UPDATE: In response to Brian Salsberg’s comment below, I’ve deleted the original content of this post. I wrote that post on a whim and realized later that it’s really not a good idea for me to post impressions or criticisms of a book I haven’t read. I trust Contemporary Japanese Literature’s assessment of the book, but I’m not going to make any of my own judgments until I’ve read it.
Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
It’s amazing how people think they can understand an entire country just by reading a book about it.
I certainly felt that way at one time. Before moving to Japan for the first time in 2000 I got hold of as many books as I could–most of them written by non-Japanese authors. By the time I was done I was sure I had the whole country figured out. No physical contact. No bringing your wife to office parties. Doctors are rough and unsympathetic. Take your shoes off and wear slippers (except on tatami mats, and except in bathrooms, where you wear bathroom slippers).
Most of it was bullshit.
Sure, anyone who’s lived in Japan for a few years can give you some basic tips on etiquette and what to expect. But this idea that you can gain a comprehensive understanding of 120 million people by reading a book–a claim that a lot of these books seemed to make–is ridiculous. These days the only real advice I give people is to expect the unexpected. And to take your shoes off. That rule still holds.
At a recent conference panel on foreign media responses to the March 11 quake and tsunami, one professor said he was disappointed that foreign impressions of Japan don’t seem to have evolved much beyond The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (still considered a valuable book by many, but written in the 1940s by an anthropologist who had famously never been to Japan). More than 60 years after that book’s publication we again learned that…the Japanese are stoic. They value group unity over individual freedom. They’re very polite. They didn’t loot (not really true) because they’re inherently more civilized.
Sadly, a lot of books on Japan written during the 1990s–and still read by many people looking for insider knowledge of Japan–aren’t any better. Non-Japanese writers seem determined to keep stereotypes alive, even the ones that carry very little weight.
One problem is that so many of these books were written by men who seemed to be doing double duty as cultural advisers and pick-up artists. Slipped in between tips on eating and renting an apartment are all sorts of observations about the charmingness of Japanese women and recommendations for the best places to find girls. I remember being horrified at one author’s descriptions of sneaking a camera into a mixed-bathing onsen to take covert photos of nude women (which he described with a sort of “boys will be boys” attitude).
By far the worst example of this kind of book was Rex Shelley’s Culture Shock! Japan, which was, unfortunately, the book that my English language school gave me when I first arrived back in 2000. Rex seemed to think that a) everyone who was coming to Japan was male, b) they all had annoying wives who had to be placated on a regular basis, and c) no one coming to Japan would actually like it here, they would just suffer through the backwardness to make their money, have their sex and get the hell out. (This seems to be the message of a lot of guides to doing business in Japan–get in, make your money, have your sex and get the hell out.) In the case of Culture Shock! Japan, all of Rex’s examples of cultural faux pas and how to deal with them basically centered around the “What to do when your wife screws things up yet again” premise. Nice.
Another depressing look into contemporary Japanese culture–one that masqueraded as hip, edgy reading–was Karl Taro Greenfeld’s 1995 Speed Tribes: Days and Nights With Japan’s Next Generation, a collection of essays on Japanese subcultures. While I’ll give Greenfeld credit for moving away from the usual portraits of Japan as a conformist society of suited drones, he really just replaced one set of stereotypes with another. Speed Tribes billed itself as a look at the “real” Japan, but the book felt more like it was reveling in the dregs of society, presenting violent gangsters, ditzy club girls, ultra-nationalists, and porn film directors as the most authentic Japanese out there. Greenfeld also seemed to genuinely loathe his subjects–his narration in each chapter dripped with sarcasm and contempt. At one point he just stopped pulling his punches altogether, saying of Tokyo suburbanites, “Think of them as leeches sucking the city dry.” At the end of the book anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is filled to the brim only with violent, miserable, self-centered people.
So what are the Books That Don’t Suck, then? For women coming to live in Japan, I always highly recommend Caroline Pover’s Being a Broad in Japan, one of the few how-to guides written by and for women. In general I’d just say avoid any book that claims to explain Japan in full. Only time can do that–way more time than most of us have on earth.
Next up: Fictional Books Set in Japan That Kind of Suck. Really just an excuse for me to rant about Memoirs of a Geisha.
“Why can’t I write something that will awaken the dead?”
So writes Patti Smith near the end of Just Kids, the memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe that can’t really be classified as a memoir. Smith doesn’t so much chronicle as paint, scrapbook, and weave. Her book is like the bizarre but beautiful collages she and Mapplethorpe create in their tiny hotel rooms and apartments–hodgepodge, arresting, and possessing the ability to elevate the mundane to the sublime.
