Monday, May 24, 2010

Book Review for the First Time in Ages!

Finals are over, and I'm back in the field doing archaeological stuff for the summer. For some time, I was without Internet access here in the motel, but I finally figured out the reason--it was my firewall. Now that I'm back online, it's time to get the blog going again. (How many times have I said that in the last year?)  I'm now going to post brief reviews of stuff I've read or seen within living memory and wanted to talk about here but never did.  Originally, I was going to do this in one post, but after writing the first one and seeing that it wasn't that short, I decided to break things up.

(And yes, the three of us are still planning to discuss Avatar The Last Airbender before the movie comes out.)

Some Prefer Nettles
Some Prefer Nettles by Junchiro Tanizaki.  Vintage First International Edition (1995).  Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker.  $19.95.

This Japanese novel is one I picked up off the free rack at a library some years back and read last Christmas. Though only a little over a hundred pages long, it took me almost two weeks to finish it, since I could only stomach about a page or two at a time. I'm sure it has some point I've missed.  I'm sure it has some deep insight I'm not getting.  But to me it was a miserable story about miserable people.  (And I'm now having to write about it entirely from memory, so that probably makes it worse.)  Set in Japan in the 1920s, and apparently somewhat autobiographical, it's the story of a man named Kaname who's decided to divorce his wife Misako for no particular reason, except maybe boredom. Being terminally wishy-washy, Kaname and Misako frequently discuss how to go about getting a divorce, and what to do with their kid, but never actually get anything done. In the meanwhile, Kaname visits prostitutes and hangs out a lot with his father-in-law, who he admires for sleeping with a geisha less than half his age.

Tanizaki, in his day, is supposed to have been one of the greatest of the modern Japanese novelists. Certainly, the novel matches the unfortunate expectations the typical Christian sf fan has of non-genre fiction. That is to say, it's a plotless story about ignoble, unhappy people doing contemptible things with little in the way of motive or excuse.

Two things in the book held my attention and convinced me to endure to the end. The first was the lengthy description of the Osakan puppet theater, which Kaname visits frequently with the aforementioned father-in-law and geisha.  The father-in-law has fallen in love with old Japan while Kaname has grown fascinated with the modern West; the conflict between the two cultures is supposed to be the novel's centerpiece, but in my view that conflict is overshadowed by the unlikeable protagonist.  Nonetheless, the puppet theater, beautifully described, interested me as a cultural artifact, much as Moby-Dick interested me largely for the detailed descriptions of whaling.

The second interesting element, interesting for a very different reason, is Kaname's intriguing, albeit corrupt, musings on women. Kaname is of the mind that men in the Occident have the advantage of high-minded ideals of women uncommon in the Orient.  (P.S., I don't want to argue over whether this is actually the case; I'm merely telling you what the book says.) The Occidental man, coming from a culture that developed courtly love and all that, can imagine his beloved as a goddess, or as the Virgin Mary, and Kaname attempts to embrace such a notion himself, declaring himself a "woman worshiper," and using that as an excuse for mistreating the wife who he acknowledges is a good woman, and for visiting whores.

What Kaname doesn't seem to "get" about this whole woman-worship thing is that the worshiper's actions should match his sentiments. If Kaname can really be said to worship women at all, he doesn't worship them like a pagan before his goddesses, or like a Christian before his woman saints, even if he thinks he does. He worships them more like a Neo-Pagan or Wiccan who pulls his idols of the shelf, toys with them, and puts them back when he's satisfied. Kaname marries a good woman, but then decides he prefers a prostitute. He gets tired of prostitutes and decides he'd rather have a dolled-up geisha like his father-in-law's. Then he decides in the end that what he really wants is not a woman at all, but a puppet, a doll. I didn't have to tease that out; it's explicit in the novel's final sentences.

Now, arguably, his marriage to a modern woman and his visits to modern prostitutes are supposed to represent Kaname's interest in the modern West, whereas his interest in his father-in-law's geisha and in puppets is supposed to represent an attachment to Japanese tradition and an ultimate rejection of modernity, but that really didn't come through for me as I read the book.  All of Kaname's behavior, no matter what culture he flirts with, looked to me like that of a self-absorbed man who treats women like dirt and bails on his marriage when it enters the doldrums.

I'm sore tempted to draw a link between the misogyny on display in this novel from the late '20s and the misogyny on display in some of the volumes on the shelf in Snuffles's anime collection, a few of which also contain fantasies about replacing women with more easily maintained ideal girl robots. Then there's the story I linked back in 2009 about the guy with the apartment full of girl dolls of just the sort Kaname wants. More recently, of course, we have the tale of the man who married his favorite dating sim character.  These examples, too, though much more recent, also appear to take place, like the crisis in Tanizaki's novel, at the intersection of Japanese culture and modernity.  Somebody more competent and learned than me will have to figure out what that means, though if memory serves, Susan Napier in her Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke proposes that some of the goofy fanboy fantasies are the result of men's anxiety over trying to relate to modern women.  Whether there's much merit to that or not, I can't claim to know.

At any rate, final verdict:  Booorrrinng.
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