January 2004

Sanford May

big in japan

Ghosts In The Deus Ex Machina

They say that everyone has one great novel in them. That's a lie. I know people who don't have a single mediocre paragraph in them; bless them for they are well aware. But as a rule, anyone who calls himself a writer or otherwise plies his trade in the field probably has at least one novel in him, or parts of several that he can piece together and pitch as a sort of semi-autobiographical memoir thing with a bit of magical-realism whimsy thrown in for the crowd who really, really liked The Lovely Bones -- not just the book, mind you, the experience. Accepting that, then you can believe the ancillary clause to the same rule that states that every contemporary Japanese writer has at least one so-so ghost story in him. And he's going to commit it to paper; he will and there's nothing you can do to stop him short of tossing him in front of a bus -- which will only inspire another contemporary Japanese novelist to slap up a 60,000 word novel round the tale of the writer who meets bus head-on and returns to earth for... Well, you get the picture.

This trend brings Tokyo screenwriter Taichi Yamada's English debut novel, Strangers, to my desk. Yamada has, near as one can tell from the provided biographical information, an almost super-hero status among Japanese television writers; thus it should come as no surprise that Strangers adheres to the austere, stripped-down form of a teleplay, missing nothing essential to the story but making no Updike-ian diversions into comparisons of sexual desire to leaded beads or what have you. It's not at all an unwelcome style as only so many authors do Updike similes very well and all of them I've read are named Updike. The problem is, it's not a style any different than the great raft of good, spare contemporary Japanese prose already out there. Really. There's a ton of it. En masse, these popular Japanese novelists are starting to make Nabokov seem like he never even bothered with second drafts. (Hey, I've mentioned Nabokov and Updike in the same paragraph, a paragraph about an entirely unrelated area of literature: Amis, have your people call my people; we'll meet for a latte or three.)

If I'm extolling the virtues of Japanese prose circa now -- and I am and I will until they quit being quite so stylishly effective -- I must muck about in the viscera of plot and characterization to differentiate the worthy from the unworthy -- or at least the worthy from the less so. And at P&C (section 4 in your syllabus) is where Yamada injects into the nicely put lines of Strangers the flavor and texture of cardboard. I have the bones on my plate; there must have been steak at one time; but I certainly didn't eat it. I'm still a bit famished and take-out veggie burritos are looking pretty good right now.

Yamada's basic structure is sound: An established Tokyo television scriptwriter -- bonus points for the semi-autobiographical schtick -- revisits the neighborhood of his youth, the Asakusa district, a place he has avoided because the memories the very streets conjure are any child's nightmare of tragedy. In one fell swoop, in one nasty automobile accident, the child Harada loses both of his parents. Under those conditions, Asakusa is undoubtedly not the place you're going back to every year for a champagne-and-roses celebration; and unless you're the excessively sentimental and morbid type -- by that I mean "American" -- returning again and again to the scene of unaccountable sorrow that whipped you in your youth is unlikely. But you are, eventually, going back and you, like Harada, know this: on some day at some time, full well expecting to fail, you are going to pace over those streets again and try uncovering the hidden branch of your life that snapped and withered before it could blossom.

Should things have worked out for Harada as we'd imagine -- minus the resurgence of interest in paranormal phenomena that began in Japan in the 80s and continues today -- he'd have had his beer, stomped his home turf and returned across the city, perhaps sated, perhaps ever that much more in league of the lost lonely, but certainly without what Westerners call "closure". Some things, old wounds, the early loss of parents, both parents for Christ's sake, just don't ever properly close. But against reason, Harada encounters his father in the street. Not the father he would expect, the man that would appear more like his own aging self in a looking-glass reflection, but his father at the age just right about when he died.

Knock off the rather easy acceptance of this condition to Japan's timeless coexistence with the spirit world in their mythology and you can see why Harada, though to some degree shaken, elects to return and track down his father, seeking some resolution to the apparition, sane or insane. There you have it. You can, after all, go home again, a workable mechanism depending on where the novelist takes off with it; specifically, marrying the phantom world with the tangible eastern super-city and qualifying the existence of one man against a backdrop of infinite realities that lies beneath our feet like so much incorporeal quicksand. Instead, Yamada completely loses his grip on real-world Tokyo and where we started with a couple of ghosts -- beloved in memory, mom and pop -- we are at swim in a sea of spirits. Everything slips over to the other side: Harada's apartment building is a sort of stationary ghost ship; worrying his new love no end, Harada himself seems in the process of wasting to phantom status; and the new love, toward the end of the novel she becomes highly suspect. And these are only the "real" ghosts. Yamada includes a host of abstracted characters that though grounded well enough in the physical world for the rest of us stand in as Harada's own personal ghosts. His ex-wife; a past business associate and friend; and finally his estranged son, a sort of ghost-of-family-future, extant but not completely materialized. In the end, Yamada can't do much with his ghost world except put its inhabitants to rest in a contrived manner with some simplistic ritualized ceremony.

Strangers isn't a bad book; it's a lost opportunity. Yamada had beneath his pen the framework for a smashing juxtaposition of reality to the intangibility of what could have or would have been. And you can see where he tries just that, in lingering social calls to his dead parents' apartment, in his growing attachment to lover Kei, even in his purposeful but perversely well meant disregard for his son; but Yamada terminates with a finale more suited to an old Scooby Doo episode than a serious exploration of the relevance of past events and choices to the ever-multiplying chance tributaries of a single life.

Strangers by Taichi Yamada (translated by Wayne Lammers)
Vertical, Inc.
ISBN: 1932234039