I wouldn’t call myself a person who likes mystery stories. Locked rooms, remote islands, strange killings with no earthly explanation – all of that stuff strikes me as arbitrary in a way I don’t really want to read. Part of it comes down to the fact that such stories are often liars, or at least not tellers of the whole truth. Sherlock Holmes stories are deceivers – Sherlock Holmes himself is not a detective, but a magician. When Sherlock Holmes pulls out a solution, we are astonished not because he used the same information we had in a more elegant or insightful way, but because his brandishing of new, unheard information was so dazzling that we believed in the trick anyway.
I don’t want tricks to be brandished in my face to astonish me, at least not those sorts of tricks. I can trust in the storytelling craft of Arthur Conan Doyle (and though his stories are pulp literature, they are very well-crafted pulp), but I can’t believe in the genius of Holmes. I can’t be made to feel stupid by a story that assumes I can’t see it’s lying to me. If you fabricate a correct solution and then throw fifty brambles in our path and turn off the lights, of course we’ll be dazzled by any brave soul who navigates it in the dark. That much is obvious.
Of course, there are also mysteries that don’t lie to us, but merely mislead us. That offer all the correct clues, if only we can slot them into place. These stories are also liars. Clues are only meaningful in retrospect – every word committed to a page in a mystery is a clue, and the job of a mystery’s writer is not to give us just enough information, but to make us believe the important words were clear enough that we only just missed them. This is, I admit, a difficult balance, but certainly not an impossible one. Stories only work certain ways. A mystery whose killer is Frederick, the next-door neighbor who we never met, is not a good mystery. And after all is said and done, why should I care how one made-up person killed another made-up person in the first place? That is plot, and plot means little to me.
Not everything I said in those last three paragraphs is true, but as I said, that’s how mysteries work. Nisioisin’s Decapitation Kubikiri Cycle is unabashedly a mystery novel, and as a mystery novel, I can honestly say that much of it was not my bag. Mysteries really do feel like Plot Plot Plot, and though I can stomach and even enjoy that in the context of a taut short story or single anime episode, constructing an entire novel around “don’t you want to know what happens next” is essentially my kryptonite. I don’t care what happens next. I want to know about who these things are happening to, and what it all means.
The actual Plot Plot Plot of Kubikiri Cycle is that Tomo Kunagisa is a genius computer engineer, and Ii-chan, our humble and largely unnamed narrator, is her assistant/caretaker/confidant/???. Kunagisa is invited by the wealthy and mysterious Iria Ikigami to Wet Crow’s Feather Island, a remote island where she regularly hosts a variety of geniuses. The current crop of geniuses include a painter and her own caretaker, a member of the Seven Fools (essentially a superhuman American think tank), a chef, and a fortune teller. The island also hosts a head maid, identical triplet sub-maids, and Iria herself. After a trio of peaceful days on the island, a head rolls off, then another, and a mystery is afoot.
A significant portion of Kubikiri Cycle’s text is devoted to the traditional, narrative mechanics of its mystery. Marooned on a remote island under the care of a mistress who doesn’t want the police involved, Ii-chan, Kunagisa, and their fellow guests all work on their own theories. The first death, involving an earthquake, a paint spill, and a variety of alibis, is very tightly constructed, and its solution feels reasonably solid. The second, involving a locked room and a high window, demands a semi-fanciful solution that relies on the kind of leap of deductive reasoning that sounds fine coming from a confident narrator, but which could easily have been replaced by any number of other fine-sounding solutions. It’s reasonable. The mystery works.
None of that was all that interesting to me. What was more interesting, and what made this a clearly Nisioisin book, are all the strange, tortured conversations in between.
Nisioisin characters don’t talk like normal human beings – they talk like Nisioisin characters. His style of dialogue is heightened and indulgent, often wandering into odd philosophical segues, and reliant on the assumption that everyone in his world has the same kind of snarky patter. I enjoy his style in pretty much any situation, but a novel about geniuses is a particularly natural venue for his vivid, larger-than-life characters. Whether it’s the painter who believes style is weakness, the engineer who talks in a careless sing-song, or the maid who only speaks in riddles, the characters here burst off the page with a vibrancy that only emphasizes Ii-chan’s own relative nonidentity.
The fact that Ii-chan isn’t even named speaks directly to the fundamental conflict of his character. In the midst of geniuses, Ii-chan is a person who sees nothing special about himself, and can’t even see a point to his own life. He flutters in Kunagisa’s glow, a moth bonking its head against a lamp, constantly fulfilling the role of “hold on a minute, let’s stay calm here.” He’s a very smart boy, but not an extraordinarily smart boy. He is noncommittal in all things, something that alternately disgusts and amuses the various forces around him. Surrounded by geniuses whose central talent is their dedication to one specific craft, his lack of dedication could be taken for a lack of existence altogether.
Ii-chan is not alone in his nonexceptionalism. Shinya, the caretaker of wheelchair-bound artist Ibuki, is a similarly vestigial, genius-bound organ. Shinya seems to take his nongenius nature in stride, but his backstory reflects a strange kind of defeat. He was the one who originally taught Ibuki to paint, but when it became clear her genius completely blotted out his own talent, he gave up and dedicated himself to her service. Maki, the fortune teller, sees a kind of honor in this – and an ugliness in Ii-chan’s own. If Ii-chan can’t be a genius, so his detractors claim, he can at least be the sole possessor of one. If Ii-chan can win Kunagisa, his life may have meaning after all.
Nisioisin’s afterword to the story seems to hinge on this point, the fundamental fear underlining a narrative of exemplaries. Many of his other characters have grappled with their own purpose, but here, that fear seems palpable at all times. “If I’m not special, if I’m not brilliant, if I’m not a genius, then what is there in life for me? What reason do I have to live?” Kubikiri Cycle emphasizes that fear not just in a general sense, but as an urgent, immediate question framed in the presence of people whose reasons for living are crystal clear. In the end, the true beauty of genius may not be power, but purpose. Proficiency is simply a byproduct of that which Ii-chan and Nisioisin seem to crave – a clear, undisputed reason for being.
Kubikiri Cycle doesn’t come to a clean answer on that front, which is just right for this sort of story. In a world where characters hatch murder plots and casually switch identities and take up lives where others put them down, the idea of “clear meaning” seems like a childish simplification. It may not be comforting, but the fact that geniuses know what they are meant to do does not reflect some larger reality, some set of paths we are all meant to take. Ultimately, even the geniuses in Kubikiri Cycle prove themselves to be fluid beings in their own way – though “fluid” can also mean “goes with the flow,” and that too is a valid solution. Threatened literally at gunpoint, Ii-chan admits his truth is tied to someone else. Pushed out of an idling car, he follows that truth wherever it leads. Life doesn’t have any meaning. Any meaning is okay.
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