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.