Books / Reviews


Shimoda sounds a literary lament

by Roland Kelts

SAN FRANCISCO — A foreigner in Japan is an outsider by default, a fact foreign residents have lamented for centuries in what is now a ritualized barstool grievance: “I’ve lived here for so long, learned the language, love my natto, but still . . . “

But foreign writers are apt to remain silent on this point — mostly because writers tend to seek outsider status.

Western essayists and novelists, such as Nara’s Pico Iyer and Hiroshima’s David Mitchell, find in Japan a safe and cozy retreat with relatively few distractions. As James Joyce famously declared, self-exile is a writer’s chosen defense. There’s less noise on the outer edges. And it’s a lot easier to see the game from the sidelines.

But what of the half-Japanese writer, the foreigner whose native-looking features might blur the lines between insider and outsider?

“My experiences in Japan were dichotomous,” admits novelist Todd Shimoda in a recent interview in San Francisco, one of his many former homes and the principal setting for his new novel, “The Fourth Treasure,” due from Doubleday later this month. A third-generation Japanese-American and a professor of information science and technology at the University of Colorado, the 47 year-old author and his wife, Linda, a visual artist and his collaborator, lived in Numazu, a small town in Shizuoka Prefecture, from 1986-87. “As a foreigner in Japan who spoke little Japanese, I was an outsider, of course. But as a Japanese-American who at least looked the part, I could pass as an insider — if I didn’t say too much.”

In an interview posted on Doubleday’s Web site, Linda notes that “being in Japan for Todd seemed to release something in him culturally, to [make him] realize that this was his heritage.” His first book, 1998’s “365 Views of Mt. Fuji,” is set entirely in Japan. The story of a disenchanted salaryman who is drawn into a familial web of madness in pursuit of aesthetic fulfillment (a job as museum curator), “Fuji” was praised for its ambitious scope, with its intertwined stories and impressionistic, ukiyoe-inspired illustrations filling the spaces between and beside small chunks of text. But reading it can be as unsettling as a high-speed Internet surf: There’s a surfeit of pleasures, sure, but you finish feeling kind of battered.

“The Fourth Treasure” is altogether more patient and less busy — more satisfying to read, but no less ambitious. Shimoda’s second work of fiction traces the borders of insider/outsider status through an unlikely admixture of “shodo” (Japanese calligraphy) and science. Its capacious structure combines love (lost and found) and mystery with a budding bildungsroman, sounding a literary lament in a muted, melancholy key.

“It seems to me that we find out who we are in the ‘low’ emotions of loneliness and loss, rather than in pleasure and happiness,” Shimoda explains, describing the Japanese concept of “mono no aware,” or ‘the inherent sadness of things.”

Japanese neighborhoods feature as prominently as Bay Area streets in his new novel, and are delineated with a subtle, knowing precision. The impressive array of interrelated narratives coalesces around the mother-daughter pair of Hanako and Tina Suzuki: the former an immigrant who left Japan and her marriage after an illicit affair in the ’70s to seek solace and anonymity in a San Francisco tempura restaurant, and the latter her illegitimate daughter. The action shifts back and forth between California and Kansai with ease, pursuing the mystery of Tina’s unknown father while recounting the fate of a missing shodo inkstone (the eponymous “fourth treasure”), a centuries-old talisman that enables its owner to forget the past, summon the higher energies of creativity, and survive.

Personal identities remain as oblique and intangible as cultural boundaries. Tina is the novel’s clearest protagonist, yet she is a cipher even to herself. “Tina is confused, not only ethnically, but at a deeper level: who she is and who she can be,” says Shimoda. She doesn’t know who her father is, and at first, she doesn’t much care. She doesn’t know any Japanese and hasn’t been to Japan, though she’s sleeping with an archetypal American Japanophile, a “Mr. Robert,” who teaches ESL and is about as sexy as a Western tourist donning samurai garb. She drifts toward her graduate studies in neuroscience until a Berkeley-based shodo “sensei,” Mr. Robert’s teacher, has a debilitating stroke, becoming in more ways than she knows the subject of Tina’s research.

Doubleday has designed “The Fourth Treasure” to meld Shimoda’s Japanese heritage with his penchant for so-called “postmodern” storytelling techniques. “I enjoy page-turning plots as well as experimental structures,” he explains, citing the use of ample footnotes by American novelist John Barth. “I try to put these two approaches together, with the main storyline in the body of the novel, and bits and pieces of other storylines or information in marginalia.”

Notes from a shodo guidebook and a neuroscience textbook, together with brief, poetic-sounding snippets from the recesses of the demented sensei’s dreams run down the margins in delicate typeface. Kanji figures also appear in the margins courtesy of Linda, who studied shodo during their year in Japan. But the trained (or native) eye will quickly note distinctive idiosyncrasies in an art form known for its rigid formality. The kanji are frequently lopsided and expressionistic, and grow more so as the plot includes more frequent forays into the sensei’s demented mind.

“The calligraphy in the novel was intended to be stylized,” Shimoda says now, “to show the effects of the sensei’s living in America, as well as the racking emotions he brought with him. Many of the links between neuroscience and shodo, as shown through the sensei’s stroke-induced brain damage, worked themselves into the story with little deliberation on my part.”

Shimoda wants to link disparate elements: Japan-America, art-science, old and young. Yet he is one of those rare contemporary authors who write without affectation. He cites Kobo Abe and Haruki Murakami as influences, but he writes more like a careful scientist with a searching imagination — a rare enough artifact these days. Hanako and the stroke-riddled sensei provide the backdrop for a novel that spans centuries, generations and continents.

“I do not intentionally write characters that express some view or opinion I have of Japan,” Shimoda adds. “I only try to capture how a specific character might react in a situation.”

“The Fourth Treasure” is rife with situations that combine American ease and curiosity with Japanese formality and reserve — an old formula, to be sure, but one that Shimoda brings a fresh perspective to. Tina does not know how to react properly when bowing to the sensei’s assistant; she finds her own bow not low enough, not respectful enough. She is most excited by a fellow graduate student nicknamed Wijjie, an American kid who knows nothing about Japan but lots about marijuana, grad-school shenanigans and seduction.

Shimoda identifies himself most closely with a marginal figure in his novel, a private investigator named Kando, who follows Hanako from Kansai to California at the behest of her crooked and powerful ex-husband. “Kando is most closely aligned with my experience in Japan,” he concedes. “His cool reaction to being confronted by thugs is one of resignation, knowing that he crossed the insider-outsider line in Japan — and got caught.”

When I ask whether Kando would react any differently if he were facing the Mafia in Brooklyn instead of the yakuza in Kobe, Shimoda laughs. “If he were a Brooklyn P.I., he would probably react nearly the same way,” he answers. Then, after a reflective pause: “But that would make an interesting story, now that I think about it.”