Smith may not awaken the dead with her book, but she is an expert conjurer–of young love, of New York on the brink of discovery and possibility, of the Chelsea Hotel and the days in which one might run into Salvador Dali and Janis Joplin in the lobby in the same day. She had come to New York just out of high school determined to be an artist but with no idea how. Her chance meeting with Robert Mapplethorpe led to a years-long collaboration that moved between romantic and platonic love but was always intense and intimate. As Smith describes it, the two of them fell asleep in each other’s arms after their first long night together and after that never really left each other’s side except to go to work.
The road to fame for both of them–through photography for Mapplethorpe, through punk music, visual art and poetry for Smith–was a long and winding one. Throughout it all, they remained determined to “live for art and art alone.” They were destitute–Smith describes the pain and frustration she felt when, after scrounging together fifty-five cents for a Horn and Hardart Automat sandwich, she arrived only to discover that the price had been raised to sixty-five cents. (The subsequent story of how Allen Ginsburg then bought her the sandwich because he mistook her for a “pretty boy” is one of the book’s many gems.) Mapplethorpe and Smith worked only enough to pay rent and eat (and were frequently unable to do both), devoting the rest of their time to writing, drawing, and just playing with whatever artistic medium struck their fancy. It would take years of collages, poems, paintings, sketches, and polaroids before Mapplethorpe would have his first successful photography exhibition and Smith would release her groundbreaking album Horses.
Smith and Mapplethorpe saw beauty in the everyday. With their very limited money they scoured New York’s used bookstores and thrift shops for pieces of fabric, plastic, metal, and glass that would become haunting collages and the beginnings of Mapplethorpe’s famous photo aesthetic (his longtime lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff, called Mapplethorpe’s signature backgrounds “a black you can get lost in.”). Much of Just Kids consists of loving descriptions of random objects–a collage of words. Reading the book and then walking in a shopping mall, every plastic flower, every cotton scarf, every tacky rubber rain hat seems to possess some new artistic soul. Smith truly lets the reader see, if only fleetingly and with a squint, through an artist’s eyes.
Beyond its moving glimpse into the lives of uncompromising artists and rebels in a New York that is at once utterly believable and too romantic to be real, Just Kids is an amazing piece of writing. Some have commented that Smith’s recollections are probably more poetry than fact, but the distinction doesn’t seem to matter. A non-linear story that focuses more on images and impressions than actual events is perhaps the only way Smith and Mapplethorpe’s story could have been told.
Just Kids is also a reminder that great art takes time and patience. Knowing how the story ends–that Mapplethorpe became a respected and controversial photographer, and Smith the godmother of punk–the journey can be maddening. They both struggle with their artistic voices, with the messages they want to convey, with what medium will convey it best. At times they just seem to be adrift. But every misstep and chance encounter ultimately leads them to their particular brand of greatness. Mapplethorpe is given a cheap camera by a friend and initially takes pictures because he can no longer afford to buy magazines. Smith is not a musician but comes to punk through poetry readings accompanied by a piano. Today we scoff at the idea of “finding yourself,” but that was exactly what Smith and Mapplethorpe were doing. In an era when academia in particular seems so keen to make the educational process faster and more efficient, eliminating the valuable time that every creative talent needs to stumble and discover, Smith and Mapplethorpe’s stories deserve our attention.
Posted in Books, Japan, tagged Japan child pornography laws, Japan junior idol videos, Japan kawaii culture, Japan youth obsession, manga convention boycott, Shintaro Ishihara child pornography on February 19, 2011 | 1 Comment »
A love affair with youth is hardly unique to Japan. Anti-aging is a multi-billion dollar business in the U.S., where public figures are mocked for appearing old and the (supposedly) virginal adolescent is the hottest moneymaker in the pop music industry. Beauty is youth, and youth is beauty, on both sides of the Pacific.
That said, the “youth is everything” feeling has always hit me much harder in Japan–maybe because by Japanese standards I was already old (23) by the time I got here. Maybe it’s the fact that, rather than appearing sultry, most female models and starlets are photographed peace-signing and winking at the camera like eight-year-olds. Maybe it’s the pervasiveness of kawaii culture–high-pitched voices, signs drawn in cuddly cartoon form, adults carrying Hello Kitty bags–that can make you feel as if you’re in a surreal, city-sized elementary school. People in Japan–well, mostly women–not only pay billions of yen annually to look *youthful,* they seem to cultivate a childlike personality well into their twenties, thirties, and even forties.
