Save for the occasional academic non-fiction, I do not read newly-published books: I tend to prefer my authors long cold into the ground. A few tomes on the perennial “Japan Experience” managed to escape this rule over the past decade, but even that came to an end quickly: only so many times you can read lurid first-person recounts of Roppongi debauchery1, to say nothing of these self-annointed experts on Japanese society who think their two years teaching their sub-par English to bored housewives and excitable twenty-year olds with a Western fetish make them the new Levi-Strauss of the orient.
Yet not only did I read Hi, my name is Loco and I am a racist, but I purchased it as one of them newfangled “e-book” thing the kids are all about. And I hate reading more than a dozen paragraphs on any support other than dead trees (freshly-tanned baby seal leather parchment will do, in a pinch). Fuck your iPad: if I wanted text to glow at me, I’d read my books over a 300W lightbulb. Now get off my lawn you damn kids.
I read it because I was curious as to what could cause these endless ripples across that tiny pond of an English-speaking Japan blogosphere2. Also because it seemed to touch on a somewhat original topic (OK: not that original, just slightly more than “them crazy Japanese and their crazy gadgets”), coming from an unordinary standpoint. That and the author’s blog is a good read (though it’s turned into more of a showroom for the book now).
My five quids and few hours of commute spent squinting over my iPhone technically entitle me to a reasonable amount of whining, bickering and/or mad praise over the book’s contents, but writing this “review” feels a bit weird. Partly might have to do with the feeling of proximity created by the whole blog thing, or the high probability that I would one day bump into the author himself3 and even higher probability that he surpasses me by a few heads and many stones. Being mean on the Internet is so much easier when you are safe in the knowledge that you will never have to physically back up your words.
Additionally, there is the glaring irony of critiquing/criticising a man’s work, when nine years of archives (up to and most definitely including this present rambling of a post) can testify to my complete and utter inability to write. For the sake of this entry, please picture every single negative bit of text adorned with a big blinking neon sign reading some variation of “oh the irony”. Perhaps also a looped movie clip featuring some Simpsons’ Comic Bookstoresque, greasy-haired, cheetos-incrusted, basement-dwelling blogger moaning “Worst. book. ever”4.
Right, on to the book then.
First with the sugar-coating:
It is not bad. Overall very readable and, as previously hinted, somewhat more ambitious than the vast majority of trite “My Year in Japan” diaries out there.
It is also not that great. And quite irritating at times.
Along with some tightly-built, entertaining, sometimes downright moving5 chapters, also come way too many loosely-connected, repetitive, superficial rants on the nature of the author’s feelings toward Japanese, whities and racism in general. There are two clearly separated stories in that book: one is an experience of Japanese society through the eyes of an African-American, the other tells of growing up in still-quite-segregated NYC of the 70s/80s and dealing with issues of race, religion and communities. The latter topic was a lot more alien to me and therefore much more interesting, but in the end both parts suffered excessively from the heavy-handed attempt at merging them together. Not that there isn’t an interesting parallel to be drawn between the ways Japanese and Westerners (/Americans) handle racism in their respective society, but the task would require a lot more methodology and investment in the deeper understanding of both, in order to produce anything more than a very subjective, often questionable, string of pet theories on the matter.
Even less forgivable, was the sheer amount of thematic repetition across chapters. I get the idea of wanting to impress how shit keeps happening again and again and the sapping effect it will have on any normal person’s psyche, but there must be a less tedious way to achieve that. Leitmotivs are best left to plump big-chested aryan women singing about magic swords and dragons. I would venture a guess and say that this particularly glaring shortcoming is to blame on self-publishing: most professional publishers (and their editors) are assholes who could not tell great literature if it bit them in the ass with an Irish accent, but they serve a purpose beside their role as arbitrary (and increasingly irrelevant) gatekeepers to the world of Real Literature™: no amount of thorough re-reading and editing by your friends and acquaintances is any substitute for the merciless cuts a professional editor will drag you through, kicking and screaming like a helpless little bitch who ultimately want their book published. Sure, it might compromise your artistic integrity, but it will also keep a tight lid on the self-indulgent digressive ranting (see that neon blinking).
Also: fucking typos. Everywhere. Fix them. Repeated misuse of possessive for pronouns in casual online readings makes me want to strangle kittens6… In a book, I feel like the author just unbuttoned their pants and took a dump in the middle of the page. Again and again.
With the pleasantries out of the way, on to the stuff I do have a problem with…
- I worked there, I was there (and sober) when you “pulled that hot Japanese sex-kitten” and we both know she was 40, looked 60, probably a dude and her face covered in enough rice powder to make a dozen mochis. [↩]
- The guy is an inescapable one-man web marketing machine. And good on him for that. [↩]
- No matter how little interest one may have for expat ghettos, the Habsburgian level of inbreeding in local gaijin communities makes it a near-certainty that you will eventually meet, at least once, anything that speaks English and lives within sight of mount Fuji. [↩]
- Dig the self-cancelling meta-dorkery of that Simpsons reference, btw. [↩]
- veering a bit too far on the wrong side of corny for my taste, but what can I say: I am a heartless bastard. [↩]
- Yes, I don’t have a life. [↩]