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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dream Messenger

Shimada Masahiko

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Dream Messenger

Title: Dream Messenger
Author: Shimada Masahiko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 1992)
Length: 293 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Dream Messenger - US
Dream Messenger - UK
Dream Messenger - Canada
  • Japnese title: 夢使い
  • 'Translated and adapted by Philip Gabriel with the permission of the author'

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Our Assessment:

B : messy and uneven

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 24/3/1993 Herbert Mitgang
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/12/1992 Julia Just
Publishers Weekly F 4/1/1993 .
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/1993 Brooke Horvath

  Review Consensus:

  From not too impressed to decidedly unimpressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr. Shimada and his translator, Philip Gabriel, strain to be trendy. (...) Mr. Shimada, who can be tart and amusing, this time out hangs too many clashing themes on the framework of his story. (...) The plot of Dream Messenger sounds bizarre in the retelling because it is." - Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times

  • "(P)roof that the Japanese novel is taking some fantastic turns in the hands of a new generation of writers. (...) Characters pop blithely in and out of this episodic fantasy, and the haphazard effect is quite deliberate" - Julia Just, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)his trying-too-hard-to-be-hip contemporary novel of fantasy, kinky sex, and emotional insecurity (.....) The improbabilities multiply in this choppy narrative melange of unsympathetic characters (too many of whom have similar-sounding M names), bad poetry, wooden dialogue, and imitation profundity (.....) The best advice for Shimada is to keep dreaming" - Publishers Weekly

  • "Shimada (...) works hard to make this storyline, by turns threadbare and self-consciously quirky, more than a divertissement enlivened by New Age-ish excursions into the paranormal (...), forays down Tokyo's meaner streets (..), and glimpses into the disaffected lives of the young that seem cribbed from Brett Easton Ellis. (...) The problem is that nothing here quite comes off (...) the plot fizzles out; and the prose tries very hard to be hip but is flat and strained, like an undercover cop trying to mingle outside a rock concert." - Brooke Horvath, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dream Messenger is an odd story (rendered, it appears, even more oddly into English; see below), in part because of how it is set up and set in motion -- as quest and P.I.-tale (where the private investigators are not professionals). The wealthy widow Mika Amino wants to find her long lost son, kidnapped by his father when he was three, a quarter of a century earlier. To do so she hires a twenty-five-year-old successful securities analyst she has only met a few times, Maiko Rokujo ("You'll have to quit your job, but you won't have to worry about money", Mrs. Amino promises) -- and throws in her houseboy as sidekick. The houseboy is thirty-seven-year-old Takehiko Kubi, a very successful "self-styled genius juvenile fiction writer" who has abandoned writing -- "It was a shabby business he wanted nothing to do with" -- and essentially sold himself -- in exchange for his extensive debts being taken care of -- into the service of Mrs. Amino, for her to do with as she wishes.
       The young man they are looking for is Masao Fudo, "otherwise known as Matthew". Mrs. Amino had grown up -- and lost her son -- in the United States, only coming to Japan when she was in her twenties. She is certain that her son is now in Japan, too -- but Maiko is sent to New York to first check up on the limited trails there are of the boy there.
       It turns out Matthew was raised in New York City by a couple who ran what amounted to a private orphanage. Except that they made a business out of it, renting out their wards. Generally only very short-term -- and at about: "A hundred dollars a day. On top of this there were extra fees, depending on the special requests of the client". The business sounds dubious, but the couple running it assure Maiko that they were very careful in selecting their clients, ensuring that the children were not in any danger, weeding out the sexual predators.
       The idea behind the business model was that there are a lot of lonely people out there, including many what they call 'orpharents' -- "orphaned parents", the inverse of orphans, as it were. The service provided human companionship of a sort the clients couldn't otherwise find. Indeed, even when he is grown and on his own, Matthew remains in the business, in a manner of speaking, hiring himself out as buddy -- a rock star's drinking companion, for example.
       Complicating matters -- or at least the story -- is the fact that Matthew is also a 'dream messenger', able to: "use dreams to communicate with others". Where others lack intimate bonds -- every man an island -- Matthew can connect on the most intimate, deepest level, literally getting inside others' heads. This happens throughout the novel, though generally not too intrusively -- though Shimada occasionally waxes excessively about it:

     Dream messengers live through dreams. In dreams they think, they worry, learn, have visions of the future. In dreams they take their shattered selves and piece them together again. They cure sickness in dreams, die in dreams, and wake to be reborn.
       But even though there is a fair amount of dream-talk -- in Matthew's mind, and those he communicates with -- most of Dream Messenger is fortunately more grounded in the more real here-and-now.
       Dream Messenger is a novel about human connections, and a modern world where many can't make them, left so isolated that they are often left with no other options than hiring companionship, not so much for sex -- the more familiar age-old variation of companionship-for-hire -- but on a deeper level. The teeming big cities of New York and Tokyo -- "the capital city of illusion and amnesia" -- are the most representative locales, late 1980s Japan a place where this loss of human connection is felt most acutely.
       At one point, amidst the crowds, one-time novelist Kubi looks around:
     Before him he saw the entire country, Japan, millions of people, drinking, spewing out their complaints, their misery and jealousy and fatigue enveloping them like mist.
       Matthew/Masao -- living, in part, in his dream world that offers some escape ("Dreams are a great way to stay in touch"") -- has also been drifting through his adult life; "I'm kind of flighty, not the kind to stick to one job for long", he admits -- and it's no surprise he has some identity-issues. In that sense, his childhood job did him no favors:
Being a rental child means being everyone's child, and no one's. But never just one persons.
       Dream Messenger considers a variety of connections -- and brings Matthew/Masao back home, back into the fold -- though even in its conclusion it is still juggling them. It is something of an ensemble-piece -- also the story of Maiko and Kubi trying to find their way -- even if the threads are often left too thin and dangling. And author Shimada even inserts himself and his own efforts peripherally into the novel, Matthew noting:
One novelist named Masahiko Shimada told me he's seriously thinking of making me the main character in his next novel. He'll come to interview me soon. I made it clear to him that I don't come cheap. I asked the budding girl novelist what she thinks of Shimada's work, and she said, "It's too sentimental. He needs to live a more demanding life, like yours."
       All in all it's a rather uneven mess -- with the onetime-novelist character admitting down the line:
     The story isn't supposed to develop this easily, Kubi thought. It's like a cheap detective novel. This is what they call 'misuse of happenstance.' Mrs. Amino's novel isn't supposed to be this simplistic.
       Dream Messenger is a novel of the late 1980s, when a booming Japan was just beginning to tread water, and postmodern anomie was really settling in. It's not a good novel, but its ambitions and weird ideas -- it's stuffed full -- and social and cultural markers make for an oddly gripping read (as one wonders where this is going, and what's around the next turn).
       One other issue with the novel is that it wasn't 'just' translated from the Japanese (by Philip Gabriel), but rather that, as they admit on the copyright page, it was: "Translated and adapted by Philip Gabriel with the permission of the author". Publishers often fiddle with (i.e. edit, to greatly varying degrees) texts in translation, with even Murakami's novels having big chunks of them removed, but when they're willing to actually admit it that usually means they really did a number on the text. Obviously, the hope was that Gabriel would be able to fashion a text more appealing to American audiences; given the book's reception -- and the fact that it took almost a quarter of a century for another novel by the very popular Shimada to be published in English (Death by Choice, in 2013) -- it seems safe to say that that experiment failed miserably. One would hope that publishers would learn a lesson from this sort of thing -- stay true to the text (i.e. the original) -- but, alas, they never do.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 April 2016

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Dream Messenger: Reviews: Shimada Masahiko: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Shimada Masahiko (島田雅彦) was born in 1961.

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