With “Big in Japan,” an erotic coming-of-age novel set in Japan, M. Thomas Gammarino has joined the likes of Jay McInerny (“Ransom”), Brad Leithauser (“Equal Distance”), and countless other non-Japanese writers who spend a little time in Japan when young, and then — surprise, surprise! — write novels featuring non-Japanese who spend a little time in Japan when young. So well-trodden is the novelistic path Gammarino has chosen, in fact, that it is almost as if he is working in a rigorous and established literary form.
The interest in such an exercise lies in seeing how artful a writer can be within the constraints the form imposes. There’s no point in writing, for example, a 38 syllable “haiku,” or a three-line “sonnet.” The artist must struggle to make it new, but needs to do so in ways that don’t violate the form’s fundamental rules. In “Big in Japan,” Gammarino paints largely within the established lines and gives us, in doing so, a diverting read.
“Brain peered into Martina’s hole,” the novel begins, and the chuckle with which most readers will respond to this unexpected introduction — Martina, by the way, is a guitar — is a reaction that will be repeated throughout. The opening paragraph goes on to reveal that Brain (“formerly Brian”) has been working on a “Gregorian speed-polka power ballad” and that he’s neurotic enough to believe that if he doesn’t “go for a drive at precisely 11:11, as promised to himself by himself several hours ago, then something bad was sure to happen.”
The humorous smoothness with which Gammarino introduces his hapless slacker of a protagonist is typical. He provides, in just seven lines, details that reveal much about Brain, and also make us smile. One of the artful tweaks that will elicit readers’ smiles is that Brain is not, at first, an English teacher, but a member of a very minor heavy metal band, one reputed to be (relative to their lack of success elsewhere) “big in Japan.” Hoping to move their faltering career forward, Brain and his mates head off to the archipelago. They are still at the airport in New Jersey, however, when Brain — a virgin in his mid-20s — is bowled over by “a perfect cliche of porcelain and silk”: a Japanese flight attendant. The force that will drive Brain, and the narrative, forward is revealed: women, or more precisely, Asian women and the tremendous attraction many Western men feel to them.
We accompany Brain on his first trip to a “fashion health” salon, where, he’s been informed, “you’re not allowed to have full-on intercourse with [the girls] . . . just everything else.” Brain, a true innocent, comes to believe that the only way he’s ever going to experience noncommercial affection (not to mention “full-on intercourse”) with Miho, the attractive young sex-worker who serves him, is to marry her, and soon, with the help of Miho’s boss, an implausibly amiable yakuza, he does just that.
We follow him through the early days of his marriage (lots of sex) to insecurity about Miho’s greater experience (compensatory sex: an affair with a student, and then further indulgence in “fashion health” that includes some kinkiness that is difficult to read about, and impossible to write about in a family newspaper).
Self- and sex-obsessed, Brain is an easy character to despise. It is to Gammarino’s credit that we remain interested in him as he spirals downward — leaving the band after seriously beating another member and before the band goes on to interplanetary success; losing his wife to a kinder friend; and, yes, the aforementioned kinkiness.
Our interest flags, however, at the end when, having ingested some psilocybin, Brain enters a mystical state that Gammarino attempts to capture with five solid pages of boldfaced Japlish. Smiles cease, and the urge to skim kicks in, but only in the book’s final short section. Fortunately, “Big in Japan” is dominated by humorous earthiness rather than ethereal (and awkwardly rendered) seriousness. One hopes the rest of Gammarino’s work will be, too.