Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat

Hiraide, Takashi (2014), The Guest Cat, Picador
[Translated by Eric Selland]
ISBN 978-1-4472-7940-2

guest cat coverFor my birthday a year and a half ago, my sister brought me a cat, as, I suspect, a therapy animal/companion. I love cats, and my sister was right to suspect that my cat would keep the specter of suicide mostly away from my door. This year, she bought me a bunch of books, some of them cat themed. I’m saying this to explain that I have an obvious affinity to cats. My family has always had a cat and I genuinely missed having one around. I love cats. So when I come across a book that speaks to its author’s deep appreciation of feline companions, I’m already halfway convinced of the book’s quality. By cat-themed books I mean books about people who have cats. There are obviously also books about cats, written from a cat’s perspective, a genre that has some important forebears. I (badly) reviewed one of them here, ETA Hoffman”s Tomcat Murr. Many entries in this genre, somehow, have turned to the genre of the mystery novel, from Rita Mae Brown’s post-Rubyfruit Jungle work to the German novel Felidae (which I advise against buying because its author has turned into a deplorable creature and there’s no point in lining his pockets further. Get it from a library. It’s enjoyable, I think). But none of that here. This is about animals as companions. In these situations, animals often serve as agents of disorder, of emotional or empathetical destabilization of order or just as unreadable creatures beyond the reach of rational analysis. The raven in Charles Dickens’ severely underrated early novel Barnaby Rudge, companion to the simple minded eponymous hero of the novel, serves such a purpose, for example. In a way, its first appearance in Dickens’ novel is a culmination of several figures of incomprehension. That encounter with animals is something that we know from writers all over literary history, in the past century most powerfully expressed by poets like Elizabeth Bishop or James Dickey, but pets have a whole additional significance. More than Bishop’s gentle-but-threatening moose, pets are already connected to a domestic sphere. They are part of the machine of urban structure and architecture. They help us read and sometimes push against needs and asks.

guest cat toskaI say all this because that is exactly, I think, the role played by “Chibi,” the cat from Takashi Hiraide’s novel. Hiraide is a poet and the spare but efficient way the book is structured suggests the assured hand of a writer used to play tennis with a net, to paraphrase Frost. Chibi is a “guest cat” not in a semi-permanent sense, like a cat left behind with a cat sitter or a friend. Chibi is a frequent visitor rather than a guest, really. Her home is in the same neighborhood but she has taken a liking to the protagonists of the novel and spends quite a bit of time at their house. Her movements are not restricted, and her relationship to the protagonists is one largely of autonomy. The book charts the relationship of the protagonists to the cat from its beginnings to the end, telling a story of a middle aged man diverging from what appeared his set path in life to make small but important changes. The whole story is set to the backdrop of the country itself going through changes. Chibi, the curious cat, with her roaming ways, serves, if not as a catalyst, then as a figure of independence and divergence, helping the protagonists make sense of their changing lives. This “cat ownership […] on an ad hoc basis” is written without any tired insights into the mind of a cat. In fact, the cat’s itinerant ways and her unclear attachment to the protagonists allows Hiraide to situate the book between urban stories of pet ownership and the tales of encounters with wildlife, except: there are no epiphanies here. There is half a revelation in the final pages of the book, but it is one of contextualization, of understanding human agency and the restrictions they place on the freedom of animals among us. I have mentioned my limitations with regards to Asian literatures before here and here, but it never feels so acute as here where I’m left to speculate about the literary and cultural reception of Romanticism, particularly of the Wordsworthian kind, in Japan. Is the retreat from epiphany a choice by Hiraide, emphasizing the austerity and materialism of the novel, or is this typical of late-20th century literary writing in Japanese?

