Thursday, June 30, 2011

Parting. Sweet. Sorrow.

Bear with me: at this eleventh hour, I feel compelled to attempt the complex task of fitting eight years of my life into a short essay. I wasn’t planning on doing this—the haphazard entry dating in my journal attesting that self-reflection, at least the kind organized on paper or screen in paragraph format, has not been my strong suit of late. When the personal life moves fast, rare is the indulgent hour in which the whirlwind can be tamed with coherence. And at this particular moment, the personal life is moving particularly fast.

I could tell you about watching my last sunset from a terrace I called home for more than five beautiful years but that would be getting ahead of myself. Rewinding some eight years ago, I first landed in Tokyo on the 27th of February, 2003. At the time I had not expected to stay long in Japan. Not a week into arrival, I had lucked upon representation for my first novel (any good news or career advancements in an artist’s life is 90% luck, 10% talent). My agents at the time were excited about my story, eager for it to make the rounds in large New York publishing houses. They were certain of imminent success. I imagined returning that summer as some kind of hero, feted by a literary community apologetic for overlooking me for so long. It seemed then my primary reason for leaving America in the first place—disgust with the direction of Bush America— had been misguided. Watching footage of the Iraq War my third week abroad, a war in which I’d marched in protest against, I felt the world I’d known (the one I had always felt comfortable writing about) needed my attention. After all, I had to come up with a story for my second book and being a fictionist interested in the social novel, I was confused how exactly I would do this away from America, embedded in a culture to which I had virtually no experience or genuine interest.

There it was, the ugly truth. I had none of the idiosyncratic curiosities that draw so many foreigners to Japan. I didn’t really care about karate or manga or ikebana or anime or video games or Zen gardening or kimonos or design or tea ceremony or karaoke or J Pop or kawaii culture. I didn’t know anything about the language, was not a huge fan of sashimi, and had no real yen for Japanese girls. What I liked was literature and cinema and though there were some great masters in both disciplines, I wasn’t avid enough a fan that it warranted relocating across the Pacific.

As I said, I’d wanted to get out of America— America and its corporate gangsters and its strip mall environmental character and its fanaticism with war and revenge— I found deplorable its rank materialism for her winners and dead-end cages for its losers. I’d wanted a break from all that, a place where I’d make enough money to travel. America might have been a horror show, but I craved a frame of reference, journeys within other cultures and figured that Japan, for all its recessionary gloom was a place I might make enough cash to fund adventure.

Some plans bear out, others don’t. My novel didn’t make the grade in New York and my agents and I eventually parted ways due to creative differences. It would take me nearly five years to compose my second novel. It takes place in India, a country I’ve visited five times. I have been extraordinarily fortunate for my travels (occasional lucrative bookings as well as commissions from a national travel magazine) but this story is not about India or my novels or even how things pan out exactly as you hoped (your career as a novelist excepted). It’s about Japan, particularly Tokyo, and the home I’ve made for myself.

Last Thursday, the 23rd of June, a moving van came to the apartment in Meguro I have shared with my girlfriend, Ariko, for more than five years. They took everything we needed to Kyoto, our new home city beginning this September. After a dinner at a local Thai restaurant we’ve enjoyed for years, Ariko left on the bullet train to manage the storage of our things on the other side. I have stayed on alone with just a backpack, a few books and items of clothes, a computer, and a ragged Thai cushion to sleep on. The areas uncovered by sofas, fridges, washing machines are amok with tufts of dust and undesirable matter. All that’s left of the pictures, drawings, charms, and mementoes on our wall is the tape’s sticky residue and a few thumbtacks. Our rock garden is bagged and boxed, the houseplants drinking Kansai water down south, the sofa where I’d loved to loll for the occasional afternoon nap, gone. There is no more music. The gas is off, the showers are cold, the pantries are bare. The air-con still works, as does the Internet, giving the place the feel of a squatter’s paradise. Home is as much about possessions and person as it is place and it’s hard sometimes remembering what was once was. Something’s already gone. I’ve compensated by sleeping at friends’ places, though last night I bedded down on the Thai sofa, awoken at five a.m. by an aggressive mosquito.

From those early times of asylum and dreams through my current last days of Tokyo residency, a lot of things went right, a lot of things went wrong. Nearly every aspect of Japanese culture of which I had once been indifferent I now entertain very strong feelings (some loving, many loathing). If I might never altogether adapt to the culture, it does not mean that I haven’t found communities within, and within these communities, good friends that make urban life bearable.

