America: The End of the Experiment

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America: The End of the Experiment
Author: Yūsuke Miyauchi
Specifications: ISBN  978-4103398110
248 pages
13.4 x 19.6 cm / 5.3 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd.
Tokyo, 2016
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This tale of a young Japanese pianist competing for entry into a famous music school in the United States is crossed with the mystery of his missing father and told in a hard-boiled style that resonates perfectly with the jazz-piano theme.

As the story opens, it is just five days since protagonist Shū Sakurai, an aspiring jazz pianist in his early twenties, arrived in an unidentified West Coast city. His aims in coming to the United States are twofold: to go through the highly competitive application process for the Gregg College of Music, known especially for its jazz program, which screens applicants in four separate rounds; and to try to find his father Shun’ichi, who has not been heard from since he successfully completed the application process and was accepted into Gregg seven years before. Shū has been able to learn that Shun’ichi, already a skilled jazz pianist but generally considered second-rate at the time of his application, had briefly enjoyed some success on the local music scene playing a homemade synthesizer called “Pandora” that produces a distinctively mystical sound.

The highly unconventional application process at Gregg is famous for the spur-of-the-moment demands it places on aspirants. For example, in the preliminary round, during a music festival sponsored by the school, applicants are sent onstage as last-minute additions to the program. Whether or not they pass through to the next round is based solely on how well the audience responds to their impromptu performance. Virtuoso skills mean nothing if the audience doesn’t show its approval with sufficient enthusiasm. The following day, in the first stage of the main screening, applicants are required to perform on a piano without being informed beforehand that it has been tuned to pure temperament. All performance venues are off-campus: only candidates who pass the test and make it through to the next round are admitted onto the school grounds. The format of the next round is a piano duet, with two applicants pitted against each other on separate pianos. They take turns improvising four bars each, and since they know only one of them can survive the round, their incentive is to make things difficult for the other by handing off complicated transitions—except that if the joint improvisation fails to come together as a satisfying piece of music, both applicants may be eliminated. The rules are reminiscent of the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, and in no case can both players survive . . .

Shū makes two friends among his fellow applicants. Zachary, who appears to be about 16 or 17, is the pampered son of a local mob boss and always has a bodyguard named Arno at his side. Massimo is a 26-year-old skinhead who knows a lot about the local music scene and is Shū’s primary source of information about Shun’ichi and his Pandora performances. He introduces Shū to a Native American woman name Louie, who had been seen hanging out with Shun’ichi quite a bit at one point. Shun’ichi has left his Pandora with her, and Shū takes it with the intent of using it in the duet round. Then events take a sudden turn. A student is killed in the hall where applicants are performing. The phrase “The First Experiment of America” is found written in large letters on a whiteboard. Photos of the crime scene are posted to the Web, word of the incident spreads rapidly, and a second killing and a random shooting follow in other locations.

Arno reveals to Shū that the killer in the first instance was a man name Ernest. Arno, Ernest, and Shun’ichi had been applicants to Gregg together. Ernest was the adoptive son of Johann Schlink, head of the Schlink Foundation and founder of the Gregg College of Music. When this city was still a small country town on a Native American reservation, Johann had plowed large amounts of his personal capital into it to build it up, and had turned it into a bellwether city for divining the future of capitalism in decline. The name he had given this project was “The Last Experiment of America.” Johann was a pianist in his youth, but is now said to suffer from amusia. Ernest had long continued to play only in the hope that it might help cure his adoptive father of his affliction, but when it grew increasingly clear that his efforts were for naught, and he was also feeling no love from Johann, he had disappeared.

Ernest reappears during the final round of the application process and guns down Johann, who is participating in the proceedings as a judge. In the aftermath, Louie is discovered to be Johann’s daughter, and Shū and Shun’ichi are reunited. Shun’ichi suffers from focal dystonia, which has dealt a deathblow to his ambitions as a pianist. Shū, Zachary, and Massimo are all accepted into Gregg.

Author Yūsuke Miyauchi’s trademark is his utter unpredictability, with one surprising twist after another coming in rapid succession. His determination to break new ground in entertainment fiction shines through as he leaps over existing genre boundaries with the greatest of ease.