jito itoThe only non-fairy-tale book I have on my shelf to compare is a brief manga by Junji Ito. Now, if you are a reader of this blog, you may recognize the name from some intense praise I offered for his work a while ago. Junji Ito is one of the best and most accomplished writers of horror comics I have ever read. His work may sometimes seem too direct and unsubtle, but for me at least, it has its desired impact of scaring me or at least appearing sufficiently creepy. This comic book, published by Kodansha Comics in a translation by Stephen Paul, as Yon & Mu, is basically a memoir of acquiring cats. Junji Ito offers his usual approach of injecting every frame with some modicum of dread, fueled in this case by his lack of appreciation for cats. So when his wife forces two cats on him, he indulges in sharing the dread they invoke in him. This dread is clearly played for laughs. In a way, the whole book is a kind of deconstruction of Ito’s poetics, with every sweaty forehead and grimacing face showing us how much the effect of his more serious books depends on audience collaboration. At the same time, some of the ‘serious’ dread carries over, emphasizing an incipient metaphysical dimension to the story and cat ownership in general. The book may seem loose, but if we look close, it ticks a lot of boxes relevant to the genre. We get a kind of vision, but they do not carry the weight either of classical or of modern epiphanies, so, as a way to gauge a cultural environment for an understanding of Takashi Hiraide’s novel(la), it’s not greatly of help. Let me, however, recommend the book, and, while I’m recommending cat related comics, let me additionally recommend the adorable manga Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, published by Vertical in a translation by Ed Chavez. It is written to reflect the pet’s perspective, so it doesn’t fit my thoughts on The Guest Cat, but it is just the most adorable comic you’ll read in a long time. Ah, and for a final recommendation to close out this paragraph, you should read Grant Morrison’s comic We3, a contemporary take on Richard Adams’ classic 1970s novel The Plague Dogs. Morrison mimicks many of the conventions of animal-perspective storytelling, but undercuts them by exploring questions of speech and technology, autonomy and language. It’s a story of three pets fleeing the laboratory that planned on turning them into cyborg killing machines. Donna Haraway’s work has surely contributed to Morrison’s thinking here.

window kitteh

Technology, interestingly, plays no role in The Guest Cat despite its setting in the 1980s. In fact, the book is set precisely at the end of the Showa period, which ended with the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. Human artifacts here are more of the wood and concrete kind. The book begins with the protagonists, a married couple, moving into a house. Hiraide spends an enormous amount of time explaining to his readers the exact layout of the neighborhood, how the house, which is itself a kind of guest house, relates not just to the lerger mansion on the same grounds but also to the neighboring houses and the street. The relationship between all these places, these narrowly defined small territories is almost geometrically exact – in fact, due to the odd angling of the house vis-à-vis the street, a trick of the light sends the image of approaching passengers through a knothole in a perfectly positioned tree onto a wall in the protagonists’ house. This sense of proportions and of the interaction of light an architecture is reminiscent both of the work of Gaston Bachelard and, particularly, Junichiro Tanizaki’s brief essay In Praise of Shadows, In it, the famous (and excellent) novelist describes the role of darkness and light in aesthetics, but he particularly discusses effects of shadow and reflection in architecture. One of his observations, of light reflecting an image onto a wall, off some gold leaves in a decoration, comes remarkably close to the appreciation of light in Hiraide’s novel(la). It’s interesting that The Guest Cat would be interested in light and its effects on rooms, and Tanizaki interested in darkness and shadows, particularly, because both books have a sense of the nostalgic about them. Tanizaki ends his essay with a lament on the advent of electrical light and the resultant omnipresence of light, whereas Hiraide constructs the strangest little simple abode that appears almost like an ancient object to which modern humans brought stoves and computers and the like.

we3 chis homeAfter about 1,500 words of talk, I am not sure I conveyed to you that, with all this, The Guest Cat is a very good book. It sidesteps easy sentimentalism without losing emotional resonance. It creates multiple layers of significance by superimposing people and events on certain roles and things. One example is the way the author blends the Emperor’s death with the much smaller death of his landlord. The writing is not always disciplined, sometimes the author indulges in speculations about the cat’s presence in their lives that drag on for a bit. Like many men, the author likes to hear himself talk and he cannot always control the detrimental effects this has. This isn’t helped by the patchy language that sometimes slips awkwardly between registers, something that I tend to lay at the feet of the translator. Yet all of this is nitpicking. The writing is usually elegant, and the author modulates the architecture of his novel very well. While the aforementioned memoir by Junji Ito is exclusively of interest to people who love/have cats, The Guest Cat does not rely on shared affinities. It is a very nice book. It never attempts to go beyond its small confines of offering a small episode in the life of a writer, despite its reach into the larger fabric of the historical moment. Like a poem, then, say, one of Mary Oliver’s small ones or, more accurately, the luminous work of Wisława Szymborska, who populated several of her poems with cats, declaring once that “D[ying]—you can’t do that to a cat.” Hiraide does not have Szymborska’s precision, but that would be a tall order anyway. Yet with her, he shares a sense of how cats interact with spaces, with things and routines, how cats resist – and attach themselves to their human companions. It is something that rings very true to me, which returns us to the bias I admitted to in the first sentences of this review.

lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for

lê thi diem thúy (2003), The gangster we are all looking for, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-375-70002-6

gangster 1Much like the last book I reviewed here, I somehow ended up reading this book by accident, but I don’t regret it – lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel is a very good book. Among the shorter books I recently reviewed, it doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Herrera’s novel, but apart from smaller issues of style and pacing here and there, it’s hard to find flaws with it. As the book progresses, it picks up pace, power and emotional resonance. It takes no formal or stylistic risks, there is no complicated mythical or metafictional conceit, but for a traditional narrative of immigration, it is exceptionally well done, and what’s more, lê has developed a very recognizable, very vivid voice right out of the gate that is not reliant on tricks, but on a solid control of language. Her observations and the images she chooses to use are usually on point – sharp, meaningful, insightful. The book’s broader range is chronological but the narrator keeps moving backwards to illuminate other episodes from her childhood, finally to reach all the way back to her earliest childhood in Vietnam. Dreams are incorporated into the narrative not as exotic or fancy artifacts but as parts of reality, equally as important to understanding the protagonist’s life as the wide awake observations of life as a Vietnamese refugee in San Diego. It is pleasant to read a novel that is both so solidly crafted, so well written and so emotionally resonant as this one. It’s what one hopes would emerge from the MFA author mills instead of the cheesy formulaic pap that usually ends up on our shelves. If you teach writing and structure to someone, a novel like The gangster we are all looking for is surely the desired result. lê conveys the cultural barriers that open up for refugees without hokeyness, she tells us of loss and family ties in a language that is both taut and expansive. Sure, the novel could have been a bit tighter, but I suspect that my quibbles with it stem from the joy I had of reading it. The gangster we are all looking for is an exceptional book that I immediately reread – and it somehow gets better the second time around. So if you are up for a lovely, conventional but exceptionally well done little book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, do read this book.

The book follows its protagonist, a six year old girl, who lands with her father and four other Vietnamese men (she calls them the four uncles) in California, after an arduous flight that led them to the US via Singapore (look up Boat People if you want to know more). Her mother stayed behind, but would join them later. For the majority of the book the mother is present and significant. The book is broadly structured chronologically, with the first page essentially describing the landing of the six year old girl, and the last chapter structured around her return visit to Vietnam 20 years later. Between these basic elements, the book moves back and forth, withholding certain elements only to fill them in later. The management of time feels fluid and expertly done, the effect is of a mosaic of memory without losing readability or fluidity. I’m not surprised to read that the novel is, among other texts, based on a performance piece of the author’s, because that explains the taut cohesiveness of the whole book despite all the small episodes and the changes back and forth in time. An audience can’t just go back a few pages to figure out something confusing, it needs to make sense as a flow of story, in the moment. And that’s certainly true here. This fluid mosaic technique is not associative. Instead, lê uses hard cuts, having structured her book through paragraphs and chapters, which makes the easy cohesiveness (unlike, say, Jirgl’s excellent but less easy to read mosaic novel Die Stille, with each chapter/paragraph dedicated to a photograph) even more impressive. Another example of the author’s smooth handling of her material is the way the book is both clearly narrated by the adult who remembers the early days of her life, and yet in many childhood vignettes, we are offered the child’s sense of wonder and -sometimes- her obstinacy and strangeness, unmodulated, uncommented. We never feel, I don’t think, a real contrast between the way the childhood scenes are narrated and the way the adult fills in other portions of the narration (including occasional sections where other people’s thoughts are imagined). It’s all just – and I’m sorry to repeat myself here – extraordinarily well handled, so that the book’s surface is always smooth (but never slick).

Another interesting aspect is the way the novel handles immigration or migration. We don’t really see the process of fleeing a country and entering another, apart from the occasional memory. The book begins exactly at the moment of landing: “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore.” The author very rarely explains things and customs to us, so most of the time, our knowledge does not vastly outstrip the child’s – or rather, our horizons are similar. So of the process of immigration, the signing of forms and the learning of language, finding jobs etc., none of this really turns up in the book. Instead, migration is presented as a negotiation of living spaces. The child, her father and the “uncles” first live in a wealthy benefactor’s house and later, she lives with her father and mother in several different houses and apartments. Houses, according to Gaston Bachelard, “would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” and they give us “illusions of stability.” It is that latter phrase that I find particularly interesting, in the light of some things I’ve been reading recently, but let’s start with the first phrase, because it describes part of the author’s method. The book very diligently takes upon itself to describe to us the different houses, especially in the early stages. While the child’s personality is being formed, our attention is being directed to the spaces wherein the transformation takes place. And transformation is the exactly right word. The author even suggests it to us in one of the book’s strangest and most intriguing sections: having found a butterfly trapped in amber, covered in glass, the child protagonist becomes convinced she can hear the butterfly’s wings, she can hear it talk and becomes increasingly interested in freeing the butterfly, which culminates in a minor disaster, and a borderline unhinged dialogue. The butterfly is an obvious reference to transformation, but the child’s truculent obsession with hearing its wings through the amber and the glass leads us to something else: the book’s dissatisfaction with the structures and houses that it builds up.