At times, it can be very difficult to enjoy Tokyo. When the enormous crowds lose their novelty, they are simply annoying. As are the lights, the barkers, and the buskers. While I have acquired a strong appreciation for the national cuisine, for all its pretensions of a Michelin-rich restaurant scene, it can be an expensive, disappointing trial-and-error journey finding a decent bean burrito, pepperoni pizza slice, or pan of squid paella. Teeth-grinding music blares constantly from storefront speakers and politicians sloganeer from obnoxious election vans. The youth culture frightens the sensible with its hopeless mediocrity and tasteless heroes. Too many read manga, not enough read books. The geek culture, its obsession with cartoon porn and blow-up dolls, is completely beyond my comprehension.

But for all that I was happy here. Tokyo doesn’t lead itself to a singular understanding—it’s a collection of fragments that never add up to a whole. You get lucky when you find your community. Luckily, I found a few. The reality then is not the city itself, but the home you’ve made for yourself and the friends you keep. Eight months abroad can only become eight years via a series of accidents. Nothing was planned. I simply got lucky.

Having been terrible at self-reflection all this time, I cannot begin to imbue it with any higher meaning beyond this. It’s too late for swift and decisive declarations and I’d be a fool to commit myself to revelation. And Tokyo, as anyone who has spent any amount of time here can assert, defies any assessment beyond the usual clich├ęs of enormousness, peculiarness, and bedlam. What I can say for sure holds true for any other city—that if you can leave in better shape than when you arrived, the city has been good to you. And when you consider your person-metropolis relationship in this context and you come out on the plus, then your complaints might be a bit shrill. But then when you and the city you adopted for some considerable and impressionable period of your life fall a little short of greatness, it’s no big deal. Fallibility is what makes things real.

I feel sad in this coming darkness, this end of things. The sentimental fool feels saddest when something splendid has passed into ephemera. He will miss all of it, especially, the things he’s taken for granted, the things he looked at ten thousand times. He knows this move is significant— he’s getting older but it does not make him any wiser. He is, in fact, a fool. A fool enjoys his foolishness, most especially because it makes him feel connected to the greater powers within and without.

So he says, ‘Sayonara, then, for now…’ and means it, swearing some kind of bittersweet return, knowing it will never feel quite the same way again.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Beguiling Charms of Handsome Self-Interest

"It don't take long to kill things. Not like it does to grow."

-- Melvyn Douglas (Homer)

It is entirely natural that formative personalities with a thing for cinema will gravitate towards Paul Newman. From the late 1950s through the early 1970s he’d picked up where James Dean left off, becoming the embodiment of the handsome, brooding rebel, a man at home with tough guys and dangerous ladies, operating outside mainstream moral codes. Because becoming an adult entails following societal rules—the wife, the job, the mortgage, the taxes, the Judeo-Christian value system— flouting them, or at least making it up as you go along, can make a man feel unique, alone among a crowd of dullards, though all his desperado might be, at best, a smokescreen covering up the insecurity about making one’s way in the world, and at worst, a tragic absence of real human empathy.

Of all Paul Newman’s films, the one I think best embodies this juxtaposition of charming hustler and selfish man-boy is Martin Ritt’s Hud, based on the novel Horseman, Pass By, written by Larry McMurtry. Produced in 1963, Newman plays the eponymous Hud, a philandering cowboy who works for his father, Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), and razzes his nephew, Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde) and housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal). They live on a ranch in a large spread in remote cattle country Texas. The crisis in the story involves one of their cows dying of foot-and-mouth: a highly contagious livestock infection that requires special quarantine measures as well as the immediate slaughter of all infected animals to contain the disease.

James Hong's cinematography sometimes reminds you
of Edward Hopper surveying Texas

Of course, the right thing to do is to follow the law. Homer doesn’t like the situation one bit— he’s been a rancher all his life and stands to lose his fortune. But the alternative is knowingly swindling his neighbors, passing his crisis on people who trust his word, which not only means bankrupting a man after looking a man in the eye with a strong handshake but also possibly unleashing an epidemic that could affect the region, if not the nation, infecting millions of cows and financially ruining hundreds of other families, who like the Bannons, have been living off the land for generations. But that’s exactly what Hud proposes to do before the government veterinarian can declare an emergency situation: “Let us put some of our bread in that gravy while it’s still hot.”

Beware of men bearing flowers?

Caught between Homer’s sense of duty and Hud’s self-interest is Homer’s grandson, Lonnie, an impressionable sixteen-year-old getting to the age where he is figuring out what kind of man he wants to be. It’s not such an easy path. Soft-spoken, addicted to cowboy ballads on his wireless, he admires Hud’s way with women, the devil-may-care attitude that puts him in daily situations most sensible men would recognize as dangerous, like driving drunk and tomfooling with married women. Living off his family wealth and good looks, Hud acts impulsively with a sense of entitlement oblivious to naysayers and moralists. For a kid suffering both hormones and virginity politely, the spectacle of a man that gets what he wants—what society fetishes but does not altogether condone, that of the virile, uninhibited lothario— is heady inspiration.

