Sunday, July 29, 2012

Japanland by Karin Muller

In Japanland, Karin Muller joins a crowd of Westerners (including, I should acknowledge up front, myself) who want to describe Japan.

She subtitles her book "A Year in Search of Wa." My dictionary gives one definition of "wa" as peace; harmony; concord; unity; union. One of the example sentences is "Harmony among people is most important."

In her preface, Muller says that she was 34, been married, divorced, blown through a half dozen careers, learned six languages and forgotten three, but there was only one place where her worries would temporarily disappear: a judo academy. "Most of my instructors were Japaneses; and they approached judo with a sense of utter dedication to perfecting a profoundly difficult art." She decided that if she went to Japan she could find peace and happiness. She could obtain wa.

Or that's the rational she gives. Actually, she went to Japan to make a documentary that was, I'm told, shown on PBS. And because she's there to make a video, she is looking for the off-beat, the colorful, the unfamiliar Japan—scenes that will entertain an American television audience. At the same time, she wants to explain Japanese culture:

Executives retire at 60 and their wives, who have been in charge of the house and the children, don't know what to do with them.

Adult daughters live at home as "parasites" until they get married. They have to marry by age 30 or they become "Christmas cake," something that has no value after December 25.

The majority of marriages are still arranged.

Japan is filled with colorful festivals and traditions. She goes to one where young men go for a naked New Year's Eve swim in the Pacific that turns out badly for her; climbing back from her own midnight swim, "I feel my body stiffening like a piece of roadkill after the sun goes down."

Because I am currently writing a novel tentatively titled Mt. Koya, I was particularly interested in what Muller had to say about her visit to the sacred spot. I'm afraid I found the brief chapter (most of the chapters are brief) superficial and condescending. She does not find wa (and Mt. Koya with its emphasis on meditative practice is probably a better place to find it than dressing up as a geisha which she does), but she takes a wrong turn in the temple in which she's been staying and finds  the student monk rooms. "They are anything but austere—in fact, they look like miniature versions of a college dorm."

I thought Japanland was fun but not as a guide to finding wa or learning about Japan. Muller is hard on herself--she is regularly thrown to the mat in her judo sessions; she so offends her host family's matron she's driven from the house; she comes down with pneumonia on a pilgrimage to the 88 temples on Shikoku. But the book's title, I think, suggests her attitude toward the country. It's not really a culture, a society, a place with real people living real lives. It's an amusement park fill with colorful, often charming, sights. That's what she looked for and that's what she found.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is not Harry Potter for adults. This is for adults, however.  Unfortunately, I am not one of the adults it is for.

The magician is Quentin Coldwater (something he tends to throw on every happy experience). He is finishing high school as the book opens but rather than go to Princeton, he is admitted to a school for magicians where he learns real magic—sort of an American Hogwarts on the Hudson. Quentin has always been fascinated by a series of children's books in which four English siblings go to a magical land which is not called Narnia, in the last quarter of The Magicians Quentin and five friends find their way to it where, among others, they meet a talking bear and a talking tree.

A quick look at the Amazon reviews (176 five-star / 98 one-star) suggests that many of the people  who rated it highly liked for the very reasons the people who rated it one-star hated it. For example: "... Quentin is full of his own shortcomings and dichotomies. He's a brilliant, troubled man, searching as much for himself as anything else, and makes some bad decisions throughout the course of the novel. Midway through the novel, Quentin is let loose into the world with little direction, near limitless access to money and drugs, and all his relationships falling to pieces around him. This period of the novel was difficult to read, as Quentin becomes unlikable and brash and confused, deserving little sympathy from the reader [who] often wonders why they should even bother reading on, if there are any redeeming qualities left in Quentin...Grossman is very deliberate in this emotional breakdown of his protagonist, and it plays an important role in Quentin finding the motivation he needs to remove himself from the downward spiral."

To me, Grossman is writing against every fantasy novel, from Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, The Lord of the Rings, and beyond. He's out to claim that while magic is real—it is possible to be turned into a goose, to create a protective spell and go to the moon, to manipulate this physical world, and to travel to an alternate reality—it's not very rewarding or satisfying. It's a lot of hard, nasty work and it's not much when you've done it. Even after you've trained to use all these powers, the best you can do with your life—given that you have unlimited money and freedom—is party, get drunk, do drugs, and recover enough for the next party. So you think you can escape your dull, boring life? Forget it.

I read the book to the end, which turned out to be a mistake because Grossman ends with a cliffhanger to promote the next book in the series. I'm afraid I come down on the side of those readers who found Quentin unlikable, brash, confused, and deserving little sympathy—and certainly not worth reading another word about.