The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

February 4, 2013

This National Book Award finalist and PEN/Faulkner Award Winner deserves the accolades it has gotten, particularly because there is so much depth in such a slim volume. Julie Otsuka found the perfect voice and narrative method to convey both the scope and the intimacy of the Japanese-American experience leading up to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The United States Supreme Court decision Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the discriminatory treatment of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government, ranks with the Dred Scott decision and Plessy v. Ferguson as one of the worst stains on that great institution. Otsuka’s elegant prose and deft use of first person plural narration drives home the human cost of the racially discriminatory military order that led to the rounding up of thousands of Japanese-Americans for no crime other than having Japanese ancestry.

These legal tangents are my own. I am an attorney and hold the Korematsu decision in low regard, as most lawyers do. The book, however, is concerned, first, with the immigrant experience and, only later, the personal toll taken by the suspicions and paranoia directed at United States citizens of Japanese descent during a time of war. The actual Korematsu decision plays no role in the book, but the connections resonated with me, putting flesh and face on those who suffered under the unjust policy and the failure of the Supreme Court, that “weakest branch”, to attempt even to moderate the tide of paranoia sweeping a nation at war.

Enough about Korematsu.

This exceptional novel begins on a boat which is carrying young Japanese women who are coming to America ostensibly to meet husbands, current or anticipated. The narration is not from any particular individual’s point of view, but is told using “we” and “us”. Through Otsuka’s deft writing, however, individuals are not lost but, somehow, magnified using this method.

Several of us on the boat had secrets, which we swore we would keep from our husbands for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the real reason we were sailing to America was to track down a long-lost father who had left the family years before.  He went to Wyoming to work in the coal mines and we never heard from him again.  Or perhaps we were leaving behind a young daughter who had been born to a man whose face we could now barely recall – a traveling storyteller who had spent a week in the village, or a wandering Buddhist priest who had stopped by the house late one night on his way to Mt. Fuji. And even though we know our parents would care for her well –  If you stay here in the village, they had warned us, you will never marry at all – we still felt guilty for having chosen our own life over hers, and on the boat we wept for her every night for many nights in a row and then one morning we woke up and dried our eyes and said, “That’s enough,” and began to think of other things. Which kimono to wear when we landed. How to fix our hair. What to say when we first saw him. Because we were on the boat now, the past was behind us, and there was no going back.

On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.

That last line not only stops this litany of secrets from blurring the varied experiences and individuals into a pitiable but somewhat The Buddha in the Atticamorphous lump, it ties the reader to the heartbreak of a single character with the crushingly evocative image of a young girl “utterly entranced”, as are we, by that lonely corpse.

There is more than sufficient hardship and heartbreak in the book and yet it never becomes maudlin. The characters are mostly optimistic, they have successes and failures. The fragility of life, so poignantly evoked by that dead, floating bee, comes through elsewhere as well and not only with regard to children, but also to matters of romance. These women were, after all, coming to America to join or find husbands:

One of us made the mistake of falling in love with him and still thinks of him night and day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who beat her with a broomstick and then lay down and wept. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who divorced her and sent her back to her parents in Japan, where she now works in a silk-reeling mill in Nagano for ten hours a day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who forgave her and then confessed to a few sins of his own. I have a second family up in Colusa. One of us said nothing to anyone and slowly lost her mind. One of us wrote home for advice to her mother, who always knew what to do, but never received a reply.

These little vignettes I’ve excepted show some of the power of Otsuka’s collective narration, but know also that there are longer portions dedicated primarily to individuals. There are recurring characters, all are not as anonymous as you may begin to think from the quotes I have chosen.

Otsuka has managed to do what great fiction does, she shows us the world in a new light, in a way that engages both mind and emotion. The themes manage to be both universal – death, loss, and man’s refusal to succumb willingly to the crushing weight of life — and to be intimately specific – a mother’s last memory of her child: a three year-old by a puddle contemplating death as her mother leaves forever.

The Buddha in the Attic is both an impactful narrative and an exquisite glimpse inside the lives of an entire community under extreme pressures, both internal and external. Otsuka has achieved brilliance. She has also won a fan.


Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

May 1, 2012

I have already griped about some of the slips of detail in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel. Errors of detail shake the trust an author must have from her readers. I was shaken by some of Ward’s specifics, but stirred by others.

The beautiful evocations of late childhood in Salvage the Bones offset the mistakes of tractors that drive like cars and oddly formal playground basketball. Ward deftly sculpts mental images of those things she knows best.

A fifteen year-old* girl named Esch narrates this novel of a struggling black family in rural Mississippi. The family consists of four children (Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior; three boys and a girl) and two largely absent parents. Esch’s mother died giving birth to the baby, Junior, and her father is usually unavailable in any productive sense due to perpetual drunkenness. With the tragedy of their mother’s death behind them by several years, we watch this kids as Hurricane Katrina, twelve days away at the start of the novel, looms ever larger over their lives.

The older siblings are all preoccupied with something outside the family: Randall is trying to obtain a basketball scholarship, Skeetah’s pet pit bull (China) is pregnant, Esch is in love with and pregnant by a handsome boy named Manny. Junior tags along with whoever will let him.