gangster 2“Illusion of stability,” indeed. Water moves through the novel in all kinds of places, doors are literally un-hinged, and family traditions and structures are reduced to symbolic acts, and unstable symbolic acts at that. Usually, immigrant narratives are about finding a place, a space, inscribing an identity onto the crowded slate of a national identity. Settling. Take another book I reviewed last year, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. Most of the book’s post-migration narrative takes place in the same house, and while physical and mental illness destabilizes that new home, the ultimate result is one of growing roots and becoming almost too happy. Even immigration narratives that don’t end in success are basically negotiations of the same paradigm, just with a different outcome. In the case of this novel, however, lê cleverly combines two different movements. There’s the movement from house to house, trying to find, as they say with rescued pets, a “forever home.” That this search is unstable, with lovers from the old country, alcoholism, violence, poverty and desperation all helping to destabilize it, does not make this search any less goal-oriented. At the same time, the protagonist slowly but surely extricates herself from this process. This is no leaving the nest and growing one’s own home, the way Sharma’s protagonist did. This is just a dissatisfaction with this structure. It reminded me of Deleuze’s correction of Foucault in which he suggested that society is not just strictly structured through power, but instead through “lines of flight.” For Deleuze, it is desire that oozes out of structures, that opens up narratives of power, and lê’s protagonist’s path through the book charts that slow undoing of stability. As with the butterfly, sometimes lê rigs her book to make this process extra clear. For example, in an abandoned house, where the neighborhood children play, they put up a big carton box, just large enough for two kids to fit inside. They added a curtain to it and then they named it “The Other Room” and then just “The Box.” So I’m sure the box was meant for shenanigans to begin with, but we are not shown that. We are however shown the moments the protagonist spends in the box with a boy, moments we follow in extraordinary detail. The box itself is an attempt to provide additional stability to a stable but disintegrating environment, and what do we find inside? The discovery of desire.

But the Deleuze idea that I have been most preoccupied with these days is the idea of cartography. It’s primarily of interest to me with regard to Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetry, but the way lê structures the journey through houses can, I think, be excellently described using Deleuze’s concept of looking at journeys through maps as trajectories, journeys through different milieus with their own subjectivities and their own negotiation of territoriality. Those trajectories “merge […] with the subjectivity of the milieu itself.” If we follow Deleuze and look at the sturdy, seemingly immovable object of memory and the narrative of origin as “displacements” instead, it encourages us to see narratives of becoming, as the one that lê’s protagonist undergoes as a challenge to thresholds and simple identities. The book doesn’t end with an identity arrived at or confirmed, it ends in an absolute image of fluidity and open possibility. The narrator’s becoming-woman is inverted against the certainty of place and context. As a narrative strategy, it strikes me as unusual in immigration narratives. Take Sunjeev Sahota’s booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, which starts in a similar environment, of adult immigrant men living together, negotiating their new space. But Sahota’s very good novel is primarily interested in looking at one milieu and a process of becoming that is determined by a very narrow set of thresholds and enclosures. The gangster we are all looking for is about a protagonist attempting to escape into indeterminacy. It’s quite a feat that the author manages to do all this and yet stay consistently readable. Ultimately, it’s this conventional smoothness that keeps this from reaching quite the heights that it could reach, but, you know, it’s really good, after all.

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Akimitsu Takagi: The Informer

Takagi, Akimitsu (1999 [1965]), The Informer, Soho Press
]Trans. Sadako Mizuguchi]
ISBN 1-56947-243-2

takagiWhen I started this book I was not aware that The Informer is a very traditional crime novel. I somehow ended up reading it on a recommendation and not until about halfway through the novel did I notice what I was reading. That’s not just because I am slow of mind: the book’s devotion to the genre of the mystery novel doesn’t really surface until about halfway through. The first half of the novel could be part of all kinds of books; there is a distinct sense of gears being shifted after a crucial part of the plot is reached. Another thing I didn’t know until I typed in the bibliographic info on the top right of this review is the age of the book. 1965 was a long time ago, and usually, crime novels which are this old tend to be pretty obviously old. When I reviewed Ed McBain’s 1956 novel Cop Hater, its age was part of the reason this book was maybe less impressive for me than for its readers back in the 1950s. Slang, references and badly aged forensic methodology all dragged on the book. This is not the case here, and I suspect that it is the Japanese culture and my lack of in-depth knowledge of history and culture of post-war Japan that made me overlook the book’s true age. Another factor may be the fact that the book’s allegiance, despite its contemporary setting, is not to modern police procedurals but to the classic detective novel, in particular to the Father Brown stories of GK Chesterton. There is a real police investigation, a noir web of intrigue, sex, murder and desperation – but the basic beats of the novel don’t depend on any of that. Ultimately, this is what makes the book, despite its very slow beginning, such a satisfying read, if you like this sort of thing. Takagi is very transparently not interested in murder or the way we discover the identity of murderers, but in ideas of love and loyalty, of guilt and, Chesterton’s primary theme, of deception and faith.

