Godzilla's Side of the Story : GOJIRO, By Mark Jacobson (Atlantic Monthly Press: $14.95; 368 pp.)

Lindh is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times

Late at night, far down the dial, is when he usually appears--all 500 feet and 50 tons of him--striding through swamps and cities, destroying everything in his path. The tacky special effects and the stiff, dubbed-over, Japanese voices are what give Godzilla his hokey punch. Yet, if people proclaim that inside each of them is a book, why can't monsters have their own autobiographies too?

In "Gojiro" (Japanese for Godzilla), the giant lizard gets to narrate his story. Imagine Moby Dick rising from the depths to tell his side of things, and you have an inkling of what awaits the reader of this marvelous book.

The novel begins with a black dot high in the sky over Hiroshima. As a small family of father, mother and son pause in their outing to gaze up, the air suddenly explodes.

Nine years later, the boy emerges from a coma to find his parents dead. Komodo (a Japanese rendering of Coma Boy) feels himself magnetically drawn to an atoll in the Pacific called Radioactive Island.

Through atomic tests on the island, a lowly lizard has become king of the monsters. What happened to his body also affected his brain. His consciousness has expanded. Inside the island's radioactive cloud cover, Gojiro's mind is flooded with transcultural awareness and voices, as though his mind has become an enormous satellite dish transmitting everything from "I Love Lucy" reruns to the screams of a woman being attacked in a distant city.

Unbeknownst to Gojiro, his brain actually is picking up the life-experiences and thoughts of his own globe-flung movie fans. These zardpards (lizard partners) are trapped in the very sorts of worlds where, on the screen, they have seen Godzilla become their hero.

Komodo is Gojiro's only whisper of relief. After helping the giant lizard unplug the cerebral circuitry linking him to the world, they embark on a quest to America in a modern retelling of Beowulf and Grendel--with Pynchonesque rocket-fuel prose.

Their journey takes them from Hollywood to the atomic proving grounds in New Mexico, where the fate of each character was sealed in the bomb bay of a plane named Enola Gay.

The story occurs inside the kitsch universe of a B-grade movie. Characters are glimpsed half-revealed, as blurs, so we are forced to find our way through the debris of confusion, much as Coma Boy wakes to an alien world and Gojiro finds himself no longer sunning on a rock but throwing boulders at cities.

Flying to America with the now-older Komodo masquerading as a professor, Gojiro shrinks to an inch in size and hides in his friend's pocket. As they land in Los Angeles, Komodo sticks Gojiro on the front of his shirt and is waved through customs, "just another Izod wearer."

As Komodo and Gojiro drive through Los Angeles, the monster wonders why he feels no need to destory the city. "It was the sprawl that did it, that L.A. whizzing by: the overwhelming sameness, the diffuse repetition. It dulled all passion, doused every fire.

"Ever spreading, the city was an amorphous sweep without a vital organ or center at which a predetermined destroyer could aim. There was no Empire State (Building) to climb, no Eiffel Tower to snap in half; in what amounted to the perfect defense against exactly the attack the monster envisioned, the town had no cherished emblem of itself beyond its very vagueness."

The two companions travel across a Styrofoam-littered America, where, to remind them of home, radium glows inside every clock. The boy searches for his identity, while the monster tries to separate himself from his quadricameral mind--the terrible force compelling him to see hundreds of generations into the past, as well as hearing thousands of lives in the present.

Random characters encountered during the quest turn out to be the same zardpards that Godzilla heard calling for help on Radioactive Island. These haphazard figures are marks on a compass pointing to the atomic attack that began the book and . . . perhaps, one day, might close the Book on us all.

Later, Gojiro sees his fans watching one of his movies at a desert drive-in theater. "What does a Hero really need . . . but Need?" he reasons, then scrutinizes those letting him provide the mythic heroism their lives lacked. "My fans," Gojiro mumbles as he watches a gear-gnashing low-rider choked with Mexican teen-agers saunter by. "He didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. It was absurd, watching these poor deluded souls, seemingly from every nook and cranny of the demographic dart board, come like lemmings to sit silhouetted before his elephantine visage."

In "a sandy, comet-made bowl where dinosaurs perished" comes the showdown with Brooks, the physicist who created Gojiro out of nothingness and cast Komodo's parents into it. Komodo's discovery of the actual blackboard equation used to unleash the bomb precipitates an explosion of stereopticon images.

We plunge back into the Black Spot Dream--the moment the Superfortress released a bomb named Big Boy into the lives of thousands of Japanese boys who would not grow a second older. Critical mass is achieved. The novel detonates with cosmic fallout, finally releasing Gojiro from the nightmare of history repeated.

He returns to his island. Komodo marries and has a family. "Life does go on," writes the boy survivor of Hiroshima in a letter that Gojiro, now indistinguishable from thousands of other lizards lolling on the atoll, will never read. Gojiro's island has drifted back beyond the margin of recorded time.

You don't need a Ph.D. in physics to appreciate "Gojiro"; you should simply yield to what Keats called negative capability--the capacity to participate in an imaginary universe without needing to identify yourself in the process.

Enter "Gojiro" as you would a familiar world made strange, a landscape that will astonish and amaze you to the very extent that you can accept not knowing where you are, not knowing where you are going. Trust Jacobson's skill as a writer to lead you so far out that you'll be looking back in.

As with an earlier journey through an infinite Dublin day, a reader needs a generosity of spirit to accompany these characters on their own odyssey. An E-ticket ride on a Mobius strip, where past, present and future hurl by on the same continuum, "Gojiro" leaves the laws of physics behind in order to discover its own.

"Gojiro" is a comic masterpiece of tragic proportions, a necessary oxymoron. A monstrous attack on American culture, this visionary novel provides a penetrating glimpse into the Brownian movement-effect of random events on all our lives.

Only one other writer has Mark Jacobson's ability to spin a yarn at the speed of light: Pynchon. To Jacobson's credit, he is zooming right alongside him, if one can imagine parallel berths at warp speed.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°