Monday 22 August 2016

United States of Japan

& The Man in the High Castle
Peter Tieryas, 2016
(August 2016)

The first time I read The Man in the High Castle was way back, before I ever imagined I might end up living in Japan. Reading it a second time, it became apparent that there was a hell of a lot I missed, in terms of both the Japan-related stuff and just as a side-effect of being younger and dumber. The plan, however, was merely to refresh my memory before moving on to United States of Japan, which is something of a tribute/homage/reimagining of Dick’s seminal work. I wasn’t really going to talk much about the latter, except to the degree it informs USJ.

Unfortunately, however, reading the one directly after the other did the newer book no favours whatsoever. It’s often said of Dick that for all the brilliance of his ideas, has wasn’t up to much as a stylist. I’m not familiar with enough of his work to confirm or deny that, but the writing in MHC is, if not necessarily stylish, certainly very stylised. The voice of Mr Tagomi, the main Japanese character, is very distinctively rendered. For all that it does wander perilously close to Mr Yunioshi territory, it adroitly fulfils its role in marking the occupiers as apart from the occupied and, in the way the appeasing seller of antiques Childan mimics Tagomi’s idiolect, those Americans who are more or less sympathetic to their overlords. You can’t help but think of MaCauley’s quotes about the British rationale for education in colonial India, how its aims were to create a class who looked Indian, but thought and spoke like Englishmen.

This is the weight of history, both global and literary, that Tieryas is inviting himself to be measured against. Points for ambition, certainly. Less so for execution. To say that the style pales in comparison to Dick’s is almost beside the point. The style is virtually non-existent. Let us consider the opening lines:

   The death of the United States of America began with a series of signatures…

A little clunky perhaps: The death began? A series of signatures? Suitably dramatic as a first line though. Portentous. As to what it portends, well, we never find out. Those signatures (serial or otherwise) are never mentioned again. But we are as yet blissfully unaware of this. We trust the author will not tease us and leave us unfulfilled. We continue:

Twenty year-old [sic] Ruth Ishimura had no idea, imprisoned hundreds of mile [sic again] away in a prison camp for Americans of Japanese descent. The camp was made up of dilapidated barracks, poorly constructed guard posts, and a barbed fence that surrounded the perimeter. (p. 7)

It’s at this point that trust begins to waver. I’m not going to harp on about the missing hyphen and plural; proofreading mishaps happen to the best of us, though two in second sentence of the book hardly augurs well. More disconcerting is the bald use of ‘twenty-year-old’ as an adjective, which throws us straight into the most egregious regions of Telling Not Showing territory. We then get two forms of ‘prison’ in the same sentence, which would be inelegant enough even if it didn’t ignore the word ‘internment’ hanging there practically demanding to be used. To cap it all off, there’s a barbed fence (apparently absent its traditional wire. Is this an American English thing? Or maybe it refers to a man who sells you stolen goods while making snide comments about your fashion choices, I dunno), which doesn’t just form the perimeter, but surrounds it. At this point we’re barely half-way through the first paragraph, and we’re already buckling ourselves in for a rough ride ahead.

The point at which I gave up on the style completely, however, was the second chapter. In this alternate history Japan occupies the west coast of America, having been the first nation to figure out the atomic bomb, which it then promptly dropped on San Jose. In the aftermath duodecadal Ruth finds herself in a field hospital for the wounded, and the writing here reminds me of nothing so much as the infamous ‘A Mother’s Lullaby’ lesson in New Horizon, the most widely-used junior high school English textbook series in Japan.

   On the morning of that day, a big bomb fell on the city of Hiroshima. Many people lost their lives, and many others were injured. They had burns all over their bodies. I was very sad when I saw those people…
   “Mommy! Mommy!” the boy cried.
   “Don’t cry,” the girl said. “Mommy is here.” Then she began to sing…
   “Be a good boy,” said the girl. “You’ll be all right.” She held the boy more tightly and began to sing again.
   After a while the boy stopped crying and quietly died.
(‘A Mother’s Lullaby’ New Horizon 3, pp. 33-35)

   A woman was holding her charred baby in her arms, refusing to let go. Multiple people cried out for missing family members. A young girl had most of her hair burned off and her left eye hanging where her nose should have been
(United States of Japan p. 20)

