kit that I found myself coming back to it again and again.
The sections dealing with Neku and her family read as a plainly related story, and it’s only by contrast with what I consider the main story line — Kit’s story — that we begin to wonder whether this is really happening. The degree of detail and the unremitting realism of the milieu, as fantastic as it is, argue against it being a product of Neku’s fantasies, even though early on we witness her picking an identity. The seamless fit of Neku into Kit’s milieu shakes that surety. The net effect is to push the entire book into something approaching a dream state, a degree of ambiguity that is part of Grimwood’s arsenal and is very seductive in itself.
The marvelous thing is that Grimwood gradually pulls a strong narrative thread from the broken beginnings of this story, to the extent that you don’t want to put the book down, and he does it with a high degree of what scientists call “elegance” — simple, spare, subtle, the means perfectly fitting the ends. I found myself moving from picking up the book reluctantly to having to remind myself that I should put it down because I had to be at work early. I wasn’t always successful.
Chalk up another winner from Grimwood. At this point, I’m not going to worry about whether it’s a science-fiction story, a fantasy, a psychological thriller, or noir detective fiction. I’m just going to recommend that you give yourself the chance to read it and enjoy it.
(Bantam Books, 2007)