October 2003

Sanford May

big in japan

The Metaphysics of Raunchy Sex

When it comes to getting hot and heavy in literature, I'm a fade-to-black kind of guy. You know: our two passionate lovers draw near, lock lips, intertwine tongues and then wake up the morning next, cup of coffee in hand. I may be emotionally stunted, possess "issues," and lead a buttoned-up authorial sex life, but I can't help it: no matter how many times you yell "Dear Prudence," I will not come out and play. In truth, I'm not the model of decorum you may think. It's only that a good, graphic scene of abandoned lovemaking is so difficult to encode for the written language.

There's a trend to exposing the sex act in all its fleshly appeal within what I call the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) - new, tenuously established writers that eschew the graduate school track for getting sticky in the raw meat of writing their own ways to the top. In the other camp, the Tweed & Racquet Society, there is a counter-trend: kiss; cut; change the lighting; wind the clocks forward; direct the characters into the hallway fully clothed. Finally, there's a very talented middle ground.

Chief among these writers who can pull off a full-frontal collision between their characters without instilling the compulsion to wash your hands are Michael Chabon and Jeffrey Eugenides. Both of them, via unparalleled style and grace, get inside where everything is warm and messy; their prose is so ordered and hums with such quartz-calibrated precision that most anything they write seems right. Imagine my surprise to discover that Randy Taguchi, in her debut novel, Outlet, writes her sex with BRMC membership card in hand, yet still manages to deliver that inch or two of abstraction that doesn't leave you feeling like you aren't wearing any pants. In Outlet, that tiny margin of distance is essential.

Taguchi's ersatz protagonist, Yuki, degreed in psychology -- don't all the duchesses of dysfunction go in for that discipline? -- leads a life barely tacked together on the surface; in the undercurrent, her mind is a study in entropy. She's fucked up (insert exaggerated wink for writer Steve Almond here). If Yuki's myriad sexual encounters were fully involved both physically and mentally, Taguchi would have surely lost her way about half through Outlet. Through that tiny layer of abstraction we can tell that Yuki is outside of herself while she's going at it; she's plugged in but completely disconnected. Taguchi's method of suspending the lens away and overhead while still laying us all open where it hurts just works. I don't know quite how she did it, but she did it all the same.

As the novel opens, Yuki is working as a finance journalist in the contemporary glitz of Tokyo: casual sex and casual dining. She never followed through with her plans to build a career in psychotherapy; but it doesn't much matter, because this young woman analyzes economic markets like she would any human patient. She's safe, stable in her own way, and completely, blissfully absorbed in her career, at one point making an outstandingly insightful comparison between the stock trade and the dark arts of the occult. Only upon receiving news of her older brother's mysterious death does her composure begin to trade force for flaws.

Almost immediately Yuki goes into a tailspin, interrupting what seemed only recently like a long, easy flight into obscurity. She begins to experience visual and olfactory hallucinations: dead people walking alongside the living and the stench of death hovering like clouds of doom perfume around the infirm. Yuki is a little too grounded in the corporeal, and has too much academic knowledge of abnormal psychology, to take these developments as matters of fact. Returning to her alma mater, she visits an old professor, Kunisada, and resumes weekly analysis sessions under his guidance -- yes, of course, she had a bizarre and protracted sexual liaison with him, too, back in her college days. Bottom line: Why is her brother's death, strange though it was, eliciting these extreme psychiatric symptoms?

In her quest to dispel the ghosts and possibly decipher a message her dead brother was trying to send her by the peculiar peri-mortem arrangement of items in his apartment, Yuki resumes a relationship with one of her old classmates, a bright and dedicated woman named Ritsuko who has in the intervening years developed a fascination with modern-day shamanism. Append to these two dream police Kimura, a bland fellow, ostensibly realist but without the sense to establish even for himself the line between fantasy and concrete; and young psychiatrist Yamagishi, with his own eccentric angle on mysticism, still hefting a white-hot torch from his university acquaintance with Yuki. There's a cacophony of well-meaning voices in Yuki's head, no more intelligible than an echoing howl in an empty amphitheater. Everyone wants to love her, tend her, or take her to bed. What's a girl with a good head on her shoulders to do? Moreover, what's Yuki to do, her head far from planted firmly and squarely in sane airspace?

Outlet is definitely a popular novel. Short, well-paced, satisfying as a snack; you'll starve trying to make a meal out of it. The Japanese are rather enthralled by mysticism and matters occult of late, and novelists like Taguchi are serving that fare buffet-style. That's not to damn her work with faint praise: at this very moment, writers of Japanese popular fiction are consistently producing prose of an elegance to which authors of American novels doing brisk business at airport kiosks can only aspire. Indeed, stateside pop fiction magnates could take a lesson or five from writers like Randy Taguchi: you don't have to give up admirable characterization and precise composition to stock up the newsstand paperback racks. Even so, in her first outing, Taguchi just barely pulls it off. In Japan, there are two sequels to Outlet. Not surprising after you've closed the book's back cover, as there certainly seems a lot more in need of telling, which is all well and good if you have the novel's successors parked on your nightstand awaiting lamplight on a rainy night, but not as appealing while only the original exists in translation. Do we need any more good reasons to learn Japanese?

Outlet by Randy Taguchi, translated by Glynne Wally Vertical Press ISBN: 1932234047 272 Pages