I will admit: as a reader who lacks the necessary background, many of the topical references that the book’s first half leans so heavily on, are completely lost to me. There is a weight, a historical and moral weight, accorded to the way economical concerns invade the moral fiber of Japanese society. The first half of the book introduces the protagonist, who, after a momentous stock crash, has lost everything and is now working a small job for a small salary, barely making do. The description of the greed of brokers that precipitated this crash should be eerily familiar to anyone who has followed the debates and explanations of our own stock crash about a decade ago. And then, as now, failure and disaster does not cure people of greed, and it doesn’t take very long for our protagonist, whose voice is full of self pity, and extremely hard to bear, to get ensnared in another scheme, this time he’s trying to do some industrial espionage (with risky brokering on the side). This whole plot develops very slowly, with additional lanes opened for a few tense sexual encounters. Our protagonist, despite not being necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer and monumentally unsuccessful as a business man, has a surprising talent with making women fall in love with him, but as the plot thickens, it starts to look as if he’s juggling too many balls at the same time until a murder makes his life crumble all around him. This is basically the first half of the novel which we experience exclusively from the protagonist’s point of view and it could have been part of a novel of Japanese society, of the Franzen/Trollope variety, or it could have led into a very dark noir kind of novel. Instead, as a police inspector and two prosecutors enter the fray, the novel suddenly splinters into a multitude of voices and points of view, and, very quickly, we find ourselves in a very classic detective novel, interrupted only by the occasional chapters from the protagonist’s point of view which offer some continuity with the first half.

It may not be clear from my dubious skills of describing novels, but the second half of the book is much better, much more enjoyable than the first half. The undertaking of mirroring the developments in postwar Japanese society and the devastation these developments have wrought in the soul of one hapless, greedy Japanese man takes genuine literary skill – a skill the author does not, I think, possess, although the spotty translation, which sometimes reaches for strange locutions and idioms, certainly does not help matters. There are a few extraordinary observations, the most intriguing one involving the way selling massaging tools can help a stock broker get the inside track on a company’s financial health. The picture painted is of a whole set of defeated, tired managers, overwhelmed by the financial crisis, whose wish for comfort is a sign of having given up on success. In this one observation, Takagi manages both to sum up the joyless business landscape after a period of financial devastation – and also offer a remarkably uncritical condemnation of what his character calls “laziness.” Success in business and a longing for comfort do not fit. You have to choose one or the other, which is a pretty harsh assessment, all things considered. Mostly, however, the book’s topical criticism does not make for exciting reading. By contrast, the book’s taut handling of the murder intrigue, with its twists and turns, hiding and exposing just the right amount of information, is truly well done. As readers, we follow the author wherever he leads us, and even if we guess the final reveal fairly early, this does not make the book any less suspenseful. It took me a long time to get through the first half of the novel, with its tedious descriptions and its exploration of the uneventful inner life of a man who doesn’t have much of an inner life, while I just flew through the book’s second half. Moreover, for having such a dull male protagonist, the book’s second half offers us a broad range of female characters, who are either smarter, or more compassionate, more moral or more clever than many of the book’s male characters.

The book’s concern with femininity, and its contradictory treatment of its women is, finally, another reason to give it a whirl. Early in the novel, a character says “I don’t know if it’s good or wicked of me, acting like this. If we were in some other country, it probably wouldn’t look so bad, but here in Japan it must seem terrible, especially to older people. Poor me – I might yet be labeled a bad woman….” The wicked thing she does it be more active, lively, act out her thoughts, push people to do a thing she believes is right. Another character similarly knows that society judges her for sleeping with a man before marriage, living alone. And a third character is driven to suicide by a situation that wouldn’t be as oppressive if social pressure wasn’t as high. That death is a double edged sword, however. It is never quite clear whether the novel approves of the free thinking some of its female characters exhibit. Some characters are undercut in hindsight, some are killed, as of to punish them, some are just miserable. The most consistent moral throughline of the book still leads through its male characters, and all final insights and beneficial actions are undertaken by men, as well. And yet, the social situation of a generation that is not entirely pre/mid-war and not entirely post-war (“Your generation […] doesn’t belong anywhere.” a character explains) is mirrored in the author’s own inconclusive way of seeing female freedoms and male traditions. The novel appears to be critical of a certain brand of free thinking, but at the same time, it displays an awareness for the profoundly unfair way, for example, marriage, love and sex plays out for men and women. Women are practically sold into marriages whereas men have close to absolute freedom.

