Does the author matter?
This was the primary question I struggled with while writing this review of In Appropriate, the first work of fiction from Debito Arudou. The author will be well-known to readers of his regular Just Be Cause columns in an independent English daily in Japan. A US-born, naturalized Japanese citizen, Arudou was formerly an associate professor teaching English to Japanese students at a small private university in Hokkaido; he is now in Hawaii for research purposes.
Arudou is more well-known for his role of social activist, fighting for equal rights of non-Japanese living in Japan. Indeed, the first of Arudou's two non-fiction books was devoted solely to his first and largest case, the Otaru onsen case (Japanese Only: The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan). The book details Arudou's successful lawsuit against a Hokkaido onsen after being denied entry based on his foreign appearance. His second non-fiction book was an in-depth handbook for newcomers to Japan (Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan, co-authored with Akira Higuchi). In Appropriate is Arudou's first work of fiction.
Certainly with non-fiction writing, readers reasonably want to know more about the author. Has he or she written anything else? What are the author's overall views on the subject? Is the author an expert in the field? Who is paying for the work? What possible bias might be involved? All reasonable questions that at first glance would not seem to apply to fiction. Surely in a work of fiction, the story should be allowed to stand on its own.
And yet, we are always fascinated with the personal lives of authors and writers and singers. This goes beyond just the Entertainment Tonight-esque Hollywood gossip of who's dating who. Fans love reading slice-of-life stories about their favorite author or actor; we want to dig deeper, to unravel what experiences and aspects of the author's life made their way into our favorite book, our favorite song, our favorite painting.
In the case of non-fiction, one could say that wanting to know more about the author is reasonable, perhaps even necessary, to judge the book's objectivity, authenticity, and accuracy. With fiction, one could argue that the author is - while perhaps of great interest to fans - ultimately irrelevant to the quality of the story.
This, however, is where I ran into a problem. Arudou does clearly state that this is a work of fiction. However, he also goes to great lengths to stress that the story and historical events as portrayed in the book are authentic and accurate (based on real events, including from his own personal experience). Further, the end of the book includes a couple of pages devoted to his website, debito.org, which primarily acts as the headquarters for his activist work. It was this specific and deliberate blurring of the line between the book as a simple work of fiction and the book as a tool in promoting the author's activist role that forced me to take a closer look at the book and the story.
The book tells the tale of Gary Schmidt, a small-town boy from Georgia. Gary begins dating a Japanese exchange student at his local community college and eventually moves to Japan with her after she gets pregnant. At first, all appears to go well: he finds lucrative work as an English teacher, his wife has a second child, he is able to open up his own English conversation school, and he even takes on Japanese citizenship. However, his work gradually dries up in tandem with Japan's slow economic post-Bubble decline. Facing rising tensions with his conservative father-in-law and increasingly dour work prospects, Gary decides to move back to the US. The rest of the book details the opposition to this plan from his wife's family and resulting acrimonious divorce, and culminates with his attempt at abducting his children back to the US.
The story of course bears no small resemblance to the recent widely reported Chris Savoie child abduction case. Chris Savoie was arrested in Japan in 2009 on suspicion of kidnapping while trying to enter the US consulate with his children after his ex-wife (in violation of a US court order) returned to Japan with the children. There are numerous similarities: Both Savoie and Gary are southern US-born, naturalized Japanese citizens. Both fathers go to Japan in an attempt to bring their children back to the US. Both are arrested trying to enter the US consulate in Fukuoka with their children.
Certainly child abduction is no trivial matter, and Arudou's plot holds great promise. There was enormous potential for a deep, moving portrait of how families cope with international marriages and divorces. Sadly, In Appropriate suffers on a number of levels.
Firstly, the book is littered with errors and inconsistencies. Arudou notes that he found writing fiction 'easy', and says that he wrote the entire book in less than a week. Unfortunately, it shows: the book is badly in need of an editor (and as is often said: easy writing makes for damn hard reading). At various times in the book the main character forgets how old he is, forgets that he's never been to Tokyo, and forgets how many times he's made the transpacific flight (once). Many of the factual errors are childishly basic that could have been avoided with the most casual of fact-checking.
Other errors are more problematic: Gary takes on Japanese citizenship because of a 'legal requirement to have a Japanese on the board of directors' of the eikaiwa school he is setting up. But this is completely wrong; the only requirement is that at least one of the directors must have an address in, and be a resident of, Japan. If that person is a foreigner, there are some mild restrictions on visa status, but no restrictions if your visa does not restrict your work activity.
Neither does the story gain many points in authenticity. Upon arriving in Japan, Gary finds a job teaching English within three days and within a year is making $10,000 a month. While English teachers were no doubt making reasonably good money even in the early post-Bubble days - particularly given the lack of experience or actual skill needed to land an eikaiwa job - it is a massive stretch to suggest that English teachers were raking in four times the national average less than year after arriving. This high English teacher salary is used to establish Gary's credentials as an 'entrepreneur' with 'prodigious business initiative', which in turn is used by Gary to justify his decision to return to the US, yet even ignoring the fantasy-land income, it hard to see how renting a room to talk in English to Japanese housewives equates to being an 'entrepreneur'.
