Akutagawa Prize #160: Nimrod, by Ueda Takahiro

Ueda Takahiro 上田岳弘.  Nimrod ニムロッド.  Kōdansha, 2019.

This was the co-winner of the 160th A-Prize, for late 2018.  The other co-winner was Machiya Ryōhei 町屋良平’s Ichi round ippun sanjūyonbyō 1R1分24秒.

It’s a Bitcoin novel.

Ueda was born in 1979 and has been writing for about five years;  he’s fairly popular and recognized already, and this is third time as an A-Prize finalist.  On the basis of this he writes like someone who knows what he’s doing:  very assured, with a settled voice.

It’s mostly narrated by a single young guy in Tokyo named Nakamoto Satoshi who works in a data center.  His boss gets the idea of utilizing spare server capacity to mine Bitcoin, to turn a little profit with otherwise underused machines.  He creates a new one-man division in the company and puts Nakamoto in charge of it.  Nakamoto knows little about Bitcoin at first, but he bones up and does his best.  At first it goes well, but after a while the rate of return falls, as he learns is inevitable, and by the end his boss has pulled the plug on the Bitcoin mining project.  But the boss hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for the cryptocurrency idea, and he puts Nakamoto to work designing a new one, hoping this will be the key.

If you’ve been following Bitcoin (I wasn’t) you’d see the irony here right away, but if you haven’t Ueda explains it pretty early on anyway:  the guy’s name is Nakamoto Satoshi, but he’s not that Nakamoto Satoshi.  So part of the story’s playfulness is putting this guy to work mining the currency his not-really-namesake invented, and then having him invent another one, that he can’t name after himself.

His minor adventures in the Bitcoin world are intertwined with two other plotlines.  One traces his relationship with his sort-of girlfriend Takubo Noriko (it’s a very specific style of storytelling).  Theirs is presented as an emblematic modern urban SNS-age relationship.  They don’t really go out regularly;  rather, a couple of times a month she gets a room in a nice hotel and summons him through Line.  They have sex (and the coolness with which this is narrated is part of the charm of this story) and little else.  She works in finance and travels to Singapore a lot.  Has a tragic relationship in her past.  Gradually, without it ever being spelled out, we get the sense that she needs more from Nakamoto than she can say, and then she disappears.  Her last message to him is that she’s off into the East Sea yonder, a phrase taken from the intended last words of the developer of the Ohka kamikaze plane in WWII before he tried to fly one into the ocean.  Is she committing suicide (the developer survived)?  Unknown.

The other storyline explains, more or less, why she uses these words.  It traces Nakamoto’s relationship with a former coworker, now working for one of the company’s other data centers, in Nagoya.  His name is Nimuro, but he’s almost always referred to by his online handle Nimrod (Nimuroddo).  It’s a play on his surname, of course, but he’s also conscious that it refers to the Biblical king who supposedly built the Tower of Babel.  Nimrod (the character) likes doomed projects:  he’s an unpublished writer obsessed by the idea of the 27 Club and also by the rumor that J.D. Salinger had a safe full of finished but unpublished manuscripts.  He and Nakamoto mostly interact by email;  Nimrod sends Nakamoto essays summarizing failed airplane designs, basically taken from a Navermatome site but with a little of Nimrod’s own commentary.  These essays are quoted in full in the book, and form a kind of an intertwined narrative with Nakamoto’s own.  The one airplane that Nimrod discusses that’s not taken from the Navermatome list is the Ohka.  After getting that far, Nimrod restarts his novel, and we get excerpts from that.  It’s narrated by a future King Nimrod, one of the last individual humans in a world where most people have voluntarily merged their consciousness into a collective, funded by a cryptocurrency.  King Nimrod collects failed airplanes and stores them atop his tower.  In the end (of this story-with-a-story) he climbs into his Ohka and flies off.

Nakamoto tells Noriko about Nimrod, and she becomes fascinated by him.  They never meet or (to the narrator’s knowledge) interact without Nakamoto as a medium, but clearly her final words are inspired by Nimrod’s novel.

So clearly part of what this story is doing is examining how atomized and depersonalized we all are in the current SNS age.  Interactions are bloodless and often mediated by devices even when they’re face-to-face – even in bed with Noriko, Nakamoto is always looking something up on his iPhone 8 (which he always refers to that way:  never generically).  In some ways the book’s pivotal scene is when Nakamoto brokers a “meeting” between Nimrod and Noriko.  We’re with Nakamoto in a meeting room in the basement of the company.  He has Nimrod projected on the wall through teleconferencing software, and Noriko on his phone connected through video chat.  It’s a completely familiar contemporary scene, but quite haunting in its own way.

It’s not just relationships, though:  it’s how we function even on an individual level that’s at issue here.  Nakamoto Satoshi is not only not that Nakamoto Satoshi, he’s never even heard of that Nakamoto Satoshi.  Both Noriko and Nimrod comment on how little Nakamoto actually knows about the world, but he’s unperturbed, because anything he needs to know he can just look up on Wikipedia whenever he wants.  Like most of us these days, he’s outsourced the act of knowing.  And in their own ways Noriko and Nimrod are just as isolated, and just as incomplete.

It sounds like an incredible downer of a novel, but it’s really not, because Ueda writes so vividly, so matter-of-factly, and with so little authorical commentary.  And because the voices of the characters through which he tells the story are themselves so partial.  Nakamoto is clueless, rather than miserable, and so we get to experience this vaguely depressing modern world as we usually do in real life:  as something inevitable and beyond our control and not without its conveniences and pleasures.  Nimrod is the thinker and feeler, and we get the impression he’s almost numb with the modern horror, but he really only speaks to us through fiction, or through playful recasting of internet junk (as a character he reminds me a lot of the Rat in Murakami Haruki’s first three books:  the melancholy, the remoteness, the epistolary interaction).  The effect is an amazingly readable, even fun, novel that still evokes the grim reality of how we’re all basically the by-products of systems we can hardly even conceive of.