You’ll notice that I have, in discussing the social criticism, barely mentioned the Japanese setting. In part, this is because, as I noted earlier, I am profoundly ignorant of it. But I could have connected some of it to books I already reviewed like Ayako. However, the social conservatism of it doesn’t strike me as any different from the social conservatism of, say, American or German novels published in the early 1960s, and I am wary of overly exoticizing the novel when it doesn’t really need it. There are aspects to it that strike me as mostly or completely uniquely Japanese, such as the company structure, the deference for hierarchy and age, and some discussions of honor (for example, the protagonist wasn’t fired from his company, he resigned as a matter of honor because he caused too many losses to the company), but none of them are really central for the novel. I keep bringing up Chesterton, without managing to offer evidence without spoiling the book, but for me, this reference settled early in the second half and never really left my brain. Mostly, think, it’s the underlying deception that precipitates all the book’s murder and mayhem. The nature of the deception is, I think, a cruel kind of evil, but it isn’t some vague perversion or, conversely, some metaphysical evil. It’s the awfulness of human beings, the things human beings will do to each other for money or revenge. Chesterton’s Father Brown would look at these deceptions with a kind of sad resignation, clear-eyed, but sad. I think that is how we leave the novel, and its final revelations, as well. Not shocked or thrilled or titillated, but disappointed in the things people do to each other and a bit sad. “Every friendship, however genuine it might seem, must have a shady side to it,” a character says at the end. One wishes, ultimately, that Takagi was a better writer and Mizuguchi was a better translator, but the book’s core is solid and the book succeeds despite everything.

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Tournament of Books 2016 Winner?

I was a bit busy and forgot to check on the Tournament of Books. Here is my earlier post on it. So Villanova won March Madness and in the much more important Tournament of Books? Paul Beatty’s masterful novel The Sellout which I’ve read but haven’t gotten round to reviewing yet. So here is the link to the Finals matchup, which The Sellout won by a fairly wide margin.
Here is the brackets of this year’s ToB again:

Fates and Furies
v. Bats of the Republic
judge: Maria Bustillos

The Sympathizer
v. Oreo
judge: Brad Listi

The Turner House
v. Ban en Banlieue
judge: Miriam Tuliao

Our Souls at Night
v. The Whites
Judge: Syreeta McFadden

A Little Life
v. The New World
judge: Choire Sicha

The Book of Aron
v. The Tsar of Love and Techno
judge: Doree Shafrir

A Spool of Blue Thread
v. The Story of My Teeth
judge: Daniel Wallace

The Sellout
v. The Invaders
judge: Liz Lopatto

Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown

Dillon, Glyn (2012), The Nao of Brown, Selfmadehero
ISBN 978-1-906838-42-3

naobrowncoverSo this is some odd coincidence. Fresh on the heels of reviewing a book that is artfully crafted but does not, ultimately, feel like a success, I have just read another book which is both enormously well done and which, on the other hand, feels like an awful failure. Glyn Dillon’s British Comic Award-winning The Nao of Brown is a book about many things but it can’t quite decide on which to focus. It suffers terribly from this lack of focus, from it’s odd characterizations, its god-awful ending and some other things. On the other hand, it’s absolutely spellbinding and beautifully drawn. Dillon, in this book, is an artist who is able to change the tone of a scene with just a tiny adjustment to his characters’ eyebrows. His characters feel fully realized, intense, warm, living, especially the protagonist, a half-Japanese, half-English woman called Nao Brown. Her story is one of paternal abandonment, professional confusion and, most of all, a story of Primarily Obsessional OCD. The racial, social and emotional situation of Nao is complex, and it’s not clear that Dillon is extremely interested or skilled in exploring as fraught a character as Nao. At the same time, he hands her, if we forget the ending, quite a bit of space, letting her spread out over large panels that soak up her expressions. The men around her, in love with her and wary of her at the same time, are somehow both less well realized and sharper in focus. In a book where the main character constantly chides herself on being oblivious, Dillon presents us two supporting characters who are the most obtuse bags of nerd-testosterone you have ever seen, and yet, in a curious attempt to mellow out his book, Dillon lavishes them with understanding and care. All of these situations are difficult to parse and the fault lies in the woefully inadequate writing that, towards the very end of the book, just collapses upon itself and drags even the divine art with it, offering us four dismal pages of badly written text that should have been visually realized. Overall, the book is a real mess, but in being a mess, it also connects back to many other narratives of Asian experience in London, it connects us queerly to other graphic narratives of mental illness and presents an odd sort of cultural imperialism, all at once. You should really read The Nao of Brown, because the art is just so enormously beautiful (and Selfmadehero did such a fine job in creating the book as an object), but be prepared to occasionally squint with frustration at the writing and structure of it all.

