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【Narrative Trick】

A trick used in the composition of mystery novels to cause the reader to misread. For example, a character’s gender or age, or even the chronology of events are purposely covered up. Like that, the reader uses their precognitions to misunderstand the truth, creating an unexpected reveal.

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“You know, there’s something I can’t help but wonder about narrative tricks.”

Izumi suddenly spoke up. This childhood friend of mine always says things quite suddenly.

Kamioka Prefectural Highschool, a room on the first floor.

Winter break had only just begun, and unfortunate as it may be, there were supplementary lessons to be had.

But there were still more than twenty minutes to go until those supplementary lessons began. Izumi and I had arrived early as always, and as always, we were talking about mystery novels. Both she and I read into detective stories with considerable zeal, so our conversations meshed exceedingly well.

My childhood friend from elementary school, Izumi always spoke to me frankly without minding surroundings eyes. Personally, I did mind them a bit.

“In the first place, narrative tricks are tricks thrown in from outside the stories… is that, speaking to novel etiquette, really fair game?”

Said Izumi.

“Meaning?”

“In most cases, narrative tricks are only for the reader to fall for, and the characters of the story aren’t actually surprised, right? Let’s take an age misrecognition trick for example. The protagonist written to sound like a twenty-year-old was an old man the whole time~, something like that. But the people around that protagonist knew he was an old man the whole time. Meaning the only one whose world is inverted is the reader alone, and for the characters concerned, there isn’t anything out of the ordinary at all.”

Izumi said that with some force.

When she leaned herself forward, from the opening in her white shirt, I could see some chest of the same white, making me a little hurried in my words.

“You’re right,” said I. “But what’s the problem with that?”

“And I’m saying…”

Izumi leaned against the desk for emphasis.

“What would happen if you took out the narrative tricks from a novel that contained them? Just what’s left behind? Some artless physical tricks, some plain police investigation and identification, and a culprit who isn’t surprising or anything. Isn’t that all there is?”

“Yes, I’m sure there are quite a few novels like that.”

I recognized that.

“But isn’t that fine as it is? I mean, at the very least, for the reader, the narrative trick exists to do its job. It carries a form of surprise, and can become the centerpiece of the story.”

“And you’re right, but… In mystery novels that use narrative tricks, there exists one major rule. I mean to say…”

“The narrator can never lie.”

I said with a smile.

Izumi pointed at me, as if to say, ‘that’s it’.

“Like in a gender misconception narrative trick, the author has to lay this trap and that to make it work. To get you to think of a woman as a man, for example, they place them in an occupation with a female minority, or give them slightly masculine or largely neutral names, like Akira or Makoto. Right, Akira?”

She’s got me there.

Miraculous enough, my first name was Akira. But when Izumi entered middle school, she got around to calling me by my surname, Kouzuki. So it’s been quite a while since she called me something like Akira, and I was a tad flustered.

“My name has nothing to do with it, right?”

Or so I interrupted her.

“So what’s this about gender misconception narrative tricks?”

“Ah right,” said Izumi, her expression stiffening as well. “So the problem I want to pose is the same one as before, ‘the characters in the story have 0 surprise,’ ‘the narrator can never lie,’ is how it is.”

“Right.”

“So there comes another problem… ‘then what happens if the reader sees through the trick?’ is what I’d like to say.”

“That sounds quite possible.”

I nodded.

“They can’t write lies, so a reader with good intuition might notice there’s a lack of information, and see through the truth.”

“Right, right. And the truth that comes from that… the work becomes boring. The stronger the work’s tie is to its narrative tricks, the more boring it will be for readers who’ve seen through it.”

“I see, a fundamental dilemma.”

I said. After getting my thoughts together, I spoke again.

“But to an extent, I guess it’s something that can’t be helped. There’s no such thing as a perfect narrative trick. The more the author tries to play fair, the harder it becomes to trick the reader. Mystery authors should aim to trick as many readers as they can, but I’ll bet it’s impossible to deceive ten out of ten.”

“I see.”

Said Izumi as she put her hand to her chin.

“Then what should you do to trick as many readers as possible?”

That was a strange way to put it. The two of us were on the readers’ side.

“Let’s see.”

But I tried thinking over it.

