[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Wrong About Japan': The Road to Anime
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Sat Jan 29 16:28:36 UTC 2005
'Wrong About Japan': The Road to Anime
New York Times Book Review, 5.1.30
By MARCEL THEROUX
WRONG ABOUT JAPAN: A Father's Journey With His Son.
By Peter Carey.
Illustrated. 158 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $17.95.
THE novelist Peter Carey, twice the recipient of the prestigious
Booker Prize for fiction, heads to Tokyo and returns with this, his
second travel book. The inspiration for the trip comes from his son,
Charley, who's 12.
Charley is fascinated by anime and manga -- Japanese animated movies
and graphic novels. His interest rubs off on his father, who sees in
them links to Japan's older traditions of storytelling. And so Carey
Senior conceives a quest ''to enter the mansion of Japanese culture
through its garish, brightly lit back door.'' Manga and anime will
become not only a key for unlocking Japanese culture, but a bridge
over the generational divide between the author and his son.
You have to salute Charley for his great good nature and for providing
not only the impetus for the journey but all its high points. It never
seems to occur to his dad that it might be oppressive to have your
father not only covet your hobby, but turn it into a homework
assignment. The book threatens to recreate in miniature one of those
scenes being played out every day in the Piazza San Marco or the
Louvre, where an overenthusiastic dad, clutching a voluminous
guidebook, shepherds his reluctant offspring around the artifacts of
high culture. But Charley seems unfazed by almost everything --
threatening mutiny only when his father drags him to a theater to
watch four hours of kabuki. One of the running jokes here is the
contrast between Carey's egghead interest in the subtexts of manga --
met with polite bafflement by everyone they speak to -- and his son's
desire simply to meet his heroes, the artists and directors behind the
By the end of the book, you feel you've witnessed a series of rather
moving encounters between the author and one of the more baffling
cultures of our time: one that combines technological sophistication
and inscrutable inwardness; a culture largely impenetrable to
outsiders, yet which remains unignorable -- not least because of its
economic power. So much for Peter Carey's engagement with the world of
the teenager. What's less clear is what you've learned about Japan.
Carey has written the opposite of one of those authoritative and
scholarly works of travel literature -- Jan Morris's ''Venice'' and
Geoffrey Moorhouse's ''Calcutta'' spring to mind -- where erudition,
deep experience and powerfully evocative writing render a place in
exquisite detail. Instead, like a latter-day Phileas Fogg and
Passepartout, Peter and Charley spend what doesn't feel like more than
a week in Japan, failing ''to even break the skin of the culture.''
The good news is that on every page you're reminded that Carey is a
novelist: he has a novelist's appetite for information, a novelist's
elusiveness. He neatly captures the mood of disorientation and the
tiny slights and dramas that characterize travel outside your own
culture. But his tendency toward authorial invisibility seems like a
flaw in a travel book of this kind. Since he has no expertise to
communicate, you feel he should at least be a stimulating traveling
companion. But he isn't really. He does talk about manga with a fan's
excitement, but he never quite persuades you that it's worthy of his
enthusiasm. Long chunks of interviews with the form's creators are
presented in direct quotation, and feel unbalanced and indigestible in
a book this short.
Carey admits that he's a terrible reporter, and he makes this part of
the comedy of the book: his notes are poor, his interviews
interminable, he loses business cards and forgets names. Still, he
expounds his ideas at length, trying out a prefabricated set of
theories about manga on his hosts with incredible persistence and a
resounding lack of success. He wants us to think of him as a tourist,
but expects us to listen to him as though he's an expert. Meanwhile,
the reader, along with Charley, is getting fidgety and yearning for
fun and video games. ''Dad,'' Charley says, ''you don't really know.
Stop pretending that you do.''
In the end, this book, which is never less than charming, feels
slight. Anyone who wants to find out about Japan or manga will be
better served elsewhere. A lot of it feels like the research notes for
a novel; which may well be the case -- Peter Carey's next novel is
said to be set in Japan.
The author's principal vocation as a novelist makes itself felt in
another way. As Carey's intellectual quest founders, a subplot unwinds
through the book to a tender and satisfying climax, as if Carey has
designed the book as a novel from force of habit. Early on, Charley
reveals that he is planning to meet up with a Japanese friend whom he
met on the Internet. Initially, the author worries about his son's
mysterious friend, Takashi, but it turns out that the boy is a cool
teenager who also loves manga.
Stylish, switched on, unfathomable, Takashi appears providentially --
he even looks like a character in manga -- and seems like an
unmediated taste of the ''real Japan.''
The episodes with Takashi underline Carey's inability to penetrate the
culture. Carey unintentionally offends him. Then, in a wonderful
reversal at the end of the book, Charley bonds with Takashi and his
family in a moment as small and tender in its way as the end of ''Lost
in Translation.'' The ending suggests that while Carey and those of
his generation are doomed to be politely wrong about Japan forever,
his son, burdened with less history and blessed with a visceral
interest in the artifacts of modern Japanese culture, can connect with
Japan in a way that eludes his father.
Takashi provides a series of lovely moments and a great ending. He is
also -- as the author admitted in a newspaper interview -- entirely
made up. When I found this out, it increased my respect for Carey as a
novelist and reduced my respect for him as a writer of nonfiction --
an opinion that ''Wrong About Japan'' had, in any case, tended to
Marcel Theroux's most recent novel is ''The Confessions of Mycroft
Holmes: A Paper Chase.''
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