If your brain saw the title of this review and started thinking “Dillon, comics, wait, wasn’tkindlyones there something…?” you are on the right path. Glyn Dillon is the younger brother of Steve Dillon, who, as co-creator of the classic comic book series Preacher, should be regarded as a heavyweight in the industry. This year, among other projects, Steve Dillon will be penciling Becky Cloonan’s highly anticipated take on The Punisher. Glyn’s comic book CV, in contrast to his brother’s, is much more sparse. The only book of his that I read prior to The Nao of Brown was an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman all the way back in 1994 (collected in The Kindly Ones). .Most of his work before and after Nao was focused on TV and film. We know from Raymond Williams’ classic study on TV how that medium forces us to adapt our messaging and communication and somehow Glyn Dillon’s book reads like an imprecise hybrid between two traditions of visual storytelling, with the additional tradition of manga, anime and French comics somehow grafted on to the Frankensteinian endeavor. The extraordinary art and the loving way Dillon tells Nao’s story indicates, as does the introduction by Jessica Hynes, that the book had been a labor of love, but I have never read a book that so badly needed an editor and regular discussions with said editor to get the book into some proper shape. The book tells its story on multiple levels, at different speeds. There are multiple ways of summarizing it: Nao Brown, hafu, half-Japanese, half-English, falls in love with a chubby alcoholic mechanic called Gregory Pope who quotes Hesse and has his own demons. Or: Nao Brown, a young aspiring comics professional deals with the difficulties of suffering from OCD and maintaining a functioning private life, until a catastrophe sorts out her priorities. Or: Nao Brown and her Nerd friend Steve Meeks (oh, speaking names, how have we missed you?) have a silent and frustrating love affair, which, in an ambiguous ending, may or may not be resolved following a calamitous incident. Or: Nao Brown, abandoned by her father and suffering from mental illness, parses a modern life in London while constantly negotiating her role vis-à-vis various father figures, and the concept of maternity, until a complex ending gives her answers to her questions. My descriptions may sound clichéd but that is genuinely the level of self-reflection that the narrative employs. It’s made worse by the fact that no non-spoilery description can do justice to the hackneyed way the book deals with what are really two endings. Much like A Clockwork Orange, this book would be better off with its last chapter chopped off.

naobrownpanelAnother thing regarding those descriptions: you may notice that her racial status plays no role in the way the plot plays out and that’s easily one of the most frustrating things, because that’s not at all how the novel starts. One assumes that the author just at some point during writing this 200 page book, somehow lost track of this part of the story and a few others. The novel begins with Nao on a plane back to London after having visited her father. She is in a difficult professional situation, with freelance illustration work sparse, so she gets a job in a “kidult” toy shop full of ‘japanese’ toys and trinkets. This part of the book moves along fast, and is peppered with clear-eyed observations about family, race, culture and imperialism, if not always in those words. Nao starts her story by telling us that she seems to strangers “the exotic other.” She also explains that her mother is “a proper Paddington girl” and that, living in England with her, “it’s funny to think of Dad as the ‘exotic other’.” She displays signs of “double consciousness,” being enormously aware of how she and her heritage appear to others. She is also confident of her identity, using it to cut down an early attempt by Steve Meeks to explain Japanese toys to her. At her first date with Gregory, when he launches into a racially stereotypical speech about Japanese women, she realizes his obtuse and offensive speech, declaring it “really weird…and a bit horrible…” It is very odd that this very statement is practically the last extensive treatment of race in the book. The Nao of Brown isn’t exactly dismissive of race as it is helpless in dealing with it. The mentioned elements show that the author is aware of the issue, as is the fact that Dillon uses the social and racial geography of London cleverly. “British Asian” usually refers to South Asian people, but London also has a sizable Chinese community with its own issues of racism. Japanese communities, by contrast, are usually more well off and smaller. The book is mostly set in the areas of London where most of the small pockets of the Japanese community are situated, but it offers some interesting tweaks on it. Japanese (and Asian culture, generally) is shown to be completely appropriated by the imperialist and capitalist apparatus. A “Buddhist center” is full of English people, with an English teacher, the toy shop is aimed at English people, and so forth. In 1991, Masao Miyoshi famously claimed that the Japanese economy was the first powerhouse economy without any cultural capital. The anime and manga boom of the early 2000s, as well as the elevation of mediocre novelists like Murakami to literary superstar status, has changed that, but recent developments suggest an American or generally Western-led process of appropriation of these Japanese cultural products, limiting the impact of Japanese culture to its distorted reflection by imperialist media structures. The first third of the novel, using real and invented Japanese products, hammers home this point, culminating in the scene with Gregory that I just mentioned, where he, Hesse-reading idiot, genuinely regards Hello Kitty as a fair representation of Japanese women.

