Near the end of Kenzaburo Oe's long-awaited new novel, Somersault, the leader of a fanatical religious movement stands before hundreds of his followers to give his last, and most important, speech. The existence of God cannot be denied, he declares. Man must repent for his sins and for the sins of others. Even the renunciation of faith can be a "confession of faith." Excited, enamored, the crowd begins to chant the leader's last four words: "Three cheers for Karamazov!"
As odd at it is, the unexpected, almost comic, reference to Dostoevsky reveals something about Oe's ambitions for his new book. Ten years ago, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Oe announced that he had given up the autobiographical style of his previous novels. He would either stop writing fiction altogether, he said, or he would embark on a radically new kind of work. The result is Somersault, a sprawling, panoramic novel which, like The Brothers Karamazov, seeks to portray not just the character of a person, but also the destiny of a nation and the soul of humankind.
Somersault's main plot line, which follows the reorganization of an Aum Shinrikyo-like religious cult called The Church of the Savior and the Prophet, gives Oe ample room to accomplish his lofty goals. But, unfortunately, in renouncing his autobiographical style, Oe abandons many of his old talents as well. Though there are good patches, Somersault is a slog to read. The characters are impersonal. The subplots are tangential and unilluminating. The pacing is excruciatingly slow.
Oe seems to have forgotten that the main reason Dostoevsky's magnum opus finds devoted readers in every generation is that it's fun to read. That's a lesson Oe clearly used to know. For though previous novels like A Personal Matter and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids did use autobiographical story lines, they were no less ambitious than Somersault. They were also funny and compelling.
In his Nobel lecture, Oe explained that the method he used to write those novels was "to start from [his] personal matters and then to link them up with society, the state, and the world." Just because Oe wants to make his narratives more expansive doesn't mean he has to leave such a good trick behind.