The problem? Well, there are a ton of problems with this, but let’s start with just one: what is considered “youthful” (and therefor beautiful, sexy, marketable, etc) is getting a lot younger. Like, pre-adolescent young.
The New York Times recently examined the popularity of “junior idol” videos and other Japanese media that depict pre-pubescent girls in sexual situations. One popular video features 13-year-old model Akari Iinuma making popcorn in a maid costume, dancing around in a white bikini, and playing with a beach ball while being hosed down with water. Some junior idol photo books and DVDs feature models as young as 6.
The outrage that many U.S. residents might feel at such overt sexualization of pre-adolescent girls rings a little hollow when you consider the popularity of TV shows like Little Miss Perfect and Toddlers and Tiaras–which, when you get right down to it, are essentially one-hour blocks of little girls dancing around in bikinis. Or the popularity of teen idols like Miley Cyrus and (ten or so years ago) Britney Spears, who are / were marketed as a kind of innocent child / sultry vixen combo. In a way, I almost find the Japanese approach refreshing–at least the country doesn’t feign shock when an obsession with youth, virginity, and innocence is taken to the level of child porn.
Japan has long had a reputation for being lax when it comes to enforcing child pornography laws. It’s illegal to distribute child porn, but not to possess it. Arrests and prosecution are rare. But when it comes to “real” child pornography–photographic depictions of minors in sexual situations–at least there are laws in place. Until now, though, Japan’s multi-billion dollar manga industry has been exempt from these laws, given that illustrations of sexual acts are deemed “simulated pornography” and thus are not subject to the same laws governing photography and film.
That may change soon, though. Partially inspired by overseas criticism of the graphic, underage sex that is commonplace in manga, the Tokyo metropolitan government is considering a law that would restrict manga content that features sex between minors. Major manga publishers are against the law and are threatening to boycott a major annual manga convention if it goes through. Publishers and creators argue that there are “no victims in manga” and that regulating illustrated content in the same way as photography or film is ridiculous.
I agree that the law is a bad one–it’s vague, confusing, and doesn’t really seem to know how to determine what kind of content would be unacceptable (how do you tell when a line-drawn character is underage?). It’s also oddly cautious–rather than banning underage sex comics outright, it just prohibits their sale to minors (though manga publishers argue that such a ban would discourage risk-averse publishers and booksellers from handling the material at all). And the minute Tokyo governor and all-around misogynist / racist asshat Shintaro Ishihara started throwing around the “only perverts read these things” argument, I suddenly became a lot more sympathetic to the publishers.
But I’m not sure I buy the “no victims in manga” argument, in the same way that I don’t completely buy the “no victims in hostessing” argument. While eliminating depictions of underage sex in manga probably isn’t the answer (and may not even be possible), the blatant sexualization of pre-pubescent girls has plenty of negative consequences. The problem isn’t that such sexualization is “perverted”–trying to define and eliminate “perverted” content in any context is always a recipe for disaster. The problem is that millions of visual media consumers are being bombarded with a fairly uniform and narrow image of female attractiveness–one that’s physically tiny, submissive, naive, and somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13. Those who don’t fit the model can either feel ugly and undesirable or spend obscene amounts of time and money trying to change themselves.
Japan’s attitude toward child pornography–especially of the “real” variety–definitely needs to change. But as with just about any social problem, regulation is only half the answer. Education and dialogue are more essential. Rather than enacting a vague and most likely ineffective law, Japan needs to have a serious conversation about its obsession with pre-pubescent girls, something that moves beyond a “sho ga nai” (can’t be helped) mentality to a serious questioning of where this obsession comes from, what its potential consequences are, and how real-life young girls should respond to it. Change won’t happen overnight, but addressing the issue in a mature fashion, with the participation of people from many sides of the debate, would be a good first step.
Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” piece in the Wall Street Journal, nicely timed to coincide with the publication of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has generated an amazing amount of impassioned reaction on the web. Chua’s defenders (some of whom were raised in homes similar to the one she describes) say that she has some good points. “Western” parents have become too permissive, resulting in children who are lazy, unfocused, and unrealistically assuming that the outside world will treat them as “special” just for being themselves. I’ll admit that a small number–a very small number–of Chua’s parenting techniques (mainly, pushing your children to succeed and believing in the possibility of their success) are grounded in good intentions.
Overall, though, I was horrified.
