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The young, the beautiful, the talented

by David Burleigh

COLLECTION OF BEAUTIES AT THE HEIGHT OF THEIR POPULARITY: A Novel, by Whitney Otto. New York: Random House, 2002, 283 pages, $23.95 (hardcover)

When we think of Japonisme, it is primarily in the decorative arts — a painting of a European woman holding a Japanese fan or wearing a kimono, some oriental objects on the mantelpiece behind her — rather than in terms of filmic or literary influence. It is mostly the decorative influence that this book picks up.

Whitney Otto is well-known already for her previous novel, “How to Make an American Quilt,” which was made into a feature film. “A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity” is her fourth book, and takes its title from a genre of pictorial art — ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” More specifically, it comes from one particular series of woodblock prints, of a type called bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women.”

Each of the 12 chapters of this sumptuously produced volume is illustrated with a Japanese print; several of them, such as the one that gives the book its title, are by the 18th-century master Utamaro. Each chapter’s story can be connected to its picture, except for a short unnumbered section at the beginning, which has no illustration.

In this brief “entrance” to the book, as the author calls it, we are introduced to Elodie Parker, a young woman who is writing personal observations in a stolen notebook. She is writing from the “Youki Singe Tea Room in San Francisco,” which acts as the threshold of the novel.

The Youki Singe, named after its fanciful Japanese and French interior, is the place where Elodie meets her friends whose expanding stories make up the substance of the book. It is also a survivor from the past — a witness to the shifting fortunes of the city. Elodie is making random notes consciously modeled on the pattern of a pillow book — another Japanese motif in the writing. She writes about “Elegant Things,” “Distressing Things,” and so on.

The novel is set at the beginning of the 1980s. Almost everybody in the book is young, and some have come from other places. The nicely chosen moment when they all encounter one another in the city, is just that time when the ’70s were changing to the ’80s, and disco was giving way to drugs. Soon a new disease will threaten all this leisure. But for now all is easy and relaxed.

The structure of the book is episodic and it is only at the end, when we come back to the young woman writing in the Youki Singe, that the varied strands of the story come together once again. Without this ending, the book could be seen as a collection of separate, occasionally related, tales. Its manner and content carry echoes of work by other writers: Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” say, rewritten in the style of Richard Brautigan.

There is a distinctly romantic tone to much of the writing and the way that the stories are recounted. Most of the characters are girls who allow themselves to be loved occasionally by boys, but sometimes would rather love each other. In one of the longest chapters, “Tale of a strange marriage,” which brings together a boy and girl of stunning beauty, there is some amusing ambiguity, and one or two surprises.

This chapter is perhaps the most sustained, and has a fairy tale quality that laps over into other chapters. One of those presents a long night of partying, where the beautiful youths join and separate, drifting from one location to another. The telling is divided into “hours,” like the measure of the night in the pleasure quarters of old Japan. In another memorable chapter, the search for a place to live produces unexpectedly wonderful results, before being gradually stymied.

Most of the characters — Jelly, Pirouz, Coco, and Elodie’s girlfriends, Theo Adagio and Gracie Maruyama — have unfulfilling jobs, or none at all. Their personalities are lightly sketched, but most attention is given to their clothes, which are described in detail. It seems that physical beauty is nearly indescribable: “His attractiveness is the result of a mixture of Japanese, Spanish, and North African blood; his slate-colored eyes, his complexion that looks as if it contains roses. Dust and roses.”

Dreams and longing move the characters to act, but even when they do, their actions have the quality of a dream. In one section, Otto quotes a well-known poem by the 17-century haiku poet Matsuo Basho:

“Even in Kyoto –
hearing the cuckoo’s cry –
I long for Kyoto”

It shows the poet wishing for an unattainable ideal, like Otto’s character who is “in love with being in love.”

Elsewhere, a young man looking at the youthful photographs of a now aged woman painter whose acquaintance he has made, notes “the haiku of her hands.” Probably this means the delicately expressive moment captured in each photograph, unless it has something to do with the number of her fingers (since the pattern of the poem is 5-7-5).

Japanese motifs are predominantly woven through the novel, and help to create its texture. But other strands include an American novel about the 1940s, artwork by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, and an excellent poem by Elizabeth Bishop. All these things, added to deluxe production, make the book a very attractive object.

The central notion of the “floating world,” as a framework for the story, works quite well as an ahistorical conceit. The Japonisme elements have been selected to enrich the book aesthetically, and in this they certainly succeed. But the more attentive reader cannot help being aware of the social and chronological gulfs separating, say, a noble lady of the medieval Heian court, and the much later indentured women of a Yoshiwara brothel, whose lives are simultaneously invoked.

This is not to say that the author of this book lacks shrewdness or a sense of humor. She is well aware of the “perpetual adolescence” of her enchanted creations, and of how sometimes, drifting through their ephemeral existence, they “lacked the imagination to live for tomorrow.” Age and the future only bewilder them.

One might only follow their philosophy with caution. It is probably not a good idea, for example, to walk out of an expensive store, as Jelly does, with a pile of goods unpaid for. But on the whole this novel, written mainly for young adults, gives a charming portrait of a place and generation. The last word in the book is “Love.”