By Kenzaburo Oe

Grove. 468 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Andrew Ervin

The problem with writing a masterpiece, or so I imagine, is that every subsequent book gets compared with it rather than being appreciated for its own merits. Norman Mailer, for instance, could never fully escape the enormous artistic success of

The Executioner's Song

, no matter how great some of his later books were. Think of Kurt Vonnegut and

Slaughterhouse-Five

, or George Orwell and

Nineteen Eighty-Four

. These are the books that, for better or worse, define those authors' careers. So it goes.

That brings us to the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. Every book of his I've read - and I've read quite a few, but, I admit, not all - has been superb in exposing the most delicate nuances of our troubled inner lives. Yet for all the brilliance of The Changeling, there's no way to read his work without some comparison to The Silent Cry, which stands as one of the hallmarks of 20th-century literature.

The Changeling seems to invite the comparison. In The Silent Cry, published in 1967, the main character's best friend has painted his face red, inserted a cucumber where the rising sun don't shine, and committed suicide. While that strange act isn't central to the plot, the psychic ramifications inform everything that happens in the novel.

Fast-forward 43 years. (Do we still fast-forward?) The Changeling begins with the news that the close friend of the narrator, Kogito, has killed himself. This time, that tragedy becomes more central to the goings-on, to such an extent that what little plot there is feels almost irrelevant. Linearity isn't really the point here.

Kogito - whose name calls to mind cogito ergo sum, Descartes' famous dictum of "I think, therefore I am" - spends a great deal of time listening to monologue tapes made for him by his formerly estranged childhood friend, Goro. Then Goro ends one of the recordings with a strange message: " 'So anyway, that's it for today - I'm going to head over to the Other Side now.' " Sure enough, Kogito soon learns that Goro has killed himself.

After that, Kogito - a globe-trotting author, if such a thing is possible - grows obsessed with Goro's recordings and studies them for clues about his friend's emotional deterioration. The novel occupies itself with studying the ups and downs of their friendship:

t was clear that the distinguishing feature of Goro and Kogito's relationship, from start to finish, had always been their tutor-pupil dynamic. (Goro, needless to say, played the role of tutor.) Now, of course, that relationship was on hiatus.

That hiatus allows us to see how their friendship changes after Goro's death, when he takes on a spectral presence thanks to the tapes he left behind. The recordings contain lectures, harangues, taunts, and every manner of intellectual speculation. Soon, Kogito begins responding to them, creating a series of private dialogues. The numerous flashbacks and remembrances about their friendship, particularly about their youthful and short-lived involvement in a right-wing plot, forms a literary hall of mirrors in which past and present become indistinct. (OK, maybe we can still fast-forward and rewind - this book sure does.)

Oe allows the reader to figure out how the events of the past can explain our present circumstances and, for that matter, help us figure out what's coming next. The novel also seems to justify every variety of paranoia. Goro, a famous former actor turned filmmaker, is hounded by "young zealots from the right-wing propaganda truck" as well as "black-suited yakuza bruisers," some of whom slash his face so badly he is rushed to the hospital. Kogito's pursuers show a little more creativity:

Every so often, three men would show up to punish him, and their mode of operation was always the same. First, they would seize Kogito in some deserted public place and overcome his resistance (which was only token in any case, since he didn't want to make matters worse by struggling). Next, they would remove his left shoe and, in their quest for accuracy, his left sock as well. Then, taking careful aim, they would drop a rusty miniature cannonball onto the second joint of his big toe.

What makes scenes like this one, and so many of Oe's other books, so fascinating is that the stories of our daily burdens, such as coping with friends' suicides, call to mind a kind of dread rooted specifically in recent Japanese history. Few Westerners will fully understand the ramifications of hearing Emperor Hirohito surrendering on the radio. The entire moral fabric of Japanese culture changed at that moment, and the artists of Oe's generation were given the task of making sense of the new disorder. It's worth noting that the other truly great writer of that era, Yukio Mishima, committed seppuku in the late '60s after attempting to incite a right-wing, pro-imperial coup d'état.

Oe has done as much as anyone alive to define postwar Japan, and therefore our age of globalism. He takes the most massive moral and political tragedies imaginable and renders them personal and real and important to our everyday lives. For those new to his oeuvre, The Changeling may not be the place to start. Try The Silent Cry or Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids first. But once you've found your way into Oe's world, you'll welcome every opportunity to spend more time there.