The main reasons for shock and disgust have been well covered by other blogs–the high rates of suicide and depression among Asian-Americans (particularly Asian-American women), Chua’s self-congratulatory tone as she describes what plenty of psychologists would define as child abuse, her graphic descriptions of piano practice that seem to border on the farcical. I personally am not a) Asian-American or b) a parent, and so I won’t be responding to Chua’s article from those perspectives. But I suppose the piece really hit a nerve with me because, while I have never (thank God) experienced the kind of parenting she describes, I have seen its results in my classrooms.
I have seen countless students buckling under the pressure to be perfect–more specifically, to fit a ridiculously narrow model of perfection enforced by their parents. As Cynthia Liu of Technorati points out, this is perhaps the most damaging element of Chua’s parenting philosophy: it defines success in incredibly narrow ways. Are we really to believe that every child who isn’t a musical virtuoso or who doesn’t pursue a career in medicine or science is a failure? Why must the success that parents like Chua violently shove their children toward be defined in such narrow terms?
In the same way that I’m sickened by the slashing and burning of humanities departments at universities across the country, I’m also sickened by a parenting ideology that teaches children that creative talents are a waste of time. Parents like Chua, who pay the tuition at major universities and thus have a lot of power in determining which departments survive, do more harm than they realize when they refuse to pay for arts and literature classes. They contribute to an overall system that sees the creative arts as impractical and unnecessary, resulting in the dissolution of more than a few arts and humanities departments. Amy Chua forces her daughters to play musical instruments, but only, it seems, to instill in them a sense of discipline and the value of hard work–she doesn’t want them to be professional musicians. She boasts that she never let her daughters participate in a school play. Does she really think there’s nothing valuable to be learned from participating in a group creative effort, even one that doesn’t involve three hours of grueling practice per day?
As I’ve written before, it breaks my heart to encounter students who are talented writers, artists, or dancers–but whose parents won’t let them take any of those classes because they’re a “waste of money.” In my adult life I’ve encountered plenty of doctors and business people who desperately wanted to pursue a creative career, but their parents wouldn’t pay for anything other than a “practical” degree. Some of them managed to defy parental expectations and follow their dreams (a goal that Chua derides in an interview with the Globe and Mail), but I imagine plenty of them are still suffering with the reality of being forced into a profession that they never really had any passion for.
I’m happy that Chua’s article has inspired so much rage and indignation, because it’s part of a larger conversation that needs to be had. That conversation concerns parenting attitudes that preach a rigid and narrow model of perfection, that justify verbal and physical abuse of children who don’t fit that model, and that de-value the creative arts. This parenting model, regardless of culture or ethnicity, needs to die.
UPDATE: Chua has done a considerable amount of backpedaling since the posting of the original WSJ article, saying on The Today Show that her book is really more about “her own transformation as a mother” and that “there are many ways to be a good parent.” Still, she seems to contradict herself a lot in various interviews, one minute saying that super-strict parenting is best and the next minute saying that she feels she was too strict. Regardless, I’d say there are still plenty of people who support the style of parenting that she describes in the WSJ article, and I still say it needs to die.
It’s always fascinating to view an American pop culture phenomenon through another country’s eyes. At the moment I’m sitting in on a Tsukuba University undergraduate course on the theme of gender and American film / TV, with a focus on teen-centered drama. For several weeks the students have been giving presentations on Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ten Things I Hate About You. A lot of the focus has been on language–technically the class has an English language component, so the students often choose a few interesting phrases and break down their meaning. Beyond that, I’ve been intrigued by the themes and characters they’ve chosen to focus on. Here are a few examples:
1. Prom. They’re obsessed with prom. Which isn’t surprising, given the quasi-religious status that prom usually has in teen movies and TV shows. Viewing it from outside the U.S., it must seem like the single most important event in any teenager’s life. In Kuala Lumpur I had a conversation with a Malaysian man who told me that it was his impression that all American girls lost their virginity on prom night, and that after that their lives were a crazy sex free-for all (I don’t know what the prom-virginity-loss statistics are, but my guess is that by prom age a lot of teenagers have already crossed the v-line, depending on your definition of “virginity”). Growing up, I remember prom having a sort of unearthly quality about it, something so magical that it seemed impossible that I might actually participate in it one day. This American Life recently ran a story about a small town that for years has been broadcasting the local prom–the red-carpet arrivals of the couples, the dancing, the after-prom parties–on the local news channel. Talk about building up expectations.
In reality (as I gently tried to explain to the students), prom for me was just one random night out of many. Sure, it was fun, but not exactly a rite of passage. I wore a dress that I would never wear again (looking at the photos, I think most of my girlfriends would say the same). I had a boyfriend to go with, but he hated to dance, so I didn’t do much of that. I was voted “Most Likely to Win An Oscar,” which was fun. It kind of had the feeling of kids playing dress-up, maybe not so different from the Japanese tradition of seijinshiki (coming-of-age day), where 20-year-olds officially become “adults” and wear elaborate kimono.
