Sunday, August 26, 2001
Often, when East meets West it can be a recipe for disaster. However, in "American Fuji" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $24.95, 384 pages), Sara Backer's first novel, it is more common to see comedy in the fallout of the culture clash than frustration.
Gaby Stanton, an American expatriate who is working in Japan at a company that sells fantasy funerals, meets Alex Thorn, a fellow American in Japan to seek the truth behind his son's death there the previous year. Together, Gaby and Alex attempt to uncover the mystery behind son Cody's death, all the while encountering a rich culture where the refrain rings, "This is Japan. Expect the Unexpected."
Expect the unexpected, indeed.
Take the book's opening: "Toilets and cars. That's what Mr. Eguchi had trained Gabriela Stanton to notice whenever she made house calls ï¿½ the year, make, and model of the cars, and ï¿½ whether the toilet seat was padded, heated, musical, or equipped with a panel of buttons that produced douche sprays of various strengths and temperatures. Toilets tell truth about people, Mr. Eguchi insisted."
This interesting and "unexpected" beginning sets the tone for the entire novel, and the book only gets more engaging.
In "American Fuji," Backer, who taught English at Japan's Shizuoka University, destroys the stagnant stereotype of the Japanese people as grim and hard-nosed. Gaby, our protagonist, muses early in the text: "Japan: where reality was absurd. This was why she had gradually stopped writing letters to friends in America ï¿½ they simply would not believe her firsthand perceptions, so unlike their preconceived ideas about modern Japan."
Gaby's absurd firsthand perceptions make for some truly laughable moments, many involving her job at the fantasy funeral company, "Gone With the Wind," and her boss. The offbeat Eguchi, a flamboyantly dressed Japanese man who drives a 1971 pink Cadillac, drunkenly speaks English, but only in Beatles song lyrics.
Eccentric Eguchi's love for the Fab Four creates entertaining episodes such as this exchange in a cab:
"I am the pen," the driver insisted.
"I am the man," Eguchi corrected him. "Totoeba 'I am the egg man.'"
He sang the line from the Beatles song to illustrate. "I am the egg man, ooh, ooh. They are the egg men, ooh, ooh, I am the walrus, ku-kuu-ka-chiu. ï¿½
"You are the man," the driver recited. "I am the pen."
Eguchi also communicates with nonJapanese-speaking Alex Thorn through Beatles lyrics, assuring Thorn that "Gone With the Wind" is doing a steady business ï¿½ "I get by with a little help from my friends' ï¿½ and also comforting him on the death of his son ï¿½ "ï¿½ ob-la di, ob-la da, life goes on."
Adding to the novel's hilarity is Gaby's job pitching fantasy funeral packages. The basic package includes a fully catered "departure party," complete with 100 guests, 10 monks, a laser light show and the deceased traveling around the room on a conveyor belt to the tune of either "Yesterday," "My Way" or "Whistle While You Work."
The most extravagant package involves a roller-coaster ride with the deceased in the first car, which breaks away at the ride'sp end through the roof in a splash of shooting stars while passenger cars circle below to the tune of either "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or "Fly Me to the Moon." The kicker on this package is a free trip to the moon by the year 2020.
Through the experiences of Gaby and Alex in Japan, Backer also provides some candid and telling observations on the country and its people. These range from beautifully written descriptions of Mount Fuji and the mountain's importance to the Japanese to the country's sultry heat waves and the complicated social systems of "relationships, coded into a hierarchy of favors and obligation."
Backer writes with an active imagination and a laid-back style. Her characters are endearing and her prose smart. "American Fuji" is a quick and easy read, with several enjoyable moments, as well as some revealing passages about Japan's people and culture.
Jaime Whitt is a senior majoring in English at Kansas University. She was a student in English 362 ï¿½ Professional Writing: Book Reviewing last spring.