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Dazzling, difficult debut is anything but a throwaway

by Anna Kunnecke

If you live in Japan for many years, you see a lot of people come and go. The expat crowd is notoriously transitory, and no subset is more ubiquitously “temporary” than English teachers. Wave after wave of JET teachers come for a year or two, have their bite-sized exotic experience, and then return home with tales that grow ever taller. I have often found myself listening politely as one-year veterans expounded rapturously (and often wrongly) on their insights into Japan.

IF YOU FOLLOW ME, by Malena Watrous. Harper Perennial, 2010, 384 pp., $14.99 (paperback)

Not that it rankles.

Maybe just a bit.

So I confess that I approached this novel with some skepticism, since it is the story of 22-year-old Marina moving to a small Japanese coastal town to teach English for a year while still grieving the suicide of her father. I was braced for the overused anecdotes: the 24-year-olds whose marriageability will expire at 25 like a Christmas cake; the awkward first public bath; the dentist who wants to practice his English while drilling away. Then there are the easy targets: hollow conventional marriages; bumbling small-town bureaucrats; circuitous communication concerned more with saving face than conveying actual information.

It is all here in this book. Thankfully, there is much more. The story opens with a hilarious letter from Marina’s Elvis-pompadoured supervisor, who scolds her because “it’s kind of so rude if you ‘can’t remember’ gomi (garbage) law.” Watrous is an absolute genius at reproducing this kind of earnest butchering of English. And what might have been an easy skewering of Japan’s sadistically complicated garbage rules, not to mention neighbors who go through each other’s trash, turns out to be much more nuanced.

In a story that touches on suicide, nuclear waste, hikikomori (shut-ins), cremation and hoarding, using garbage as a central motif is brave territory, and Watrous is fearless in her handling of the comic and tragic elements of her story. She skates just to the edge of the ridiculous and pulls back to deliver a dazzling flourish. The trash situation turns into a rich meditation on what remains after loss — what burns away with grief, what is dross and what treasure might be recovered.

Nonetheless, it is a tiny bit tedious to watch Marina and her girlfriend Carolyn go through round after round of humiliating cultural gaffes. There is a strange lethargy to this central relationship. Their most emotional exchanges read like verbatim transcriptions of college lovers having an argument, in jarring contrast to the distilled prose found elsewhere in the novel. In turn, the two women get their feelings hurt, feel misunderstood and are taunted by the strange boy next door. They are lonely in their isolated town, but also claustrophobic in their newly insular relationship. They fight over the imported peanut butter. They stop having sex. They are enthralled with the beauty of their seaside landscape one minute; they are disgusted with their small-minded neighbors the next. In short, they go through a fairly textbook case of culture shock.

What keeps it compelling are the characters who stream in and out of their lives. The English teacher whose British accent gets more and more pronounced the longer he is in Japan; the desperately exhausted art teacher with the rebellious hair and autistic son; the ex-sumo wrestler turned elementary teacher. These characters are luminous, eccentric and beautifully drawn. Unfortunately they drop out of the story without much resolution.

I am of two minds about this book. I loved the generous lens through which we see the characters and setting, and the rich overlay of Watrous’ unrelenting humor. The writing is gorgeous — you can feel the town’s bitter cold, hear the ocean’s steady pulse, sense the dark menace of the nearby nuclear plant. And yet I often felt impatience with this young protagonist and her rather self-indulgent relationships. The characters were frustrating, but the writing was juicy and the voice had the ring of truth. I can’t wait to read what Watrous writes next, hopefully set on her own turf.