What I’m Working On

My current book project is a little hard to explain, but I’ll try:

  1. I translated a seventeenth-century Chinese text, a detailed account of a tedious political imbroglio, into English.
  2. I extracted an intriguing subplot concerning a despicable family, resulting in a snappy 6000-word text.
  3. I transplanted the setting to contemporary Baltimore. My impulse was threefold:
    • Chinese settings seem to discourage would-be readers, and Baltimore may prove more accessible;
    • Chinese names are especially off-putting to would-be readers, so  rendering Zhang Qi as Tinus Juckman, Gu Xiangtai as Morgan Schwartzenberg, and Chen Luqian as Ruckleshaus Schumacher will hopefully yield more memorable characters;
    • Transplanting Chinese institutions such as eunuchs and public floggings to Baltimore produces a keen jarring effect.
  4. For fuller length and depth (and for the challenge) I am now employing an Oulipo method called larding, which means inserting one new sentence between every two sentences of a given text. The baseline translated/edited/transplanted 6000-word text has, as of this posting, been subjected to almost two full rounds of larding and currently stands at 22,000 words. I plan to lard it a total of three times.

I call it Meet Me at the RASCAL. Here is a choice sentence: “Tinka Klein and an oud player named Ashurbanipal, both naked and dreadlocked to the pubes, leapt back and forth between the modules of Goldie’s Italian leather sofa, trying to avoid collateral damage.”

Book Review: A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

As is known, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that takes the form of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, triangulating on the character of Taro Azuma, the racially impure pauper who makes the best of the various table scraps the world throws to him and becomes a millionaire. As such, it illustrates the triumph of the middle class over residual aristocracy, a theme that is developed on other levels as well, outside the main storyline. Secondarily, it draws attention to the process of novelization itself by, among other things, impugning the reliability of the chief narrator.

I loved losing myself in A True Novel’s 854 pages and seldom put it down. The pace does drag in one or two of the middle chapters, which provide the background of the aforesaid chief narrator, but it picks up again.

The cover blurb promises “an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class,” although its treatment of westernization is muted (it is more explicit in Mizumara’s Inheritance from Mother) and its depiction of the middle class, while not exactly triumphalist, is certainly not an indictment. In this respect, A True Novel is representative of postwar Japanese literature in its mostly happy adjustment with bourgeois, middle class life. The sense of angst and malaise, the criticism and satire that would accompany any American novel set in the middle class, is entirely absent. While A True Novel makes ample mention of squalor, failed marriages, and office drudgery, these occurrences never warrant a rejection of the bourgeois ethos in toto; no alternatives are considered. When its characters enter a hotel, restaurant, bookstore, or supermarket, they are comfortable in such places and participate unselfconsciously in the consumption that occurs therein. They refrain from mocking the decor or caricaturing the clientele, activities de rigueur in America. In short, these bourgeois settings are not enemy territory, through which its unassimilated characters trespass.

The lack of any snark directed toward the middle class may be explained by the simple fact that most Japanese are pleased to identify themselves as members of it. (For that matter, Japan’s racial and cultural homogeneity also ensures that the ethnic, religious, political, and cultural strife that dominates American novels has no parallel in Japanese ones.) In fact, A True Novel may be read as a middle-class epic, with Taro Azuma as its hero.

But does Taro find love? And if he does, is it of the aristocratic or the bourgeois kind?

The answer, of course, would be a spoiler.