The students in the class had some really interesting insights into various film & TV depictions of prom. They pointed out that in Ten Things I Hate About You, an heirloom pearl necklace plays an important role in determining who’s the “pure” character. For the Twilight movie prom scene, they noted that Bella, imagined as an anti-girly, anti-prom type, was allowed to maintain her dignity by going to prom in a dress with sneakers.
Mixed into all this was a clear fascination with prom as a concept. One student even had a Japanese book that I’m dying to read called “Everything You Need to Know About American High Schools,” which explained things like football, cheerleading, cliques, etc. It’s kind of weird to see the humdrum life you lived turned into an object of anthropological fascination, but I guess a lot of American teenagers are just as fascinated by Japanese high schools.
2. Teenage slang. Another thing I had to explain to the students: real-life American teenagers are not nearly as clever as their film and TV counterparts. I’m not saying that teenagers are dumb–they’re not–but judging by my own not-too-distant teenage experience, the last thing I ever felt was linguistically clever or witty. In movies and TV shows created for teenagers–as in teen magazines–the language is a bizarre construct: adults writing in a way that tries to sound teenager-ish, but that usually comes off as just a little too polished. And man, explaining teenage slang to non-native speakers is HARD. Students would often take five or ten minutes just to analyze a few words. Example: from Ten Things I Hate About You, two dudes checking out the girls: “Hey, virgin alert. There’s your favorite.” Or from Twilight, when Bella’s friend is asking her if it’s weird that a guy they both like is asking her to the prom, and Bella responds, “No, not weird at all. Zero weirdness.” Just explaining the very loaded nature of the word “virgin,” or the phenomenon of turning adjectives into nouns by adding a “ness” to them eats up plenty of time.
3. Fashion. When you most likely attended a high school where everyone had to wear a uniform, the subject of fashion and how it divides teenagers into groups is a source of endless discussion. Again, I had to explain that teenagers in movies and tv are a lot more expensively dressed than your average American teen, but still, the varieties of styles and the cliques they identify are pretty endless. This also prompted an interesting discussion of goth vs. emo (a term the students had never heard), and how the goth vs. emo authenticity battle seemed to mirror a lot of the fashion clique battles in Japan (goth, gothic lolita, rococco, visual kei, gyaru, yamamba, etc.)
I’m giving a lecture in the class in a couple of weeks entitled “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Concept of the Gender Outlaw,” which I’m really looking forward to (partially because it’s on a subject that I almost never get to talk about in an academic sense, partially because it allows me to show clips of Johnny Weir, and mainly because it’s BUFFY!!!). Who of course would have dispensed with pouty Edward in a nanosecond. Though really, has there ever been a cheerily optimistic male vampire character?
Posted in Books, Film, tagged Jen Kwok, M, Monsters, Oryx and Crake, Room, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Lacuna, The Secret of Kells, The Year of the Flood on December 17, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
I really will get started on that second dissertation chapter soon. I mean it. But in the meantime, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of good stuff–some old, some new. So if you need some new reading or viewing material, here are some of my recommendations.
1. The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver. Best book I’ve read in a long, long time. Kingsolver’s prose is like music that you don’t want to ever stop listening to. I’ve loved all of her books, but with this one–a piece of historical fiction set partially in the Mexican home of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, and in a small town during the McCarthy era– she reaches amazing levels of complexity and depth. I had many a late night with this book and found my mouth falling open more than a few times.
2. Room, Emma Donoghue. Another “unputdownable” read, to the point where I was actually reading it on the escalator between train stations (apologies to all the salarymen I bumped into). If you buy it, don’t read the back cover–it gives too much away. A story told entirely from the POV of a five-year-old boy who has never known any world other than the 11-by-11 foot room he was born in. The middle section in particular gripped me so hard I had to sit down post-escalator ride and take a few deep breaths.
3. Norwegian Wood, Murakami Haruki. Embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read this one till recently, so I picked it up right before seeing the movie (reviewed in a previous post). I’ve never been a huge fan of Murakami’s novels–I think his style works better in short story format–but this one was an exception. You can tell that he’s kind of getting his feet, establishing a lot of the tropes that would become standard in his later books. Like the movie, it could have been just a melodrama about teen suicide and lost love, but the prose and the rawness of the emotion somehow elevate it.
4. Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood. No one creates a sense of impending dread like Margaret Atwood. In The Handmaid’s Tale she laid out a nightmare vision of an ultra-right-wing future, and in these two books she imagines a not-too-distant world decimated by climate change and essentially run by corporations rather than governments. Oryx & Crake tells the story from one man’s point of view, and then The Year of the Flood brilliantly retells the same story from three female points of view. Atwood has called her work “speculative fiction” (rather than science fiction), and while the books are mesmerizing, their depiction of an all-too-near, horribly screwed up future can make you want to shoot yourself.
1. “M,” Fritz Lang. Yet another one that I’m embarrassed not to have seen. I was a bit reluctant, because quite frankly I had trouble making it through “Metropolis,” but “M” is as gripping as any modern murder mystery. And it’s beautifully crafted, with plenty of fascinating performances and some interesting insights into the nature of evil and justice.
2. “Monsters,” Gareth Edwards. Thank God–an extremely well-made, low-budget movie about aliens that doesn’t use shaky-cam! Edwards goes in a slightly different direction with his shoestring budget–the movie doesn’t look like a documentary at all and makes the most of natural scenery and the strong performances of its two leads. I also just love the story of how it got made–Edwards took his two actors and a digital camera through Mexico & Central America and asked locals to play every other part in the movie (something you really wouldn’t guess from watching it). He created all the special effects on his own computer (check out the amazing software he uses at about the 5-minute mark in this video). The result is a great movie that’s also surprisingly moving.
3. “The Secret of Kells,” Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey. I could have watched this one on mute, because the hand-drawn, 2-D animation was so gorgeous, but that would have been a mistake, because the music and the story are also beautiful. Technically I guess it’s for kids, but it’s a lot smarter and darker than your usual kid fare. And during a time when humanities programs seem to be falling like dominoes in favor of more ‘practical’ pursuits, it has a really powerful message about the lasting value of art.
4. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Niels Arden Oplev. Noomi Rapace is awesome, and Lisbeth Salander is one of the coolest kick-ass ladies to come along since Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.
I heart Jen Kwok times ten:
Since I’m in that stage of dissertation writing that just involves a lot of re-reading and sifting through piles of information, it’s easy to forget the main reason that I got involved in this whole comp lit PhD in the first place–because I *love* books. I love books, and I love movies, and I love art and innovation, and I love being able to talk about all of it with other people. I’m not saying that a love of books is a valid reason to go to grad school, or that it should be the center of the classes you teach, but it can keep you going through some of the more trying periods of your career. Especially when, like I did recently, you discover a story that blows your mind.
I’ll admit that I don’t often read Japanese literature for pleasure these days–it’s my job, and while there are plenty of novels and short stories that I’ve enjoyed immensely, when I read for pleasure I tend to move as far away as possible from Japanese lit (recently I’ve been on a dystopian kick–Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go). So it’s always a pleasure to find something new to get excited about, even if it was published nearly a hundred years ago. The story is Sato Haruo’s “Nonsharan no kiroku” (“The Record of Nonchalant”), published in 1929 in the literary magazine Kaizo. I’ll let Professor Angela Yiu of Sophia University provide the summary (taken from her recent article, “A New Map of Hell: Sato Haruo’s Dystopian Fiction”):
The time is twenty-ninth century Japan and the place is a vertically structured metropolis that stretches from over 300 meters underground to at least thirty levels above ground. The inhabitants of the underground levels occupy dark cubicles measuring one meter in height, two-thirds of a meter in width and one-and-a-half meters in length, subsisting on piped-in gas as a substitute for food and water. The protagonist is a 15-year-old boy who, on a special charity day, climbs above ground from his habitat in the lowest level underground to experience the sights, air and sunlight of the world above…When above ground, the boy volunteers for a surgery to transform him into a rose plant. He reasons that he only has to trade in his mobility to live above ground and enjoy sunlight, air and water: mobility within the confines of a hole underground is not much to give up. As a plant, he sits on the window sill of an artists’ salon where he witnesses the whims and desires of the occupants and visitors, cinematically projected images of human forms that the plant takes to be real, and hears arguments about the various contemporary art and literary trends. Finally, another transformed human-plant in the shape of a blood-sucking leaf attaches itself to the pot of the rose plant only to then leap on to the breast of the woman who tends the rose. In shock, the woman tosses the potted rose out of the window. The story ends with the rose in free fall.