Uncle Hud and his corruptible nephew

Essentially then, Hud is a family drama about the contestation of two ways of life. And though we naturally sympathize with Homer, we can’t help liking Hud. Newman’s performance inspires every man’s inner sixteen-year-old. We know he’s wrong, even morally repugnant, but Newman plays him so charming that the audience— women, but especially men— forgive him. This is good for a film but bad for us as a species. That we could be so bamboozled by charisma suggests why so much has gone wrong for America in the last thirty years. The character, Hud, epitomizes the late twentieth century politicking corporate cowboy that would connive us out of our clean skies and untouched frontiers with huckster good ol’ boy hucksterism.

“Don’t plant ‘em where I park,” he barks at the housekeeper, Alma, after she reprimands him for driving over her flowers. It’s a small detail—an automobile crushing a delicate patch of Mother Nature— but suggestive of how little Hud is tied to the land. He has none of his father’s frontier spirit. There is no romanticizing this vast, stark, dusty landscape. A modern man trapped in rural Texas, Hud is a new kind of pioneer, the technocratic cowboy, much more comfortable behind the steering wheel of a convertible than holding the reins of a horse.

Hud anticipates the opportunist millionaire oilman that would transform Texan power. His father, Homer, senses that his son represents the changing times. When it becomes clear that the family’s situation has become perilous and it’s suggested that they drill for resources, Homer rails beautifully against a future landscape ruined by tractors, derricks, and tarmac scarring up God’s country: “What can I do with a bunch of rotten oil wells? I can’t ride out there and prowl amongst them like I can my cattle… I can’t feel a smidgen of pride in them. I want money to come from that something that keeps a man doing for himself.”

The moral contest escalates as it becomes certain that their cattle will be ruled dangerous. But Homer never doubts there is any other way than living by his conscience. “I want out of this spread what I put into it,” Hud tells his father. It leads to a painful confrontation in which Homer reprimands his son in the clearest possible language: “You don’t give a damn… You don’t care about people… You don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You don’t check your appetites. You live just for yourself which makes you not fit to live with.” Lonnie expresses some solidarity for his uncle, arguing that Hud may be selfish but he’s not so different from everybody else. Homer, recognizing that he may lose his grandson to Hud’s easy living, responds sadly, “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.”

The bulldozer & the horseman

It’s a beautiful line, prescient of our contemporary celebrity culture that has blurred the traditional merits of heroism. I don’t remember exactly how I felt watching Hud fifteen years ago other than liking the film and loving Paul Newman for it. But watching it recently, I no longer felt empathy for his character, only tremendous respect for Newman for giving such a contemptuous antihero magnetic charisma. From this viewing many years later, I have to wonder what kind of person I was at twenty that I could be taken with a character so symbolic of man’s capacity to trample the earth and his fellow men. Is it just me? Or is it a mistake nearly every young man makes in his long journey to goodness?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chrome Jell-o

“For if one had an imagination vivid enough and a sympathy sufficiently sensitive really to comprehend and to feel the sufferings of other people, one would never have a moment's peace of mind... One is always alone in suffering; the fact is depressing when one happens to be the sufferer, but it makes pleasure possible for the rest of the world.”

--Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow

The problem for the author who writes a landmark novel is that once he or she has departed and is thus no longer capable of putting out new work, it is all too easy for posterity to associate him or her with that single legendary text. Herman Melville might have believed it all right we revere Moby Dick but it hardly stands to think that Jack Kerouac— who published eighteen novels in his lifetime and who disassociated himself from the Beat Generation—would be pleased that outside his small, committed fan base, anything not titled On the Road is mostly yellowing, dusty, forgotten, unread. It might be said that for any author who desires immortality, a beloved masterpiece is the ticket, but a caveat of oblivion for the remaining oeuvre is fair warning.

Aldous Huxley was one of those great geniuses who wrote one of the twentieth century’s masterpieces, Brave New World, which with its test tube babies, soma addiction, and sexual promiscuity predicts the pleasure principle of our contemporary times. It deserves its place in the literary canon but like said conundrum for many writers, most readers stop right there, as if all there was to know of Huxley and his godlike omniscience of the human condition was in that small, lovely book.

Published in 1922, Crome Yellow, Huxley’s first novel, demonstrates his unique gift for language, theorizes some of the blueprint that would become Brave New World, and vaguely predicts the Second World War as well as the eventual apotheosis of the machine as man’s best friend.

