Robert "Foss" Fossick is a middle-aged photographer, the classic, grizzled, down-at-heel anti-hero who draws the curtains to choke on life's ennui. He rejects any distractions from friends who could suture his psychological wounds. Instead, he chooses to numb his pain through prescription drugs and apathetic moping.
His mother's death compounds his misery but sets the narrative wheels into motion. Her will mentions the elusive Mr Satoshi, her childhood sweetheart, now living in Japan. Foss is asked to deliver some correspondence to him, so, cajoled into action upon the promise of freelance work, and led by a mild curiosity beyond his own problems, his journey leads him to the Far East. There, he uncovers the mystery of his mother's missive. Subconsciously, he also learns to love again.
This debut from Jonathan Lee, who conceived the novel while posted with his City law firm in one of its Japanese offices, is confident, sharply-written, and refreshingly direct. Its story melds ancestral letters, diplomatic reports and Foss's inner conflict.
Japan is rendered in a "blur of neon, vast television screens pointing down, full of global dots" where one can see "reflections multiplied and merged on a labyrinth of cubes and cones and pyramids" on the horizon. Tokyo is, of course, a descriptive writer's dream and Lee is not cowed by that culture's omnipresent and exhaustive literary heritage; he instead revels in his character's conflicts.
Undoubtedly, the author's one-time alienation in Japan lent this an authentic bent. A frustrated photographer's eye is also a convenient and clever way of framing streets bleached into homogeneity by neon. The relationship between Foss and the student Chiyoko is a personal highlight. She is an appealing, likeable distraction as Foss stumbles into dead ends and twists through skeins of plot.
Their dialogue is playful and well-observed, moving from flirtation to mistrust, exasperation, and ending up with something deeper. A small criticism might be that sometimes Lee's phraseology is plastered on in several layers. But such evocation is never obstructive. For the most part, it emphasises Foss's detached state of mind.
More experienced authors might milk drug-addled protagonists for all they're worth; Lee's subtlety in this regard speaks volumes of the appeal, depth and maturity of his central character, as well as his writing.