Though I’ll admit the ending is a bit wacky, there are so many things about this story that I found fascinating. First, the notion of Tokyo as a literally vertical city where only the most powerful get to breathe the air and see the light. Not necessarily a new idea (though pretty radical for 1929), but it fits so perfectly with the city’s history, where the “high city” was often reserved for nobles and the “low city” for the peasants (Edward Seidensticker’s books on Tokyo paint a fascinating picture of this). And if you’ve ever been here, you know that Tokyo is already a vertical city, with apartments and pachinko parlors and restaurants and drug stores stacked like Legos on top of one another from deep underground to hundreds of feet in the air–when there’s no space to move out, you move up and down.
The artist Sakaguchi Kyohei has created an amazing visual representation of Sato Haruo’s city–take a look at it here. I love the way that he’s included so many tiny details of the city, and also the way that the central figure seems to be perched on the edge of it all, ready to dive in.
The second thing I love about this story is the idea that someone would be so desperate to experience the world that they would transform themselves into a plant. And that what this plant witnesses are the comings and goings of the art world. There’s something so poignant about a human rose sitting there on a windowsill, eagerly absorbing everything around it…and then ending up in free fall through the levels of the city.
For some reason that image of Sakaguchi’s, of the man standing on the edge of the city, speaks to me in so many ways. Maybe I kind of feel like that right now, perched on the precipice of a vertical world full of endless layers. And maybe that vertical city is a potent metaphor for our world, complete with the horrifying existence of those at the very bottom.
(Note: to my knowledge “Nonsharan no kiroku” has not been translated into English [I think I've found a future project]. Sato Haruo does have a collection of translated stories and essays called Beautiful Town [translated by Francis B. Tenny]. Angela Yiu is also currently working on a book collaboration with the artist Sakaguchi Kyohei, which I can’t wait to see).
Ah, China. I want our relationship to continue, I really do. But you’re not the lover you once were. As much as your post-Scar work frequently disappoints me I go back to you again and again, because there are just enough flashes of brilliance in you to keep me hanging on, but alas, not enough to sustain a healthy reader-author partnership. Even Perdido Street Station, which some have hailed as your best work, kind of bent under its own weight at the end. The City and the City was remarkable, but alas, it too couldn’t sustain itself through to its final pages. And now you give me Kraken. A novel about a cult that worships a giant squid.
I have to give you credit for the sheer balls that it took to write this thing. You write without any sense of cheekiness about cats and pigeons going on strike. You depict people drinking squid ink to get high. One of your wandering spirit characters communicates through a Captain Kirk action figure. Your two most dangerous and despicable villains are named Goss and Subby.
The problem here isn’t a lack of originality or audacity, it’s that your cast of characters and concepts could fill a whole series of books. Just when I’m getting used to the idea of a man imprisoned in another man in the form of a talking tattoo on his back, you bring in gunfarmers (still haven’t quite figured those out). And a guy haunted by a hundred different incarnations of his own soul. This novel is such an endless parade of unearthly freaks and earth-bound gods that by the second half of the book I couldn’t remember who was on whose side or what anybody was fighting for. The multiple twists at the end didn’t carry much weight for me because I never understood what the story was twisting away from.
In an attempt to sum up: there’s a giant squid preserved in a tank in a museum. It goes missing. There’s a cult that worships it but probably didn’t steal it. There’s a secret police force that deals only with cults and their many apocalypses. There’s the hero of the story, the guy who preserved the squid, suddenly pursued by all manner of friendly and unfriendly parties. And after that there’s really not much point in saying more about the plot, because you completely lost me. And I just couldn’t bring myself to care much about many of the characters you created, because I could never really figure out what their purpose was. Near the very end of the novel a woman says, “It *never* made any sense.” At least she was someone I could relate to.
There’s one oddly moving moment, when a follower of the squid cult comes face to face with his god and kneels, weeping, in front of its tank. At that moment, weeping over a squid doesn’t seem any stranger than weeping over the Dalai Lama, or the Second Coming of Christ. Kraken has brief moments of beautiful insight about the importance of worship and faith.
You’re a wellspring of original ideas, I’ll give you that. You could have taken just one or two of the characters in Kraken and built a wonderfully complex book around them. But when you pile them all up on top of one another and send them hither and thither in an endlessly unfolding and re-folding plot, the result is a blurry mess. You’ve said yourself that you love monsters, and this book is certainly chock full of them. For your next book, though, please—give them some space. Give the readers time to get to know them all so that all your beautiful prose and maze-like storylines feel worth the mental trek.
So good-bye for now, dear China. We had a good run. I’m sure I’ll be knocking at your door again at some point—you’re still brilliant, after all—but for the moment we’re over. I’ll be shacking up at Stieg Larsson’s place for the foreseeable future.
