Occupied City — David Peace

“You want to know what happened, yes?” an old detective asks near the beginning of Occupied City. “No? You want to know the truth? Make up your mind! Which do you want to know; what happened, or the truth?” This preoccupation of “what happened” vs. “the truth” fuels the central tension in David Peace’s new novel, a postmodern noir exercise set in the desolation of 1948 Tokyo. Based on the true story of the Teikoku Bank Massacre, Occupied City investigates the postwar slaying of twelve bank employees who were poisoned by a man dressed (perhaps) as a government official. There’s a parenthetical “perhaps” around just about everything in Peace’s book; he cites Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short stories “In a Grove” and “Rashomon” (as well as Kurosawa’s film adaptation of that story) as inspirations for the structure of Occupied City.

And rightly so. The few witnesses who survived the massacre get to tell “what happened”; their testimony is combined in a pastiche of sources including official government documents, a detective’s notes, newspaper reports, and personal and professional letters from an obsessed American Lieutenant Colonel. There’s a classically-neutral narrator whose reportorial rationality is undercut at every turn by the interceding lamentations of a Beckettian speaker dipping into madness. And there are the dead, the victims who cry out to be seen as more than just victims. Peace’s techniques are somehow both stochastic and tightly controlled at the same time, as he weaves the disparate voices through his tale to square the different perspectives of “what happened” in an attempt to reach “the truth.” Peace’s language frequently vacillates between elliptical and elusive abstraction and the visceral immediacy one would expect from a detective novel. The verbal tics add up to a visual poetry, as Peace’s repetitions, redaction, strike-throughs, and columns reinvigorate a genre that too-often relies on stodgy convention. For many readers, this eclectic style will be at times challenging or even come off as pretentious, but those who submit to Peace’s tumult of language are in for quite a ride.

Occupied City is a smart, well-researched historical thriller that recalls the verbal grit and energy of James Ellroy, who Peace interviewed earlier thie year. Like Ellory, Peace’s detectives investigate the seamy gaps in history from myriad perspectives, prodding readers into violent alien territory. And like Ellroy’s work, there’s no easy “truth” at the bottom of this book, but there are plenty of unsettling questions. Occupied City is a stark, bewildering challenge from a writer who deserves a wider audience. Recommended.

Occupied City is new in hardback from Knopf this week.