Shuichi Nakata is a middle-aged writer living in 1960’s Tokyo. A widower, he has established a small network of available women with whom he meets for occasional sexual trysts, free of the concerns and constraints of commitment. Nakata maintains a chauvinistic attitude towards women, and, specifically, has a certain horror of the vagina, which he considers “has something very evil about it.” Still, he confesses in a magazine interview that he would “like to achieve a state where something evil looks like a rose.” It is this transformation, thorns and all, which gives this book its momentum.
In the course of the novel, most of the women in his network fall away for one reason or another, and he is left with Natsue, a woman in her early twenties. It gradually dawns on Nakata that he is beginning to form an attachment to this girl, a state which is abhorrent to him. Still, there is fascination in that Natsue is an outlet for his psychological aggression towards women. Like many young adult women, she has discovered The Story of O, and is fascinated by the themes of bondage and submission as a means of exploring sexuality. Nakata has little interest until he discovers that, by acting out, he can manifest in the flesh his ambivalent feelings towards Natsue. Envisioned perhaps as a means of maintaining distance from Natsue, the master/slave relationship ultimately pulls him emotionally closer to her, to the dark room of commitment.
In its essence a misogynistic novel, The Dark Room is interspersed with discussions of lesbianism, abortion (one of the female character states “I would love starting a kid and getting him [the doctor] to drag it out again"), prostitution and female sexuality, discussions which reflect, I assume, attitudes towards the increasing independence of women that may have been coming forth in 1960’s Japan. On the other side of it, it is a chronicle of a classic middle-age crisis, of a man sensing loss of vigor, physical stamina, and personal power, with the chill breath of decline and death on his neck. An interesting, if uncomfortable, novel of conflicted sexuality.