It’s easy for a foreigner to feel like a freak in Japan — tall, different, culturally unaware, linguistically tongue-tied. This wickedly clever novel of manners turns its lens on the foreign protagonist as spectacle, British lawyer Alistair Meadowlark, rather than the usual cast of impenetrable Japanese characters. Written with virtuoso confidence, this first novel hurls along at breakneck speed, its breathless sentences skimming the surface of Tokyo’s churning waters and leaving mounds of cultural detritus in their wake.
Therein lie its greatest pleasures. You’ll nod in recognition at the city you love to hate and secretly recognize yourself or people you know among these fish struggling to stay afloat.
Meadowlark is the average British stuffed shirt sent to Tokyo to work at a law office. He values tradition, pomp and circumstance and even hangs a framed picture of the queen in his Roppongi apartment. But he’s more comfortable in a suit than in his own skin, and one look at the body-conscious girls in their designer outfits makes him realize any traditions they’ve retained are well beneath the surface, which he doesn’t know how to navigate. So he vows to steer clear of Japanese women. Fat chance.
The unnamed narrator, who knows better, is a British expat lawyer enamored of the work and life of Japanese “decadent and Byronic hero” Dazai Osamu, and also has Dazai’s photo hanging in his flat to prove it. He befriends Bunji, a dapper Anglophile Japanese architect, who pads around in a tweed jacket, black-framed spectacles and a walking stick — you can almost see them wandering into bars in Golden Gai or bookstores in Jimbocho.
The narrator fancies himself as one of those expatriates who understand Japanese culture, and finds being the “sole white face” in the landscape a sign of authenticity of the places he visits. Of course, Dazai can only carry one through so many lonely nights, so the narrator charts the education of Meadowlark in All Things Japanese.
” ‘Ma’ is the pause, the space between words, between images. It is that part of the page, of the picture, left untouched, as ineffable white. In Japanese aesthetics, in any composition, whether verbal or visual, this absence is also supposed to be savored, enjoyed in its own right. I’d met Meadowlark shortly after I’d first discovered this idea and was wondering whether such notions could be applied to a person. Could one, for example, find meaning in someone’s blank spaces, in the juxtaposition between what was present and what was quite absent? Certainly Meadowlark appeared to operate on the narrowest conceivable spectrum. A single ink squiggle in an awful lot of white space.”
Inevitably, Meadowlark joins the legions of “White Men in Suits” chasing “Yellow Cab” girls. The lumbering square has little such a girl would want, and fails miserably until he meets a hyper-stylish woman chatting on her cell phone at McDonald’s (where else?). But she’s only 16, and much more interested in Prada or Gucci than in such cumbersome pursuits as conversation. But there’s always shopping (with Meadowlark’s money, of course).
“The cost of their clothing must have run to hundreds of pounds. Everything they earned was, effectively, on display. Each had a slick, tiny handbag. Tomoko’s was black with a gold clasp, Mamiko’s a lurid violet, with an avowedly plastic texture. Prada? Armani? Vivienne Westwood, perhaps? . . . I knew that for each girl those petite, shiny objects were a source of pride, of deep satisfaction. And I was reminded again of Tokyo’s stratum of sadness, which is always there: subcutaneous, beneath the skin of everything, despite the brilliance of its surface, the ceaseless movement, the apparent plenitude.”
It’s great fun to watch the unabashedly materialistic, pop-fed Sachiko make mush of the respectable Meadowlark, who has developed a full-fledged obsession. Before long he’s come undone, reduced to wandering dazed and jobless in the city, and the writer makes us believe this is the best thing that ever happened to him.
As the characters try and fail to bridge the gaps that make it impossible for them to understand — much less possess — another culture, or at least a realistic view of it, the novel’s well-chosen details begin to pile up and wear thin. East and West are subsumed into one big ball of cultural confusion as entertaining and as paradoxical and pathetic as the novel suggests.
Though “Shopping” (which received the David Higham Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 1998 Whitbread award) is the work of a writer with talent and brio to burn, in the end it’s just another twist on the tired old Madam Butterfly/Lolita/Snow Country/Memoirs of A Geisha tale.