Monday, February 20, 2017

What did you do in the war, daddy?

Public Information by Rolf Margenau is a great shambling mess of a novel/memoir set mostly in Korea during the last six months of the war and the ten months after—the sixteen months, I suspect, of the author's tour of duty. We follow Wylie Cypher through basic training and into the "53rd Infantry Division" and his job as a public information officer with detours through the stories of a North Korean conscript, an American prisoner of war, and a small unit action that's now taught at West Point.

Although the book is all Army, these are Marines,
Given that there was no "53rd Infantry Division" in Korea, the potted unit history Margenau supplies and other internal evidence, I suspect he was actually assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, the unit in which I myself spent sixteen months shortly after the war. Our tours did not overlap, but I could identify with many of the book's incidents. For example, walking in Seoul one day, Wylie meets three young Korean teenager who skillfully strip him of the pen in his breast pocket; I lost a good Parker pen the same way.

So. I found much to admire in Public Information. Wylie's experience of basic training, how he happens to end up in the infantry rather than the Army Language School for which he enlisted, the taste of combat, the routine military screwups, his work as—essentially—a public relations man for the unit with an Army censor reading all his copy, the mud and stink of Korea and domestic chaos when the fighting finally stopped all have the ring of lived experience.

The book reminded me of expressions and events I have not thought about for years. Someone says: "You're SOL if you think . . ." SOL = Shit Out of Luck.

—In the small unit action: "Martinez saved one of [the dead] Carson's dog tags, leaving the other one around Carson's neck." Perhaps, but my dog tags had a notch so they could be jammed into my teeth and not be separated from my body.

—Wiley is told to show up at Thai headquarters in Korea in his Class A uniform. We didn't have Class A—dress—uniforms when I was in Korea.

—For a radio interview to be played for the folks back home, a PIO reporter asks a BAR man how he likes his job (BAR = Browning Automatic Rifle, a kind of machine gun). "It's itchie bon," he says, a GI bastardization of the Japanese for "number one."

For all the pleasures Public Information gave me, I also found it a mess. It needed a good editor. Wylie's occasional letters home add little to the story or to the character and so are lost opportunities. And while I trust most of the military anecdotes Margenau tells from Wylie's point of view—and that Wylie's experience as a reporter could have framed others—I had a hard time believing the subplot of the North Korean conscript/POW/nephew of a South Korean mob boss, a story Wylie could not have learned directly.

Midway through the book, Wylie becomes romantically involved with the lovely red-haired daughter of a missionary who is establishing an orphanage for Korean orphans and the bastard children of GIs who could not be accepted into Korean society. Amelia initiates the sex, and, although Wylie has a girl waiting for him back in New Jersey, he embarks on a rapturous affair with her in the orphanage and on R&R in Japan.

I have a sense that Margenau felt (or was told) that he had to have a romance in his book to make it popular and, rather than write another Madam Butterfly or Sayonara (James Michener's story of doomed love in Japan during the Korean War) and to have Wylie fall in hopeless love with a beautiful, passionate South Korean woman, he invented a beautiful, passionate, selfless American missionary's daughter.

Public Information is long, 424 pages. The second edition, which I read, "incorporates newly discovered information . . . and incidents reported by veteran readers." This reader would have been happier with a tighter book, one that stayed with Wylie Cypher throughout, and limited itself to the incidents Margenau experienced personally or could flesh out as Wylie learned about them directly. If you know nothing about the US Army in 1953/54 and nothing about the Korean War, Public Information is filled with nuggets of information. You just have to know how to pick them out.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Money problems, family lineage, and a marriage gone sour

Minae Mizumura is an important Japanese author, three of whose books have been translated into English: A True Novel, which I reviewed earlier in this blog, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which the Columbia University Press published in 2015, and Inheritance from Mother, which the Other Press is publishing in May 2017.

Mizumura was born in Tokyo, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve. She after studying fine art in Boston and then lived in Paris, she studied French literature at Yale College and Yale Graduate School. While a graduate student, Mizumura published "Renunciation," a critical essay on the work of literary critic Paul de Man. The essay is often cited as one of the earliest contributions toward a comprehensive study of de Man's writings. Upon finishing her M.Phil. program, Mizumura returned to Japan to write fiction in Japanese. She has taught modern Japanese literature at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and Stanford, and has been a resident novelist in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Inheritance from Mother, whose Japanese title includes "—A Newspaper Novel," is a 66-chapter, 448-page fiction Mizumura wrote as a weekly newspaper serial. In Part One, Mitsuki Katsura is a Japanese woman in her mid-fifties who works as a French language instructor at a private university in Tokyo and who cares for her terminally-ill mother until she finally—finally!—dies. It is not an easy death (the mother is not going gently into that good night) and Mitsuki must also deal with her flighty, wealthy older sister and her professor husband who is teaching in Vietnam while having an affair with his current lover. In Part Two, Mitsuki retreats to a lake-front hotel in Hakone, the historic mountain resort south of Tokyo, where she contemplates her impending divorce, her mother's legacy, and her impending independence.

In the course of the novel, impressively translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, we learn a great deal about ordinary, middle-class Japanese life while simultaneously seeing the society and their personal situation through the eyes of well-defined individuals—a neat trick. With an aging population, how are the Japanese coping? What are the effects of class, rank, and education on familial obligations, marriage, aging? What remains of traditional Japanese life and attitudes toward death, dying, divorce? For Mitsuke, "After giving the matter a great deal of thought, she decided that even if she did not go through with the divorce, facing squarely the fact that her marriage had been a failure was the least she could do to live out her life with dignity."

In addition to Mitsuke's interactions with her dying mother and feckless sister, a pleasure of Inheritance from Mother is an observation like:

"Western novels made much of love and lovers, an influence that came to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West. Although the eponymous hero of the classic Tale of Genji was known for his amorous adventures, in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many—certainly less central than the change of seasons. The Western novels that had reached Japan in the last century and a half were almost all romance novels, transforming Japanese readers—especially women—into romantics. Women became more particular. They grew discontented with the husbands chosen for them by parent, relatives, or neighbors, longing like Emma [Bovary] for someone to whisper thrilling words of love . . ."

And in an interesting comment about serial newspaper novels in a serial newspaper novel, Mizumura writes, "If the content of serial novels was no longer as impressive as it had been, neither was the style, which had often been of a rare sophistication . . . Over the course of a century, as newspapers increasingly became part of every household's morning ritual, subscribers were exposed no only to novels patterned after western novels, singing of amour and amants but to articles full of new words translated from the West, among them words for 'democracy,' 'individual,' and 'liberty." Gradually, newspapers shaped a new language and a new breed of Japanese people."

I hope I have not given a distorted impression of the novel by these quotes. Inheritance from Mother, as a Japanese reviewer wrote, is filled with "human longings and hatreds; beauty and ugliness; grace and vulgarity; money problems, family lineage, and a marriage gone sour; sickness and old age. The author's adeptness in dealing fully with a plethora of such themes in simply scary." I can only concur and recommend the book.