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Intriguing mix of loose ends and aimless youth

by David Cozy

THE METHOD ACTORS, by Carl Shuker. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005, 512 pp., $16 (paper).

There has been a great deal of discussion and debate about where literary modernism ends and postmodernism begins. The confusion arises in part because, far from being something entirely different than the modernism that came before it, postmodernism has appropriated many of the techniques employed by the modernists, including, most fruitfully, collage.

Modernists and postmodernists, however, treat the pieces that make up their collages differently. The canonical modernists hoped that they could bring coherence to their fragments by undergirding them with myth, symbol, and rigorous formal systems.

The postmodernists, on the other hand, seem to prefer, having assembled a pile of compelling bits, to leave them in a more or less disorderly pile. The disorderly world in which we live being what it is, this may be a more honest approach than the modernists’ insistence that the world’s chaos is only apparent, that underneath it is a coherence just waiting for an artist of genius to illuminate it. Whether postmodernism yields more satisfying art, however, is another question, one that Carl Shuker’s first novel, “The Method Actors,” puts us in a position, if not to answer, at least to consider.

It does so because it comes as close to being a purely postmodernist novel as one is likely to find. Shuker employs what could be called the “postmodernist method”: a number of voices, registers, and events rendered in nonchronological order and with no clear indication why the novel lurches from one voice, one time, to another just when it does, and no neat tying up of loose ends in the final chapter. Further, Shuker seems to be concerned not only with postmodernist method but also with what might be called the “postmodern condition.”

Think of the affectless youth who populate Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero” transplanted to Tokyo, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the world Shuker gives us in “The Method Actors.”

There is, however, an important difference. Where Ellis’ characters seem to live, if not outside of history, then mostly ignorant of it, a historian sits at the center of Shuker’s novel, and his explorations into history’s horrors, especially the Nanjing Massacre, make the novel a weightier affair than anything Ellis has given us. That the historian at the center of the novel is, in fact, missing for most of the book is, of course, another postmodernist twist.

Just as postmodernist theory tells us that there is no one truth that can decisively displace all other versions, so, in the postmodern novel, there is no one character who will provide the key that allows us to read the fragments as a coherent whole.

In an ideal postmodern novel, each of the fragments would be equally well done and — since the fragments taken together are unlikely, in the end, to cohere — of interest in and of themselves. Shuker’s novel is, of course, not “ideal,” but it is very good. Though it is difficult to imagine a reader who will find every section of the novel equally compelling, it is also hard to conceive of a reader who will not find much to enjoy here.

Readers who appreciate Ellis and would like to see what characters such as his (mostly rich, mostly aimless, mostly under 30) would make of the Japanese capital will enjoy following Shuker’s characters through an accurately rendered Tokyo. (This accuracy is no small thing. It is astounding how many writers get the simple facts of Japan and its capital wrong.)

Anyone who when fresh off the plane chanced to fall in with longtime foreign residents of Japan will recognize the occasion three new JET teachers find themselves a part of: “sitting on the floor, the tiny tables, the low roof, the JET vets trading meaningless jokes involving Japanese words that could be names, could be places, or could be just dishes on the menu but mean just as little either way.”

Shuker captures such scenes — and some sleazier ones, too — remarkably well. They (especially the sleazy ones) will perhaps be of particular interest to 20-somethings who are living the fast life in Tokyo, or to youngsters elsewhere interested in finding out what that fast life is like. Old timers may find themselves disconcerted, not to say disgusted, at Shuker’s picture of how culturally boorish foreign kids today are disporting themselves in the Japanese capital, but they also may learn things about gaijin life in Japan that they had crossed before.

Also excellent, and revealing Shuker’s versatility as a writer, is a long letter to the historian, Michael, from a scholar interested in his work. One could argue that a good scholarly letter is inevitably more interesting than the musings of drug-addled youth such as we get in other sections of this book, and one would be right, but that takes nothing away from the skill with which Shuker has captured the tone of an eminence such as “Jonathan B. Haberman, M.D., Ph.D.”

Haberman is, like Michael, interested in tracing the effect that psychoactive substances have had on historical events, and it is in his letter that we learn of the notion that had featured in an article Michael published: “Shibboleth: Rye/Ergot Poisoning and the Nanking Massacre.” Apparently Michael had floated the hypothesis “that the ‘Rape of Nanking’ never happened . . . and was the product of corn/ergot hallucination. The Chinese all ate corn. But only a few of the Japanese would have. Thus the Chinese claim a massacre, while a mere handful of Japanese do likewise.”

One hopes that Japanese revisionists never get a hold of this bit of quackery, an example (surely Shuker intended it as such?) of what can happen when postmodern relativism goes too far.

“The Method Actors” at its best and most serious is a reflection on history, its creation, and the uses to which it is put. Mingle these historical reflections with the intertwining lives of foreign youth in Tokyo and you have an interesting if — in the best postmodern style — inconclusive novel.