THE CAT AND THE CITY
By Nick Bradley
Atlantic Books/Paperback/291 pages/$27.95/Available at Kinokuniya.
A mysterious girl walks into a Tokyo tattoo parlour and asks to have a map of the city tattooed onto her back - without any people in it. The tattoo artist agrees, but secretly adds his own flourish: a little calico cat.
But then the cat begins to disappear and reappear in different parts of the inked city. Soon, it wanders out of this story altogether and into another and another.
British author Nick Bradley's debut belongs to a long tradition of Japanese cat literature, from the vanishing cats of Haruki Murakmi's oeuvre to recent bestseller Hiro Arikawa's The Travelling Cat Chronicles (2017).
It also positions itself as an urban novel, featuring a feline flaneur that moves through the streets of Tokyo and in and out of a series of intricately interwoven lives, including a homeless man squatting in a capsule hotel, a taxi driver and a young woman with a cheating boyfriend.
All live lonely, fractured existences in a city determined to fold its less savoury sides out of sight as it gears up for the Olympics.
Bradley even experiments with different genres: a science-fiction story-within-a-story about cat clones, a noirish detective mystery that proves unwieldy and a manga about a young boy's unlikely friendship with a hikikomori, a recluse who will not go out.
Some of the best stories in the collection are from expatriate perspectives. In Chinese Characters, a lonely young American woman called Flo secretly labours on an English translation of Nishi Furuni, a cat-obsessed writer whose works tie several characters together.
Autumn Leaves is a savage portrait of a contemptible couple, a deadbeat English teacher prone to Orientalising and the Japanese trader who keeps him as a trophy gaijin (foreigner) boyfriend.
Bradley's storytelling is artful and thickly allusive, though it skims, rather than penetrates, an understanding of urban space.
Still, for those who love tales of cats, cities or both, it makes for a charming wander.
If you like this, read: I Am A Cat by Natsume Soseki, translated by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson (Tuttle, 1905-1906, reissued 2001, $28.89, available at bit.ly/AmACat_NS), a classic of feline fiction that satirises the Japanese middle class during the Meiji era through the eyes of a cat.