I’m not about to slate anyone for failing to adequate capture the atrocity of nuclear holocaust. As someone who has read (and indeed co-translated) a fair amount of hibakusha testimony it’s frankly unfair to make comparisons on that score; there is no way any fiction could realise the horror of the lived experience. And I’m certainly not about to get into the politics and ideology of the appearance of these passages in a middle school foreign language textbook, ‘cause that’s a whole other can of worms right there. No, the real point of comparison I want to make here is that New Horizon is aimed at low-level EFL students; beginners in all but name. This means simple vocabulary, basic grammar, and direct exposition which leaves absolutely no room for ambiguity, misunderstanding, or reader interpretation. While these are all necessary traits in a children’s entry-level textbook, they are far less desirable in a work of fiction aimed at fluent adults and with pretentions to nuance. Just to give one example of this, Tieryas has a habit of opening chapters with an infodump paragraph abusing the hell out of the verb be: A thing was here. Another thing was there. More things were existing in a place. Others were also existing in other places. At one point I counted five straight instances in which be was the main verb of a declarative sentence. I would humbly suggest that elegant variation should apply to syntax as well as semantics.

On the latter score at least, an effort is occasionally made. Unfortunately, the book’s random forays into self-consciously high-falutin’ and bizarrely precise technical vocabulary (lest we fail to appreciate that we’re reading Proper SF) only serve to highlight the already conspicuous lack of linguistic grace:

   They took shots of sake until erythema imbibed their faces red with acetaldehyde. (p. 43)

Which means they got shitfaced. I think. If we simplify the vocabulary to a less ostentatiously awkward level, we can see more clearly that this sentence seems fundamentally confused about cause and effect. They took shots of sake until a skin reaction drank their faces red with an alcohol by-product. Even allowing for metaphorical use of drank/imbibed, this is very odd. (Acetaldehyde, for what it’s worth, is colourless, and imbibed, imbued, and infused are different words with different meanings.) It’s also ugly. Really, really ugly.

The sum effect of all this is that, just as we as readers learn not to place too much trust in the author, it becomes clear that the author has essentially no trust in us. I realise I’m perhaps better equipped than the target audience in terms of Japanese linguistic and cultural knowledge, but practically every detail of the cultural worldbuilding is explained to death as and when it’s introduced. Even to the point of interrupting characters’ reported speech to offer glosses in both the narrative voice and parentheses. Parentheses, for fuck’s sake.

   “Our EKS industry,” (Electric Kikkai System), “is booming, and, despite attempts by German Minister Goebbels…”
(p. 50)

Really? Were there really no less intrusive ways that utterly meaningless explanation for ‘EKS’ could have been achieved? I’d forgotten what the letters stood for before I’d even reached the end of the sentence and the impact of that on the rest of the story was zero. This happens a ridiculous number of times (i.e. more than zero, but by my count at least a dozen); another chapter gives us an arcade game which involves “… slashing at horrifying kami (spirits)” (p.110). Just call them fucking spirits and be done with it, eh? The English-Japanese dictionary gets abused to a depressing degree, because obviously we’re in danger of forgetting the Japan angle unless there’s a randomly italicised loanword every couple of pages: “No, you baka”, (p. 11); “She committed jigai to atone for her insolence”, (p. 83); “…placing a rolled wad of yen into the man’s hand”, (p.130). There is a definite political dimension to italicising words that aren’t generally (yet) accepted as English, but that yen was the point at which I realised the italicisation policy here wasn’t political, just slapdash.

All this is exactly the kind of stuff that those “Ten Writing Pitfalls to Avoid” listicles caution directly against, and while there can be very good reasons to ignore any and all of their edicts, there are also excellent reasons they exist in the first place. In United States of Japan we are allowed to discover nothing about the characters’ emotions or thoughts that isn’t directly dictated to us by the author. This author is not dead (he’s not even resting), he’s very much alive and determined that we should know it. The upshot of this is that there is no point imagining how a character might feel about a situation, with all the reaching for human connection that necessarily involves, because you know you’re going to get told in the next goddamn sentence anyway. Akiko makes a terse and awkward phone call. She hangs up and looks away from her dinner partner. Why would she do this? What does this simple action reveal about her emotional state? Let’s take moment to project ourselves inside her head and consider how she…

…she looked away, clearly preoccupied by a troubling thought. (p.77)

Oh. Well, never mind. Not so ‘clearly’ that it didn’t need to be explicitly spelled out for us, it would seem. This cussed refusal of the narrative voice to cede interpretive authority inserts a wholly unnecessary barrier between the characters and the reader, leaving us no room to infer anything about their inner lives. It’s a puppet show and you can see the strings, which means that you invest all the care in them that you would a personified block of wood.
Akiko, I guess I should relate, is one of the two main characters of the novel, along with Beniko. She is a remorseless secret police agent who’s hardened her heart to all but the glory of Emperor and Empire. Could she maybe learn to connect with her long-suppressed humanity? Who could possibly say? Meanwhile Ben is, apart from his age (39), one of the most transparent otaku wish-fulfilment characters I’ve read in a good long while: lazy yet comfortably well off, bumbling yet a hit with the ladies, carefree and pretty dim yet with plot-enablingly crucial 1337 h4x0r skillz. He heads up the subsection of the Japanese censor’s office in charge of, wait for it, video games.

