Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja

There had been a man. Miyamoto Musashi. Perhaps Japan’s greatest warrior. Among other things, he founded the Niten or Two Heavens school–or ryu–of kenjutsu. It taught the art of wielding two swords at once. Another aspect of musashi, known as Kensei, the Sword Saint, was that he used bokken–wooden swords–in actual combat–claiming that he did so because they were invincible.The Ninja, p. 114

As American audiences were first introduced to the ninja (at least those who weren’t already delving into the martial arts cinema of Japan and Hong Kong), a common narrative ploy was to hook the audience’s identification with an American or European initiated into the ways of the shadow warriors, learning about them along with the reader or viewer. Stephen K. Hayes’ non-fiction book The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, published in 1981, starts from a similar premise, laying out the basic philosophies and some of the techniques of ninjutsu while describing Hayes’ own search for a teacher who might admit him into the inner circle. Starting as an American black belt, he is humbled by the recognition of how little he knows, but his journey toward mastery is shared with the reader; it’s a heady formula and one that would be repeated throughout the 1980s.

Nicholas Linnear, the protagonist of Eric Van Lustbader’s 1980 novel The Ninja, plays a similar role as both an audience identification character and an insider who can access secret teachings and relay their meaning to American readers. We first encounter Nicholas as he leaves a high-powered advertising career, although looking back from the vantage point of the book’s end, it’s hard to imagine him putting up with such a job. Born and raised in Japan, Nicholas feels adrift in America, its ways still alien to him, but after his years there he feels that it has changed him, buried his true self beneath layers of foreign ways of thinking and feeling. In Japan, as we learn in copious flashbacks, parallel to the present-day story, he was treated as a different kind of outsider. The son of a British colonel attached to the postwar occupation (who was also Jewish, so he too felt alien in his own culture) and a widow of mysterious Asian extraction (possibly Chinese or Japanese, but possessed of an incredible family legacy), Nicholas excelled in everything he did, including the study of bujutsu, and yet still felt there were mysteries he had not penetrated, among them the political intrigue represented by his uncle Satsugai and the sexual mysteries of Satsugai’s ward, Yukio. So far, so good.

More than anything else, he needed a challenge, with women as well as with all the interests in his life. For he felt quite deeply that nothing in life was worth possessing without a struggle–even love; especially love. This too he had learned in Japan, where women were like flowers one had to unfold like origami, with infinite care and deliberateness, finding that, when fully opened, they were filled with exquisite tenderness and devious violence.  –p. 36

Having retreated to a life of meditation in a Long Island beach house, Nicholas’ soul-searching is interrupted by a chance meeting with a neighbor, Justine, an artist whom he had briefly met in his advertising career. Instantly, there is a bond between them that explodes into graphic, lovingly-described sex. There is a lot of sex in this book, all of it graphic, enough that the paperback cover characterizes Van Lustbader as a “master of the erotic and terrifying thriller.” I’m not sure there’s actually more sex in The Ninja as a percentage of its pages than in the average Stephen King book, but I don’t recall him being characterized as a “master of erotic horror.” In any case, it is certainly true that sexual attraction and obsession is a driving force for many of the characters, and it fits with the general characterization of the East as alluring, unknowable, and ultimately maddening.

Of course, neither Nicholas nor Justine can be truly happy until they conquer their inner demons: Nicholas in the form of his memories of Yukio, whose fate is gradually unfolded in flashback, and Justine in her need to escape from her domineering tycoon father and her own desires to be dominated by the men in her life. At the same time, a strange killing in their beachside community–the killing that actually caused Nicholas and Justine to cross paths–hints at macabre business. The first death could be mistaken for a heart attack, but for the tiniest sliver of a shuriken found in the victim’s chest during the autopsy, coated with a rare poison that takes the local examining doctor back to his own memories of the Pacific front during World War II. Brought into the case as an expert on such things, Nicholas knows instantly that there is a ninja in the area. Sure enough, more killings follow.

The Ninja has more in common with the works of Stephen King than its thickness and the presence of some NSFW subject matter. Like many of the popular horror novels discussed by Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks From Hell, The Ninja borrows a concept from a foreign culture, emphasizing its most lurid and threatening aspects, and sets it loose in modern America to kill some yuppies. The ninja behind the killings is treated like the monster in a horror movie for much of the book, until his identity is gradually revealed, at first striking from the shadows, so that its first victims don’t even realize what has killed them. When the ninja is seen and described, he is wordless and implacable, an unstoppable killing machine in the vein of Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. Plenty of characters are on hand, as well, to establish the ninja’s deadly threat, first walk-ons who only get a page or two of background before being killed, but the ninja works his way through those who are more established in the narrative and whose deaths make a real impact on the reader. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that it ultimately comes down to a contest between the ninja and Nicholas, the only man in the area–possibly in America–who really understands what he’s up against.

“You know, Linnear, for those two stiffs being your friends you certainly aren’t broken up about it.”

Nicholas sat perfectly still. A pulse beat strongly in the side of his neck; a cool wind seemed to blow through his brain. There were haunting echoes, as if he were hearing words of his ancestors carried to him through the corridors of time. Beneath the table, his fingers were as stiff as knives, his thigh muscles like steel. He required no blade, no concealed weapon. There was only himself, as deadly a killing machine as ever was created in any country at any time.

