Review of:  No Balm in Gilead
Author:  !SuperCat
Series:  Tokyo Babylon/X

Reviewed by Nora Jemison


From Webster's New World Dictionary, Third Edition:

Wordplay:  (werd' pla)  Verbal wit or teasing.  A game of intellectual
stimulation.

Foreplay:  (for' pla)  Excitation to pleasure.  Titillation or
teasing.  Sexual stimulation.

Most yaoi fans, and indeed most people in general, seem to lean toward
the visual rather than the verbal, in their entertainment preferences.  Especially now, in these times of the thirty-second sound bite and the thirty-page-book-written-as-movie-tie-in. There's a lot to be said for the visual.  After all, it's only in yaoi manga, anime, or doujinshi that we can see how the characters are supposed to look, watch the action taking place precisely, and understand exactly what imagery the artist intended to convey.  And let's face it---what good is a bishounen if you can't tell how pretty he is?

But call me old-fashioned; I've always preferred the verbal.  In the hands of a skilled writer, words become images---and sounds, and sensations.  The imagery of words is not limited by the skill of the artist or the style of the drawing or the quality of the paper, nor is it restricted to the artist's vision of what should be.  A bit of carefully-constructed prose, brushed lightly with a swatch of metaphor or hidden beneath a delicate layering of symbolism, can be as beautifully-drawn as a Miyazaki watercolor, in the eye of a reader's mind.  Or as intense and tantalizing as real-life foreplay.

Okay, maybe that's going a bit far.  But "No Balm in Gilead" is chock-full of wordplay that, for the uninitiated, has the same allegorical effect as foreplay.  Theoretically, foreplay awakens interest and stirs excitement to the point of no return---i.e., at the culmination of foreplay, the recipient should then be ready to forge full speed ahead into total consummation.  In this case, I began "Gilead" with only the most vague interest in "Tokyo Babylon," (TB) the CLAMP series on which the story is based.  In fact, I felt less than interest; I'd read/seen and been disappointed by X, the sequel to TB, and had thereafter avoided TB as a result.  I finished "Gilead," however, filled with a ravening desire to track down anything TB related.  Now.  Yesterday.

subarubefore.jpg (21329 bytes)The story isn't precisely a TB fanfic.  It occurs chronologically at a time closer to the beginning of the X saga than to the end of TB.  Three years after Sakurazuka Seishirou has revealed his true nature as a dark assassin and murdered the twin sister of his then-lover Sumeragi Subaru, "Gilead" begins in a nondescript, worn-down room in Tokyo, a far cry from the fancy penthouse in which most of TB took place.  TB's
protagonist Subaru has changed to suit his setting; he too is nondescript and worn down, reduced to a bitter remnant of the sweet and pretty youth he was only a few short years before.  It is night, the time when dark things stir in the back-alleys of Tokyo, and so Subaru goes on the prowl, searching for something against which he can vent his equally dark emotions.  He finds two things:  a demon for target practice, and a different kind of demon from his own past, in the form of Seishirou.

In this case, the fact that the imagery is confined to the reader's 'mental vision' is a good thing.  This is a story of ugliness, and to see it represented physically would only detract from its emotional implications.  Much of Subaru's youthful beauty has been burned away by the miserable life he's led since the end of TB.  It is better to envision this then to see it explicitly, because the inevitable beauty of CLAMP's art does not adequately convey this sort of psychological ugliness.  Perversely, Seishirou's beauty lingers, represented in the lovely but deadly sakura blossoms he uses as weapons, and the sinister grace with which he torments Subaru.  The setting, Tokyo, is as gritty and smelly and grotesque as any large city, but with an even darker, dirtier edge---something that, again, CLAMP art simply has never depicted well.  Better to let this ugliness be viewed through the lens of the reader's imagination.