In fairness, this last point is one of the smarter things about the book. In updating Dick’s work for the Pokémon generation, Tieryas has also updated the subversive media within the media, replacing the book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (which gets a nice little nod as a restaurant dish) with the underground video game United States of America. This is actually a brilliant way of conceptualising how we might adapt to the world as it might have been. What are games like Civilization if not interactive alternate histories? United States of America is an illegally modified war simulation, the original of which has come to be indispensable for the Japanese military. Towards the end of the book a character finds themselves bewildered at being beyond the parameters of their simulations, having to face the world as it actually is, and the potential for genuine profundity here is so close you can taste it. If the characters in MHC used the I Ching as their mediating device, to cope with their world by trying to look beyond it, then how much more could be said about virtual reality?

This is the greatest tragedy of United States of Japan, because the video game angle is far from the only neat conceptual trick it contains. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, most of these are about that mediation: how we frame our realities, how we allow them to be framed for us, or how we attempt to dig down to whatever passes for the truth below. Because the truth here is that underneath all that dreadful prose and wooden characterisation there’s a good novel desperately clawing to get out. It doesn’t shy away from questions of guilt and responsibility, and while the conversations the characters have about these subjects are massively telegraphed, the wider framing of them is very clever. Unlike MHC, USJ is told almost wholly from the victor’s perspective, and yet still the Japanese instruments of state are painted as vicious, bloodthirsty fanatics, obsessed with ideological purity above all else. While a lot of the atrocities discussed in the book were carried out by real-world Japan (The Rape of Nanking, Unit 731, etc.), an equal number were actions by the USA: The Bomb, obviously, but ‘enhanced interrogation’, indiscriminate destruction of villages in Vietnam, and I’m pretty sure US colonial conduct in the Philippines gets referenced as well. We are even prompted to feel sympathetic towards suicide bombers. This is quite subversive in itself; in grouping all these acts together as the responsibility of such an unambiguously horrific regime, Tieryas is able to critique the inhumanity of US conduct in a way that still appears taboo in mainstream American discourse.

At a more structural level, USJ focusses on the quest aspects of MHC, basically isolating and gender swapping the Julianna and Joe storyline (which might perhaps explain Beniko’s oddly feminine name and general passivity) while dialling down the metaphysics and dialling up the thriller, cyberpunk, and massive fighting robots aspects. The plotting as executed contains a fair few holes and pointless digressions (mainly involving those massive fighting robots), and can be a bit choppy in how it moves from A to B to C, but A, B and C are all where (if not exactly when) they should be in order to move the narrative along. When the story does finally kick into gear you can see what this might have been, and it’s heartbreaking. Beniko’s parents (one of whom is the aforementioned Ruth) appear briefly at the beginning and the end of the book, and the final scene is genuinely moving, perhaps because we’ve spent so little time being told how Ruth and her husband feel that there’s actually some space left for us to intuit their emotions for ourselves.

Looking around the SF blogosphere, this book seems to be garnering fairly unanimous, though not exactly rapturous, approval. In fact, the only reviews I could find that are in any way critical of the prose are Publishers Weekly’s (which is pretty damning in general) and Kameron Hurley’s, which only mentions it in passing. This kind of reinforces my suspicion that SF fans will tolerate some truly woeful writing as long as it delivers the requisite shiny shiny (or, increasingly, a blunt appeal to emotion). That being the case, while I certainly wouldn’t recommend United States of Japan, I can’t wholly condemn it either. The book contains a lot of important ideas that deserve wider engagement, and if it can effectively smuggle them in under the weeaboo radar then it will at least have achieved something of substance. It's a good thing that this book exists, less so that I decided to read it.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a book that you have read so I don't have to.

    Phillip K Dick's prose is stylised enough that it has been nicely imitated in Little Machines (Paul MacAuley.)