Croaker was staring into his eyes. “It’s all right,” he said softly. He gestured with the tines of his fork, laced with running yolk. “Your food’s getting cold.” He went to work on his own and never knew just how close he had come to being killed. –p. 191

The Ninja takes place in that phase of the early 1980s when it was still the 1970s in a lot of places: in additional to the frequent casual sex, the fact that Justine is described as spending a lot of time at the disco sets the period. Another temporal marker is that New York City is a hellhole, full of noise and crime, as we are reminded every time Nicholas or Justine grudgingly ride in from Long Island (Van Lustbader was a lifelong native of Greenwich Village, so his descriptions of the city in all its terrible grandeur ring true). In addition to Nicholas, the shifting viewpoint frequently turns to Lieutenant Croaker, the kind of policeman who ruffles feathers but dammit, he gets the job done (he’s the cop who didn’t know how close he was to being killed in the excerpt above). One of the ninja’s killings even takes place in a grimy Times Square porno theater.

Very much a New York character is Rafael Tomkin, Justine’s father, a wheeler-dealer type with a sprawling family estate on Long Island but who is almost always at his under-construction high-rise headquarters or in his private limo. A thin-skinned control freak, he keeps tabs on his estranged daughters (Justine’s older sister Gelda also figures in the narrative) and hires Nicholas to supplement his bodyguards when he realizes how skilled he is. It’s natural in this poisoned time to see every such caricature of the egotistical blowhard businessman as a portrait of Donald Trump, and it’s possible that Van Lustbader had Fred Trump in mind (Donald would have still been one of those youngsters filling up the discos with Justine at the time The Ninja was written), but I’m sure Van Lustbader had plenty of potential models for both Tomkin’s duplicitous character and his unhealthy interest in his daughters’ sex lives.

The ninja are not bound by the Way, Kansatsu had said, and that was correct. Yet ninjutsu was more complex than that and, as in bujutsu itself, there were many types propounded and taught. Good and evil. The black and the red. Kansatsu himself had shown it to Nicholas before he had left Tokyo. Of the red, he had said, far and away the most dangerous, the most virulent ryu is the Kuji-kiri. “It is the Chinese word for the ‘nine-hands cutting,’ the basis for much of the ninja’s real or imagined power. It is said by many that these hand signs are the last remaining vestiges of magic in this world. As for me, I cannot say, but as you yourself have come to understand, there are times when the dividing line between imagination and existence can disappear.” –p. 382

The Ninja strongly reminds me of the paperbacks I remembered my parents reading when I was a kid–Stephen King, yes, but also the popular novels of Danielle Steel or historical epics like James Clavell’s Shogun.  Sometimes I would read the “adult” novels that were lying around the house if I got bored enough and didn’t have anything of my own to read, gleaning what I could of my own preferred subjects in between the subplots about divorce or real estate or whatever. (I did read some Stephen King in middle school, but as I’ve mentioned before, I had the bad luck of getting into his work during a particularly weak stretch of books, so I wrote him off and didn’t reappraise him until I was an adult.)

A good example is Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, a novel that has become an infamous example of the anti-Dungeons & Dragons panic of the 1980s (and the source for a risible Tom Hanks TV movie); as a D&D-playing kid I knew that Jaffe wasn’t on my “side,” but I still read her book in the hopes that she might have some original ideas about fantasy. She didn’t, and it quickly became clear that she didn’t have much exposure to the actual game or the way it was played, either, but for some reason I got sucked into the drama of rich, disaffected college kids and their addictive pastime.

I didn’t read The Ninja as a kid; if anyone in my family did, I don’t recall seeing it, but I probably would have at least looked into it if I had. I have more appreciation now for the personal drama that fills novels like this–in this case, not just the hero caught between two worlds, but a great deal of soap concerning Justine’s father and all of his family and business problems–but would I have found enough about, y’know, ninjas to satisfy my ten-year-old imagination? I think I would have: aside from being a better book than Mazes and Monsters (faint praise, I know), The Ninja is dense with research, so reading it one learns about the philosophy and technique of many kinds of armed and unarmed combat, and some terminology to go with it; the mindset and methods of the ninja as he undertakes his mission; and the history and mythology of Japan, both in the middle ages and the twentieth century, with at least the pretense of presenting insights into the differences between the Japanese and Western mindsets. Later in the 1980s, when Americans were terrified of being passed up by the ascendant Japanese economy, businessmen were said to be reading Miyamoto Musashi’s classic Book of Five Rings in order to understand the mindset of their opponents. The Ninja, with its mixture of ancient philosophies and modern economic realities, is likewise concerned with bringing Japanese ways of thinking to Western audiences (it’s even divided into five parts in direct imitation of Miyamoto’s work).

It’s the kind of book, still popular even as Jonathan Franzen complains that the Internet has devalued thorough research, that doles out history lessons between sex scenes and moments of intense violence, so that you could feel that you were learning something while being entertained. Its pulpy mixture of action, mystery, sex, and history promises something for everyone, and although I could quibble with the details of Van Lustbader’s style–he frequently chooses inelegant words in his hurry to get on with the story–he keeps the pages turning. As its status as a bestseller (and its several sequels) demonstrates, Van Lustbader knew what readers were looking for, and in The Ninja he got in on the ground floor of a trend that was set to explode in popularity.

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