Ward captures sibling dynamics and the harshness of life for Esch and her brothers while capturing the bigness of teenage life, as it is experienced by teens, at least. When the older kids and some friends go camping, Skeetah shoots a squirrel for dinner. At the campsite, Skeetah butchers the small animal. He starts by cutting off the head, then:

He pitches the head into the underbrush like a ball…

On an adventure to a nearby farm, the reader feels like he too is crouching on the edge of the pasture watching Skeetah making his way past cows to a barn. Memories of playing in sheets hung on a clothesline feel almost like the reader’s own:

Mama washed all the sheets for both houses at once, and there was so much bedding that Daddy had to hand extra lines…The sheets were so thin we could almost see through them. They made cloudy rooms, and we played hide-and-seek in them. In the winter, they made our faces wet and achingly cold, but in the summer, it was so hot the sheets didn’t stay wet long, but we smashed our faces into them anyway, trying to find the hidden cool….[W]e let our hands hover over them, shoved our noses into them to see if we could see the other person running down the next billowing hallway.

There is much to love about this book. The characters are very strong. Esch and her siblings are excellently round characters. Skeetah, particularly, strolls out of the book as a fully formed person. Ward has great talent.

Despite my praise, I do feel the need to point out that there were aspects I found distracting (small details amiss), the sort of thing that tips off inhabitants of The Matrix to the artificiality of their world. Not everyone notices, of course. The strengths of characterization and story, which are considerable, override the minor failings for many. Shoehorning the story into twelve days did not work so well for me and gave too much focus to the hurricane. This is not a “Hurricane Katrina” book. I think the book would be stronger if it placed less focus on the storm.

It is not a perfect book. I liked it, though. I loved it best when it was about kids making their way in a teenage world or remembering a few short years ago when they were playing in “billowing hallways”. This is not the “Great American Novel”, but, if you read it, the characters are so real that you will genuinely hurt along with them.

*The promotional materials say “she’s fourteen”, but the math does not seem to work. Junior “is seven, and he is curious” while Esch was “eight [and] of no help” when her mother dies giving birth to Junior. Esch cannot be fourteen because she must turn fifteen on or before Junior’s seventh birthday (on his first birthday, she had to be nine, etc.). (This is also the summer after her tenth-grade year which, ordinarly, means an American student is fifteen or sixteen.) Bloomsbury how can you not know the age of the protagonist of the novel you publish?


Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

January 20, 2010

Colum McCann won the National Book Award for this book. The fact does not scream injustice. This is a very nice book. It is well-written; it has a serviceable central metaphor. I doubt more than a few have been offended by it. It is not controversial. It takes no real risks. This book does not feel like a walk on a tightrope, but seems firmly planted on safe narrative territory.

The collection of storylines is, as has been pointed out before, reminiscent of the technique used in the movies Crash, Babel, and Traffic. Each of the storylines is connected to Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers in 1974 which is used as a metaphor throughout. In discussing the novel, McCann has stated “that the metaphor translates well into the real-life experiences of people everywhere, as he believes that all are in some sense walking their lives on a tightrope, with equally high stakes, only most people’s tight-ropes are not quite as sensational or dramatic, and are concealed to most, being only 1” off the ground.”

The stakes, though, are not the same for everyone. Some people really do play a game of higher stakes, others play it safe. Despite crafting the novel as a convergence on a single point, McCann takes no real risks here. He even gives prime real estate to a hooker with a caring heart, though she disclaims any such goodness:

Some of these assholes think you got a heart of gold. No one’s got a heart of gold. I don’t got no heart of gold, no way. Not even Corrie. Even Corrie went for that Spanish broad with the dumb little tattoo on her ankle.

She has a soft spot for her granddaughters, the priest, and the poetry of Rumi. She is extremely remorseful regarding her failures as a mother and tries to make up for those failings. Yes, it may be true that no one has a heart of gold, but Tillie is what people mean when they talk about the golden-hearted hooker. She means well. She makes bad choices, she has been a disaster as a parent, and she loves people. She is too damaged and flawed to make good choices, but she means to do right by those with whom she interacts. Perhaps to reassure the reader, she is more the victim than the perpetrator with respect to the central crime in her storyline. We see enough of her flaws not to groan, but neither is she a risky departure from the set type.

Throughout the novel, there is a failure to take risks with characters. The computer hacker is nerdy and awkward with women; the artist is a flaky narcissist; the judge is a supercilious striver; the grieving wealthy mother and the grieving working class mother fit their roles in familiar ways. In short, while the characters are not simply stereotypical caricatures, neither are they particularly original. Partly, this is a consequence, no doubt, of the fact that most people are not terribly original. Partly, it is a consequence of McCann keeping his tightrope close to the ground.

My own lack of enthusiasm for this otherwise fine novel may be due to having recently read: The Vagrants which questions on a much deeper level the issue of whether caring intentions, unbending principles, or pragmatism are ever properly labeled “good” or “evil” outside of context; Summertime which delves deeply into a single character through multiple perspectives with much more originality; and Pnin, the language of which outshines McCann’s very fine but not breathtaking prose. In each of these works, the authors mixed in the unexpected and took risks, quite successfully in at least two of the three. McCann’s revelations slide into place smoothly but not surprisingly.

For instance, inspired by a photo of the daredevil, McCann writes:

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.

There are nice touches here such as the multiple layers to the sentence starting “One small scrap…” Even so, there is no jolt, no epiphany. Mostly, this book is an elegant statement of things we already know and, mostly, know we know.

The tricks McCann pulls on his low slung tightrope are skillful and entertaining. Kimbofo at Reading Matters and Kevin of KFC fame both pull representative quotes that demonstrate some of the beauty of McCann’s language. In all, this is a good book. It is nice. It is enjoyable. It is not a book for the ages. Kevin accurately summarized the feeling of having read it when he described it as “2009’s version of Netherland”.