04 May 2009 – LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme

This was in my Bonus Batch from LTER

Aponte, a Black American man who has been living in Japan for a number of years, messes up his life such that his only recourse is to sit down at the typewriter and write about his experiences of being poor and unemployed in Tokyo.  Gradually he re-establishes his life and work ethic, and draws conclusions from the growing process he experiences.

I was a bit non-plussed by this book at the beginning.  I thought it was going to be one of those books where somebody undergoes an experience on purpose (Julie and Julia, Nickeled and Dimed, One Red Paperclip…) and was then plunged into the author’s chaotic and selfish descent into a life on the edge of homelessness.   Admitting that this descent is caused by his own profligacy, short-termism and obsession with women, he proceeds to live off four different women, taking favours, money, meals and loans from each in turn in order to keep his head above water.  While this is resourceful, it doesn’t make for very pleasant reading, and some of the descriptive writing about the women is a little "strong" for maybe the average reader.  He seeks to explain himself, and as he then starts to find "salvation" through hard work, we see his mental processes and interests change and become more conventionally mature. 

Once you get past this rather grubby life that he’s embraced at first then seeks to escape, there are some interesting points made about Japan (especially the differences between the Japan of the tourist and the Japan of the locals, and the way that the lack of interest in the "real" Japan from the rest of the world helps the Japanese retain their self-image of safety etc) and about the reasons non-Japanese people go and stay there, in the portraits of his fellow language-school workers.  The view broadens out from the purely personal to a more wide and interesting canvas.  When he goes back to his native New York for a visit, some good points are made about culture shock, about not fitting properly into either culture for at least a while.

While I am pretty sure the author would not like his reviewers to pause too long on the issues of him being a Black American in Japan, rather than just an American in Japan, he does give some interesting vignettes, examining his viewing of the portrayal of Black people on Japanese television, believing he must acknowledge all people he meets of his own colour in case they feel he is ignoring them, and his anger at being congratulated in a book shop for being a Black man reading a book.  This does give an extra dimension to the usual "out of culture" books that exist in the genre.

Set in the mid-1990s recession in Japan, there are some interesting paralleles with today’s financial crisis and i’m wondering if that was why this book was published now – it’s a useful hook to hang it on.  There’s even a theme about those in financial straits turning on the outsiders in their society, which we’ve seen in the UK with the protests about non-UK workers.

I found this book interesting, and it’s certainly brave to be that unremittingly honest about your ways before you mend them.  It was a short book, and needed some editing work (this was not as far as I could see an ARC, but it had some repeated passages and messy tenses).  I can’t say I loved it, but it certainly improved as it went along.