This Week’s Word is “Cat.”
David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors. I particularly enjoy the nested and interlinked story structures of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. When the PR material for Nick Bradley’s The Cat and the City came through, likening it to the work of Mitchell, I was intrigued. It promised a series of interlocked stories set throughout Tokyo; I couldn’t wait to give a try.
What is The Cat and the City?
It’s a novel of nested stories that takes in the melting pot of modern Tokyo. The stories are all linked via a mystical cat that travels about the city visiting various people, giving us glimpses of Tokyo life. As the stories unfold we see their characters are linked to one another in ways only the reader (and the cat) are privy to.
The Cat and the City is a deliciously geeky novel. It opens with a Bachmannesque unsettling story of a yakuza tattooist, who takes on an unusual commission. A young woman who wants a cityscape tattooed on her back. As the tattoo nears completion the tattooist begins to unravel. Central to his discombobulation is a cat he placed into the picture. A cat that seems to keep on moving.
After its macabre prelude, we then enter the core of the novel. Jumping to a homeless man who harbors a dark secret. He lives in a Tokyo that is gearing up for the 2020 Olympics (making the book an unusual anachronism, with the Olympics being postponed to 2021). Shadowy teams are clearing the homeless from the streets and what is the significance of the cat he has befriended?
This brings us to the second geeky thread of the novel. Many of the stories reference a science fiction novelist called Nishi Furuni; an author whose stories captivated a generation. His most famous story “Copy Cat” crops up over and over again throughout the book. One of the characters even translates it into English, and this translation features as one of the chapters into the book.
On top of sci-fi and macabre tattoo stories, other geeky elements in the book include characters who love playing Street Fighter, an overview of the Japanese language and kanji, and a Manga cartoon, written about a recluse who loves Japenese anime. This cartoon is drawn in the novel (there are a number of different story medium used, including footnotes) and forms one of the novel’s most touching chapters.
The references between characters and places in the novel abound, being tied together by the mysterious cat that crops up in each. Tokyo’s transport network and the work of its taxi drivers also help bind the narratives together. The novel is also deeply steeped in the Japanese storytelling tradition, which is used to tie stories together too.
Why Read The Cat and the City?
Some novels just click. I can like a novel, but it still takes me time to read it. There are so many distractions, except late at night, when tiredness usually kicks in and I fall asleep. Not so with The Cat and the City. From the moment I started the first chapter to when I put the book down, I was captivated, or maybe that should be “cat-tivated.” I read late into the night and did not want to stop. Sleep was not a problem. I often hid in my crowded-lockdown-house, so I could sneak a few more pages.
Many of the narratives have different writing styles, and some I enjoyed more than others, but each one was readable and immersive. It was great fun spotting links between the stories, trying to remember where you’d met characters before. Some references we overt, some less so, leaving the reader wondering what interactions they may have missed. Much like Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, The Cat and The City warrants at least one repeat read. I was tempted to turn from the last page back to the first, to discover references I’d missed in the early chapters.
It was great to read such a geeky novel filled with pop-cultural references that ran parallel to my own field of experience. The author, Nick Bradley, lived in Japan for many years and his love for its culture, people, and traditions is evident throughout. As is his handle on the city’s problems and idiosyncrasies.
The novel as a whole is an examination of life in a sprawling metropolis. The fitting in, the fractured relationships, the sense of alienation. A million stories happening side by side. Nick Bradley treats us to just a few of them and the result is a sublime piece of fiction. I loved David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten when I first read it 20 or so years ago. The Cat and the City filled with me with a similar sense of joy and wonder. I hope that Bradley continues this rich vein of form in future novels. When I come to work out my book of 2020 later in the year The Cat and the City will be a strong contender.
If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Cat and the City, you can do so here, in the US (Published Spet 2020) and here, in the UK.
If you enjoyed this review, check out my other Word Wednesday posts, here.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book in order to write this review.