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?”
At the top of a long list of books that I felt guilty for never having read (Ulysses, Great Expectations, War and Peace) was Moby Dick. Determined not to let these short weeks of (somewhat) free time be wasted on net-surfing and TV-watching, I bought a copy of the book and took it with me to a place where its impact would surely not be lost on me–Cancun.
Reading a book largely considered to be one of the greatest novels of the English language in a place mostly known for spring break college insanity is an interesting experience. Reading such a book 100% as a book–i.e., with little or no knowledge of all the criticism and interpretation surrounding it–is a rare pleasure. I made a point not to read Moby Dick‘s introduction until I had finished the whole book, determined to read it purely as fiction, not as an exercise. Kind of an impossible task, given how Moby Dick‘s characters and symbolism have worked their way into so many areas of popular culture (even one of those Progressive insurance commercials features Ahab). But I think I mostly succeeded.
From as un-interpretive, un-theoretical a stance as I can muster, I can say that Moby Dick is long–around 600 pages–and sometimes you get the feeling that when he ran out of ideas Melville padded his story with encyclopedic lists of whale anatomy, harpoon types, and the various parts of a whaling ship (sections that I’ll admit I occasionally skimmed). The book begins with a very present first-person narrator who gradually vanishes, it meanders from soliloquy to scenes written in the manner of stage plays to very technical musings on the practice of whaling. Toward its end it’s as gripping as any blockbuster film, and every bit as gory–there’s a horrifying scene in which a sailor falls off the boat and into the partially slaughtered carcass of a whale floating nearby, only to be rescued when another sailor is brave enough to dive into the whale’s body to save him. Just when you’re feeling bogged down in the accounts of day-to-day life on a whaling boat, Melville will wow you with a piece of magnicent prose or a brief insight into the human psyche, and you’ll be compelled to keep reading. Ultimately, though, what stayed with me the most was Moby Dick‘s depiction of the harsh and brutal nature of commerce. Groups of men on a boat for three years at a time, living on wretched food and subject to all manner of injury and disease, desperately seeking animals much larger and faster than they are, spearing them and then hurriedly turning their bodies into a horrific mess of blood and tissue–all of it in the name of securing comparatively small amounts of oil for lamps.
Though the subject of the novel is primarily one captain’s obsessive search for a single white whale (a search that has little or nothing to do with securing oil), reading Moby Dick on the shore of a still-clean beach naturally made me think about the BP spill and our modern endless quest for a different kind of oil. Recent photos from Alabama show golden-brown waves lapping the shoreline–whole waves of the stuff, not balls or droplets here and there. A friend told me recently that the U.S. government could, in fact, plug the leak in a heartbeat with a few explosions and some cement–but it would mean losing access to all that lucrative oil, so they don’t do it. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but it smacks of the kind of doomed obsession that Melville so vividly described.
I read Moby Dick mostly while listening to the sound of waves crashing on a very pristine beach, where red flags warned me not to go swimming. I didn’t always listen, and one day while floating gently near the shore I was pummeled by a monster of a wave that sucked me under for several seconds and left me coughing up seawater and covered in scratches from tiny rocks and shells. The ocean really can turn from friend to foe in the blink of an eye.
At night I walked the mostly empty beaches and looked up at tons of stars and the dust of the milky way mingled with the occasional lights of boats on the horizon. (Note: “long walks on the beach” are not necessarily the relaxing, romantic venture that they might seem. Your feet get tired really fast in the sand, and all those pieces of broken shells and coral near the shoreline start to hurt after a while).
On a dive trip on a tiny boat I got horribly seasick–not quite enough to throw up, but enough to want to be off that boat and very, very far away from water. As the boat rocked endlessly up and down I tried to imagine enduring days or weeks of seasickness on a boat and realized that as a sailor on the Pequod I would have been begging to be sent home after five minutes. Moby Dick makes no real mention of seasickness, but surely Ishmael had to have been heaving over the side of the boat for a few days.
Moby Dick reminded me of countless other stories of obsession and determination against unimaginable forces–mostly, of course, of China Mieville’s The Scar, with its story of a floating city searching for an enormous beast that will lead it to a place of unlimited power or complete destruction. Or really any story of characters with mad, impossible goals or quests for vengeance that consume them:
“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.“
Ahab had his quest, we have our endless quest for petroleum even as it threatens to drown us in slime. Maybe this is what I really took from the book–that some of us will always be doomed to “burst our hot heart’s shell upon” some ludicrous and deadly goal, even if it means taking an entire ship down with us.