“I think you probably have to write your novel under the assumption your readers will have their eyes blinded by the trick. The publishers want the books to sell so they put stuff like, ‘The impact of that one final page!!’ on the back. But that just tells the reader there’s a narrative trick already…

In a novel like that, a gender neutral character in a male-dominated occupation… was really a girl… would that ever work out? No matter how the author may wrack their brains to depict her a man, it can’t be helped the reader notice their gender.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“So if you want to make that individual look male no matter what, you’d have to use some more unexpected means to get it through.”

“For example?”

“For example…”

Some payback for the previous Akira.

“Your name is Izumi.”

“Yes.”

Izumi looked at me blankly.

“What of it?”

“So let’s say a character called Izumi came out in a novel. Depicted quite feminine throughout the whole thing, but she was really a man… is the big reveal. Izumi was actually his surname, is the truth. But if you get them to think Izumi’s his first name, it’s clearly a woman’s name, so the readers won’t notice Izumi=Man.”

“I see.”

Izumi nodded.

“So if we take your name Kouzuki. But we don’t give a reading for it, and spin it as a first name, perhaps we could get the readers to think you’re a woman called Katsuki.”

“That’s how it is.”

(TL: 香月 is more commonly read as Katsuki.)

Of course, reality wasn’t so.

My name Kouzuki Akira belonged to a bonifide man, while Utagawa Izumi was a bonifide woman.

“Ah, but…”

I turned it back to generalizations.

“With narrative tricks, no matter how pointless, no matter how easy they are for readers to see through, I think they have a value of their own. At the very least, in the entertainment that is narrative tricks, there’s a worth to be found in a different field.”

“And that is?”

“Have you ever heard of bias training?”

Izumi shook her head.

“Unlike you, I suck at English.”

“Oh right. Bias training is thought training to discover the unconscious prejudices and preconceptions inside of you. I heard it’s getting in fashion in the western world these days.”

“Meaning these narrative tricks work as bias training?”

“Right.”

I gave a strong nod.

“Gender-misconception tricks especially so. Let’s say there was a police officer named Makoto, and she was of the field’s sexual minority, a woman. A narrative trick to make the reader think she’s a man is placed on the reader. Certain readers will notice she’s a woman, while others will keep reading assuming she’s a man. In that case, a sort of effect is born.

The reader realizes that a ‘Police officer with a neutral name that happens to like women’ may just as well happen to be a woman herself. While we lead out everyday lives, there are some out there on whom difficulties come easier. It’s related to noticing all that.”

“I see. But how is that connected to works where a reader can easily see through the narrative trick?”

“Skeptical readers may notice the gender of aforementioned individual of their own accord. To us humans, who are a collection of prejudice, it’s a huge step forward.”

“Einstein.”

Said Izumi with a grin.

“Well that’s my field.”

I returned the smile. And I thought hers was quite a wonderful one. Her pale complexion, her lips slowly tracing an arc, it was fascinating.

Eventually, Izumi spoke quietly.

“But to those sorts of people… I mean, those minorities, even if it seems they’re living a special way of life from our eyes, to the people in question, it must feel quite natural for them.”

“You’re right,” I agreed.

“And maybe that’s what narrative tricks are there to teach us.”

She muttered.

“In the world of narrative tricks… of course, deceiving the readers is one thing, but… take the example from before, that individual doesn’t go out of her way to say, ‘even if I live this manly lifestyle, I’m actually a woman,’ and deny it. No matter how they’re reflected on another’s eyes, the officer is just carrying out her life as usual, and that may be a major thing the narrative trick teaches us.”

“Right.”

I gave a large nod.

“In that sense, even in the daily life we live, there may be a narrative trick hiding around the corner. In the domain we pay no mind to whatsoever, if looked upon from the point of view of a third person reader, there may be something we’re causing others to misunderstand.”

While we spoke, it became quite painful for me.

To shake off that feeling, I looked at the clock.

Around fifteen minutes until the start of first period’s review.

“What’s your first class…?”

“I start second period. All the science supplementary lessons are like that.”

“I see, I’m first period. Well, I’ll be off then.”

“Sure.”

I took the tote bag full of textbooks in hand, and stood. Returning a smile to Izumi’s grin, I turned my back to her.

That’s no good, no good.

She is a childhood friend, and a friend I often talk to. But that’s all she was. That’s all I could let her be.

Regardless of what I say, I have a need to continue this lifestyle I’ve gotten my hands on. To support my wife and child, I’ll keep teaching English to these high school students. And that’s all I need to do for now.

Is it even alright for a teacher who’s about to turn forty to speak of love? In the first place, Izumi has a husband and child of her own.

A little troubled, I left the quiet staff room.

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