But by far the biggest problem with In Appropriate ties in to the issue of separating the author from the story. As an activist, Arudou fights for equal treatment for all in Japan, yet In Appropriate is shockingly one-sided and heavy-handed in the treatment of Japan and the Japanese characters. In fact, it is no stretch to say that there isn't a remotely likable Japanese character in the book; the Japanese men are sinister, mean-spirited racists, Japanese women alternate back and forth between being passive robots and sex maniacs.
It is almost impossible to like the main character: Gary starts out a red-neck racist - he never learned French or Spanish in high school 'because he has no use for frog or beaner talk'. His main initial interest in the Japanese exchange students is a bet with his other red-neck friends ('He had plenty of T&A in town and environs, but had never tapped Asian' 'Fifty bucks went to the first person to produce Japanese panties, verifiably scented with poon tang').
Normally, this would set us up for a nice development arch: How dating a foreigner and living overseas shapes him, helps him grow as a person, helps him see the good and bad in his new and native country, while also coming to understand his own strengths and weaknesses. That doesn't happen here; there is no soul-searching, no self-discovery. The story essentially starts and ends with the main character chasing Asian skirt, a flat, one-dimensional character. There was enormous potential to explore any number of fascinating issues. Most interesting to me would have been what goes into the decision to take on the nationality of another country; I was very disappointed to see this topic get such casual treatment.
Even more troublesome was the book's main subject: child abduction. The problem is that it was almost impossible to work up any sympathy for Gary and his plight. In the book, Gary's children have never set foot outside of Japan. They know no life other than in Japan, yet Gary - after making no real attempt to at least get visitation rights following his divorce - sees no problem with literally abducting the children and running away to the US, a foreign land where his children had never lived, knew nobody, and didn't speak a word of the language.
Even allowing for this as the plot in a work of fiction, it would have been much better if Gary had at least agonized over the moral issues involved. Gary never even thinks about the fact that he's completely cutting off the children from their mother, for instance. Do two wrongs make a right? Is he really 'rescuing' his children from an unbearable situation? As a single dad in a country he's never set foot in as an adult, as a college drop out and only 15 years as an English teacher on his resume, will his children really be better of in the US? None of this is mentioned or discussed; instead, Gary rationalizes his decision by saying that he's 'ready to be SuperDad', rescuing his children from the 'racist, oppressive atmosphere'.
Herein lies the second major problem: by writing in third-person omniscient, the narrator has a god-like perspective, and is thus able to apply reasons and motives to every person for every action. The result is that Gary comes across as always being pure and noble in his motives, while the motive for every single Japanese character is evil and racist, such as when Gary's wife objects to his idea of moving back to the US 'because there are guns and black people'.
To make matters worse, for a book this short - only 140-odd pages - far too much time is spent on endless background information on the economy, the eikaiwa system, Japan's penal code. If this much background detail was going to be given, the book needed to be much, much longer to fully flesh out the Japanese characters and make them a bit more human. Surely a father can not like the idea of his daughter marrying some unemployed college drop-out American who doesn't speak a word of Japanese without being racist. Certainly a wife can be against the idea of relocating to a country she barely knows and where her husband's work prospects are dim at best without being racist or irrational.
The story cries for some nuance and shape, but sadly the characters never even develop beyond cardboard cut-outs of stereotypes. And the sad truth is that Gary never develops into a likable person, mainly because we see nothing in the book that suggests that he works at being a good father, husband, or son-in-law. Gary barely remembers his mother-in-law's name. When work is slow at the eikaiwa school for days on end, Gary spends the time surfing the net and hooking up with friends back home, even as he notes that he is missing his son's and daughter's childhood. Despite the father-in-law keeping Gary's eikaiwa school afloat with frequent cash infusions, we see no signs that Gary is appreciative or that he realizes that perhaps his 'prodigious business initiative' wasn't quite as prodigious as he thought.
The book is not without its high points. The plot device itself is deftly handled; the present day plot is neatly intertwined with back-story material. There are sections that are quite well-written; Gary's frantic dash to the Fukuoka consulate was tight, taut writing with excellent pace - regardless of what you thought about Gary's motives and whether he was morally in the right or not, no father could read that section without getting a lump in the throat.
Sadly, these sections are the exception. Rather than write in fine nuances and grays, it is unfortunate that Arudou chose to write with a sledgehammer instead, because there is definitely an interesting story lurking underneath. The crash of the bubble economy, the Kobe earthquake and Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack, the Asia Financial Crisis and crash of Yamaichi, PM Koizumi and (short-lived, alas) signs that Japan's younger population might grow an interest in politics....the last 20-odd years would make for a fascinating backdrop for a story on the internationalization of Japan and what it means for families and children of international marriages.
Instead, I suspect that Arudou's focus was not on the plot or character development, but instead was on trying to make points already spelled out in ample detail on his website. As a result, In Appropriate comes across as an overly mean-spirited and one-sided affair that doesn't really work as fiction, and certainly goes against Arudou's activist mantra of 'fair treatment'.
Here's hoping he spends more than four days writing his next work of fiction.