binkybrownNao also fills us in on the fact that she is “a fucking mental case.” and in a series of well paced vignettes, we quickly learn, though more by inference than by explicit comments, that the illness is Primarily Obsessional OCD. She, like most sufferers of OCD is enormously self aware of herself, and suffers from shame regarding her condition. This quality of OCD is hauntingly similar to ideas of “double consciousness,” without wanting to pathologize racial tensions. The book never clinically describes or explains Nao’s illness, but it does an interesting trick to sidestep that: despite Nao’s apparent lack of a therapist, she manages her outbreaks with the help of dialectical behavior therapy methods, including a form of ERP that may not be something real sufferers of OCD would use. The point in the novel is not accuracy, however, but verisimilitude. Dillon wants us to understand how it works and so he has his protagonist use therapeutic methods that externalize a very internalized illness. The result is that it looks like ‘real’ OCD for lay readers of the book, used to media depictions of fussy OCD people like TV’s Monk. It’s an interesting tactic. In my limited experience of reading graphic novels, they have a fascinating relationship with Foucault’s theory of the History of Madness. Books like Nate Powell’s sublime take on schizophrenia, Swallow Me Whole, or David B.’s masterful Epileptic, or more recent, web-published comics on depression, offer both a disquisition on the modern clinic, as well as the pre-modern tableau of madness that Foucault found in Pieter Bruegel’s work. Many of those books are autobiographical, but not confessional (using here Susannah Radstone’s distinction here), with a few confessional books marking specific cultural moments, most famously, Justin Green’s classic Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a book, like Dillon’s, concerned with Primarily Obsessional OCD. The Nao of Brown is neither testimonial nor confessional – it’s not autobiographical at all, which may explain the shifting of priorities as the book progresses. There is no urgency behind its story, and no consistent discursive interests. Towards the last third of the book it is the stale romance that primarily occupies the book’s interest. This is not because it’s fiction, this is because Dillon’s a very mediocre writer. But a work of autobiography would not likely have dropped those elements, even if it was similarly bad in execution.

naobroannocoverBinky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary is actually directly mentioned by the book itself but this reference to Binky Brown sits oddly athwart the book’s issues and problems. Apart from sexual and religious guilt, the book also narrates an interesting racial situation, of the half-Jewish boy who goes to a Catholic school and feels guilty about both communities, like a dark, sexual and secular version of the epiphanies from Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. And Binky Brown is situated pretty precisely in a time and place. All these things suggest questions to ask of Glyn Dillon’s book. How does place work? How does he deal with racial tension? What’s the role of pathologized guilt? Most crucially: what does it say about masculinity? And not only does Dillon answer almost none of those questions despite a beginning that appeared to address all of them (talk about bait-and-switch), it is the last two that I found resolved in the most strange way. See, the book is aware that its male characters are idiots. A moment of mental stress by Nao is countered by Gregory in the most insensitive and ignorant possible way. In no way sensitive to her struggles he demands a rational explanation before he allows himself to help her. Her friend and employer, Steve Meeks, clearly smitten with her, employs the dubious tactics of passive aggressive Nerd courtship. None of this is inferred by me: the book states it plainly and clearly. There is no doubt the book knows that its men mistreat its female protagonist at every turn. Talking over her, talking down to her, not helping her with her illness; in fact, sometimes they themselves create situations for her illness to flare up. And yet, we find no trace of guilt, none of the vulnerable masculinity that was so central to the confessional moment in literature. In fact, the book, in its muddled and awful ending finds excuses and explanations for their behavior. Gregory is the only one who gets to explain himself in writing. The book oddly resembles few texts as much as the British male popculture novels by Nick Hornby and other ‘lads’ of his generation. We get quirky pop culture references, and namedrops of bands like The Fall. The longer the book continues, the less it is interested in Nao’s point of view. Nothing shows this change as starkly as the fact that the book begins with Nao’s words of self-explanation and ends with Gregory’s dire Hesse-influenced waffle, no longer an object of criticism by the book. It begins with the picture of a little girl, and it ends with one of a little boy. This change, much of it happening in the book’s last third, is not announced earlier, it feels like the author just, upon writing, found a character he liked more than the protagonist he started out with. For the reader, this is utterly frustrating and even infuriating. There is a great book somewhere in The Nao of Brown, but Dillon does not have the skills of writing and drawing 200 pages of it with a consistent level of concentration. As it is, the book is still good, because, despite all the frustration, it has an excellent first third, and the art is extraordinary throughout.

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