Expect little consummation in "Gilead"; like foreplay, that's not the story's purpose.  The magical contest between the protagonists is inconclusive, but the emotional one is not.  This is never explained at any point in the story, but the reader is given subtle evidence at two points.  Note what isn't being said, in the following two excerpts.  The first is near the end of the battle between the two.  Up to now, Subaru has fought as cold-bloodedly as Seishirou, but as he begins to weaken, both physically and emotionally, the following exchange occurs:

     "The Sakurazukamori kills quickly," Subaru said, struggling, and failing.  He wanted only to hear an admission, or to strike a blow that hurt.  "Expediently.  You betray interest, if you linger over my death.  You betray. . ."

     "I don't linger," said Seishirou-san.

In another scene, Subaru recovers with the aid of a woman whose gift is
prophecy:

     "In the tales I read as a child," she said in this new voice.  "Evil
fell in love with Good, and was destroyed if not redeemed.  In life, as
I believe you have learned, the opposite occurs most often, most
commonly. . ."
      The pale hand she held trembled once, then was still.
      "I don't love him," said Subaru.
      "He does not love you.  You are a stone.  A dragon, merely.  You are a boy who lost a bet."

It is almost as painful for the reader to witness as it is for Subaru to feel, but the conclusion is inescapable.  Subaru's love for Seishirou has been betrayed and perverted, but not entirely destroyed---in spite of all his efforts to the contrary. subaruafter.jpg (90173 bytes) So how much of his obsessive pursuit of Seishirou is truly about vengeance, and how much is the desperate demand of a jilted lover for acknowledgment, for apology, for reassurance that his love was not wasted?  The story makes no attempt at answering this question, leaving it to the reader to decide.

In addition to this sort of subtle question-posing, "Gilead" explores the corruption of Subaru's former innocence on multiple levels, drawing the reader into both the darkness of the setting and the growing darkness of the protagonist's soul.  The author's careful use of creative metaphor emphasizes this theme subtly, from the shadowed room in which Subaru sits in the beginning, further hiding himself within a literal smoke-screen of his own creation, to the very fact that this once-bright-eyed child is now a chain-smoking borderline anorexic.  That there is a sexual aspect to Subaru's corruption goes without saying, even without lines like, "Subaru kept to himself, avoiding the main streets out of habit, shunning the solid phallus of Tokyo Tower as it spewed its spiritual detritus up into the sky."

This is what fascinated me so much about "Gilead."  Readers who, like me, are completely unfamiliar with TB will immediately sense that there is much more to the confrontation between Subaru and Seishirou than simple antagonism, and that Subaru's hatred is not what it seems.  None of this backstory is ever explained.  None of these undercurrents of sexual tension and emotion are ever made clear.  But the hints are there, just enough to allow the reader to understand the double-entendre of the story's events, not so much as to bog the reader down in time-wasting narration.  Just a teasing glimpse, really, into characters whose emotional consummation takes place elsewhere.  The reader is left with an urge to know more.

The only flaw in this intricate weaving of imagery and emotion lies in the author's tendency to slip into present-tense periodically, during moments of description.  While this technique can often be powerful, especially when used to set a scene or to end it, in this case the change of tense is just a bit jarring.  It doesn't happen often enough or clumsily enough to tamper much with the reader's immersion in the story, however, and so the flaw is minor.

It can be argued that the purpose of fanfiction is simply to entertain.  Personally, I believe it has an additional purpose:  intentionally or not, fanfiction can and does serve as a marketing device for the series on which it's based.  Japanese manga publishers figured this out long ago, when for the most part they chose to ignore the copyright violations committed by doujinshi artists and writers.  While I can't say how the ladies of CLAMP might feel about "A Balm for Gilead," I suspect they'd be pleased that this story has won them at least one new convert, who plans to run out and buy the TB manga as soon as humanly possible.  Hopefully, longstanding fans of the TB series will find it equally titillating.

This story is now available in the Aestheticism Fanfic Archive


Images of Subaru (TB) and Subaru (X) are taken, respectively, from A
Walk at Ueno Park (http://members.tripod.com/ueno_park/) and the Spiral
Dance X Page (http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Flats/6732/).