Caveat lector: Some of the explicit sex scenes in Fuminori Nakamura's new novel Cult X will disturb you. Whether that's because they embarrass you or turn you on or both is very much beside the point. Not only does Nakamura have more disturbing things to share, those sex scenes point toward the worse-to-come events in most un-titillating ways.
Nakamura, a sensation in Japan, won the 2010 Kenzaburo Oē Prize for The Thief, which the Wall Street Journal called "a chilling philosophical thriller." The author's interest in philosophy is displayed in Cult X, early and often, through a series of lectures given by the leader of a seemingly benign group. That leader, a kindly old man named Matsuo, is known for his talks on everything from Buddhism to Christianity, generously sprinkled with ethics.
Protagonist Toru Narazaki encounters Matsuo and his gentle followers while on the trail of a disappeared girlfriend, Ryoko Tachibana (also known as Rina). He thought Matsuo-san's address connected her with their group, but he soon learns that Ryoko has fallen in with a shadowy man named Sawatari, who somehow leads a group only known as "Cult X," since no one knows their real name.
Because Cult X has bilked Matsuo-san, his devotees beg Toru to infiltrate the group and discover their purpose. Most of that, we know, is based on the 1995 sarin gas terrorist attacks on the Tokyo subway. A doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo, led by a man named Shoko Asahara, planned and carried out the fatal attacks — in large part to prevent police investigations into their inner workings.
No spoilers here as to what happened afterwards, especially as Nakamura imagines it differently — and that's what makes Cult X worth reading. Much of the book's middle is given over to the stuff of any-old-thriller. Bodies are shot. Bodies are sucked and penetrated and fondled. Bodies are searched and abused. Double agents are discovered and betrayed. Some confusing subplots take place involving Ryoko and her incestuous stepbrother, as well as Mineno, a member of Matsuo's group whose obsession with the stepbrother unfortunately lands her in the middle of the Cult X action.
Sometimes the action is weird, lots of slow-motion orgies and people alternately shouting "Are you coming?" and "I'm going to come!" like so many robotic sex dolls (plus, there's only one tiny mention of same-sex attraction; the Cult X universe seems to be so cisgender and heteronormative that it really does seem like ... a cult.) "God wanted us to be naked," intones the leader. "Christianity's strict rules about sex fundamentally contradict god's wishes. We must spew back up the fruit of knowledge. We must forget ourselves!"
Nakamura's imperative is to winnow out how an obsessed, single-minded organization can take root in modern Japan. Matsuo-san served in World War II and survived, perhaps in part because of a comforting hallucination. His "cult" hears him recall several times a teaching of the Buddha: "One must sever oneself from the root of delusion, the thought that thinking brings wisdom." To Matsuo, after his long life and its vagaries of fate, this means mindfulness. To Cult X, this is a signal that humans should set aside thought for action.
However, Matsuo has a last word, even though he says it quite early in the book. Adhering to no particular faith but interested in them all, he reserves his most sincere words for his wife of decades, Yoshiko: "I was happy to be with you ... Any man who gets to tell that to his wife ... He's a winner." That isn't to say everyone must have a wife or a husband or any kind of partner, according to Matsuo — who has another chance at having the last word, in a lecture taped from his hospital bed that his friends don't see until close the end. It means embracing life's essential futility — and diversity. It means organizing a society for peace, not war.
Does anyone hear that message? The remarkable thing is that, yes or no, you'll think about Nakamura's questions long after you've closed his book's covers. He uses the conventions of a genre to prop up a tent for big ideas about groupthink and individual responsibility. If you feel a few frissons along the way? Consider how easily you might be seduced into a cult, and then take a long, cold shower.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.