Crome Yellow is a quietly subversive parable, the whole of which takes place on the eponymous castle estate in the English countryside. It is less a story and more a forum for Huxley to air his many social theories regarding history, politics, reason, madness, love, and poetry. Not much really happens: a small party from Britain’s leisure class has congregated for the season to banter, create, review, discuss, and feast. The reader enters and leaves this tableau with Denis, a young, middling poet with a few published broadsheets and a modest book of verse to his name. His hosts, the Wimbushes, have a niece, Anne, whom Denis is hopelessly in love with (in the desperate, maddening vein romantic poets are wont) but whom treats Denis cynically as she would a kid brother for whose best intentions raise only snickering. She is more drawn to Gombauld, an artist of some repute and Byronic handsomeness.

Among the other guests, the primary character of interest is Mr. Scogan, who looks “like an extinct saurian… his nose was beaked…the skin of his wrinkled brown face had a dry and scaly look; his hands were the hands of a crocodile.” A friend and contemporary of Henry Wimbush, he is something of a pedantic, a bore, a philosopher king and, conjecturally, a mouthpiece for Huxley. He also has many of the novel’s choicest lines. Upon learning Denis is at work on a novel, in Scogan’s assumption of the plot he indicts nearly every writer of the 1920s, including, one supposes, Huxley himself:

“I’ll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.”

His spot-on assessment humiliates Denis who vows quietly to tear the pages to pieces when he unpacks later that night. It’s a bad start for a young artist of marginal confidence and it’s a slippery slope from there. When alone with Anne he often contextualizes their time together by quoting poetry, an affectation which his muse calls “a bad habit.” In a setting of larger-than-life personalities at home with confirmed belief systems, the work-in-progress Denis inevitably flubs his lines (his social ineptness and half-cooked awareness is not dissimilar to Huxley’s more famous punching bag, Bernard Marx.) However, due his ingenuousness, Denis is an ideal sounding board, especially for the talkative Scogan, who often pins him down with breathless soliloquies.

Huxley would not publish Brave New World for another decade but here are the seeds being planted by Mr. Scogan, a self-described realist in an age of madmen. Anticipating the Greek alphabetical hierarchy of Huxley’s imagined future is a rough sketch of what would become the human organizing system of his greatest novel:

“In the Rational State, human beings will be separated out into distinct species, not according to the color of their eyes or the shape of their skulls, but according to the qualities of the their mind and temperament. Examining psychologists…will test each child that is born and assign it to its proper species. Duly labeled and docketed, the child will be given the education suitable to members of its species, and will be set, in adult life to perform those functions which human beings of his variety are capable of performing.”

This so-called Rational State consists of three distinct groups: the Directing Intelligences, the Men of Faith and the Herd. The breakdown is self-explanatory: the Intelligences devise the system, the Men of Faith sell it and the Herd follows orders. Of Denis’ role in this future society, Scogan is at a loss. Denis being independent but neither persuasive nor clearheaded, Scogan “can see no place for you; only the lethal chamber.”

Huxley before the Future

Denis’ host, Henry Wimbush, is a scion of some fortune. His magnum opus is a history of the village of Crome and especially the castle where they reside. On two occasions, Henry reads from his historical tome. One story involves an ancestor named Hercules, a dwarf, while another relates three sisters feigning an anorexic appetite as pseudo-spirituality. The first story is decidedly tragic, the second comic, which seems true for the novel as well. Although Huxley’s narrative voice is sportily sardonic, the philosophical musings on the future reflect an anxiety about the end result of technology intertwining itself with the worst instincts of human nature.

When the consequence is not deadly, it may be simply alienating. Even the affable Wimbush isn’t very much interested in mankind. Being a character in a Huxley novel, he is thoughtful, given to intelligent musings with some remarkable capacity to witness the distant future. Confiding with Denis the night of the country fair, Wimbush describes his own utopian vision:

“Perhaps, in the future, when machines have attained to a state of perfection—for I confess that I am, like Godwin and Shelley, a believer in perfectibility, the perfectibility of machinery—then, perhaps, it will be possible for those who, like myself, desire it, to live in a dignified seclusion, surrounded by the delicate attentions of silent and graceful machines, and entirely secure from any human intrusion.”

Huxley is not describing television, video games, and the Internet, or any of the quotidian appliances that guarantee a self-sufficient existence. But he knew human nature and its pull over us like moths to the flame. Would the descendants of Henry Wimbush bother hosting a party of individuals for the summer season if it stood to interrupt their online presence?

The answer is difficult to say. Denis might disagree. Humiliated multiple times he nevertheless needs other people to exist himself. He has no true form without recognition from others. In his own words:

“The individual is not a self-supporting universe. There are times when he comes into contact with other individuals, when he is forced to take cognizance of the existence of other universes beside himself.”

If we are to survive as a viable, energetic, empathetic species, may it always be so.