Is it possible to capture the essence of a city as large as Tokyo in a single book? Debut author Nick Bradley pretty much manages exactly that with this exceptional collection of intricately connected short stories.
In fact, The Cat and the City is rather more a novel with separate episodes than self-contained tales: characters reappear either fully or half-glimpsed from one story to another. Seemingly disjointed at first, the random events and personae combine ultimately into a dazzling tableau of modern Tokyo and its denizens.
Matching the structure, the content is equally complex. No genre is overlooked: romance, detective and science fiction are all represented, along with a nod to gothic horror. Nor does Bradley restrict himself to just plain prose. There’s a good deal of poetry (including haiku) and more modern written media such as social media posts and a comic strip. This sort of post-modern mish-mash can be difficult to pull off but Bradley makes it hang together as a glittering, coherent whole.
Slinking between the shenanigans of the humans is the cat of the title.
Of the many storylines, the major one concerns Ohashi, a rough sleeper who is arrested by the police in the clear-up of the shanty towns before the Tokyo Olympics. He is “rehoused” in a facility while the police attempt to locate his younger brother, Taro, a taxi-driver, in the hope of finding him a place to stay. Ohashi must meanwhile share his cell with another vagrant, Keita, an argumentative and alcoholic failed gangster suffering the ignominy of being rejected by the yakuza.
Prior to his incarceration, Ohashi was receiving food parcels from Makoto, a sympathetic student. Makoto gets an internship at a PR company (working for the Olympics) where he persuades his female co-worker, Kyoko, to escape a boring office drinks party with him. They take a taxi—driven by Taro—and Kyoko talks briefly about her family who appear in a later story. From here, a series of fabulous twists and coincidences ensue which eventually result in Ohashi being reconciled with his family.
Bradley has a PhD on the figure of the cat in Japanese literature.
Slinking between the shenanigans of the humans is the cat of the title. Mostly it observes the characters and sometimes gets a lead role itself, most notably as an allergy-free clone and, in other stories, transmogrified into a heavily tattooed cat-girl. In other situations, the cat becomes a plot device, such as creating a car accident or as a means for characters to meet. Bradley plays the theme for laughs too: a cat logo appears on a glass and one scene is set in a cat café where customers can pet the resident felines.
In the acknowledgements, Bradley reveals himself to be a cat lover. He also has a PhD on the figure of the cat in Japanese literature. So the key to understanding this complicated book is probably in the translation he provides of A Blue Cat by Hagiwara Sakutaro at the start of the work. Bradley writes:
Ah! The only thing that can sleep in this vast city night
Is the shadow of a single blue cat
The shadow of a cat that tells the sad history of humanity
Bradley also uses the figure of a cat to tell the mostly sad history of his characters. Bradley’s Tokyo is indeed a lonely place, peopled by lost souls struggling to make human connections within their cage of endlessly circling commuter trains. Free of plot constraints, the cat brushes past the young and old, ignored and loved, ambitious and resigned. Meshing their stories together, Bradley presents us with a three-dimensional (pun intended) CAT scan of humanity in all its beauty, ugliness and tragedy.
This is a fascinating book which deserves two or three reads. It really is the cat’s meow.