Books: Dave Barry Does Japan, Gone Girl [major spoilers]
Dave Barry Does Japan by (wait for it) Dave Barry
This is Dave Barry's humorous 1992 travelog about a two-week family trip to Japan.
Sometimes the cover really does tell you everything you need to know. In this case, the cover features Dave Barry front and center, dressed as a geisha, complete with wig, and on his face is a smirk. An epic smirk. A smirk that could only exist in the early 90s, when the world was positively hypernemic with irony, and comedy was largely a pissing match to see who could be the most detached and invulnerable. Dennis Miller had just finished his run on Weekend Update, fercrissake.
And so that cover tells you pretty much everything you need to know: the book will be amusing, a little racist, and, while it's ostensibly a travelog about Japan, deep down it's really a chance to visit what humor was like 25 years ago.
Humor back then was a weird paradox. On the one hand, it was bricked and mortared entirely from compacted sneering, smirking snark; on the other, it felt entirely harmless. Bill Hicks was releasing albums in relative obscurity, as he shocked and confused his contemporary audiences by saying exactly what he felt. It was like sarcasm was just a pose, or a tone of voice -- to put weight or conviction behind it would imply that you cared about something, and that would be an inexcusable sign of weakness. (Cue all the other sarcasticates seizing on that one bit of genuine connection and being as cleverly mean towards it as they can.) Soon, even the sarcasm would evaporate away, leaving harmless, clever observational humor in its wake, as we all pondered about the deal with airline food.
Honestly, reading this made me make sense of some of my own writing from back then. I was a terrible, terrible writer. The bits and pieces I wrote just oozed a cutesy self-satisfaction: "oooh, look at how clever I'm being!" You'd think this is the arrogance of youth, but no, I was pretty much crippled with self-loathing, and lacked any bravado to make up for it. It's neat to think that, on some level, I was writing in the humor of the times -- the sort of clever and detached nonsense that was popular way back then.
Oops -- as is distressingly common for these posts, I'm several paragraphs in and have yet to talk about the book at all. I suppose that's kind of appropriate for discussing this book, which veers off regularly from its appointed subject to natter on about the author's various bête noires. (Did you know appliance repair personnel often don't show up on schedule? Be prepared for several pages about this, dear readers.)
Somewhere in the whirlwind of breezy similes, though, you catch gimpses of Japan, or at least of the author's nudging, can-you-believe-this bafflement at Japan. And it's neat to see a little of Japan, and a little of an American tourist's awe at Japan, in the waning days of their post-war economic miracle. The writing is cute and inventive, and if you're far enough away from Japanese culture, you can overlook most of the book's cultural insensitivities.
Towards the end of the book, he tries to pivot towards being a bit serious. He visits Hiroshima, and balks a bit at the experience. To his eyes, Japan has come to a sensible conclusion that we should all work to ensure that nothing like Hiroshima ever happens again. But the nation seems absolutely blind to looking back on how they themselves got into the war and escalated the scale of its Pacific theater.
It's an interesting point -- I would agree that Japan has often been unwilling to look hard its own history, especially at the time of the author's visit -- and I kind of wish anybody but Dave Barry were making it. He had spent the entire book painting himself as a silly, culturally ignorant American, so in that context, it just feels like a silly, culturally ignorant American absolving his own nation of any possible wrongdoing and concluding that Japan brought this all on themselves.
I suppose the book kind of wasted my time. But it didn't waste *much* of my time, and it was pleasant enough to read. And of course, it's always fascinating to look back on that strange world that I used to live in.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn [major spoilers]
This is Gillian Flynn's 2011 bestselling thriller about a woman's disappearance in a small Missouri town, and the subsequent murder investigation that quickly closes in on her husband.
Of course, the big conceit of this book is the structure. Chapter one is from the point of view of Nick Dunn, and takes place on what has to be the last day of a fading marriage. It's a closely-observed picture of quiet, gray, wrung-out domestic sadness. It's a sad sigh, extended out to a dozen or two pages of prose. Chapter two is from the point of view of Emily Adams, and takes place eight years before, and is about how OMG she met a boy, and he's wonderful.
The hilarious thing is, I started reading this book right after seeing a searing performance of The Last Five Years, which starts the exact same way. I can't know if Ms. Flynn was inspired by this musical, but the similarities are wonderful. In the musical, the woman's timeline moves backwards, while the man's moves forwards, and thus we traverse their five-year marriage.; in the book, we alternate back and forth, the wife's storyline slowly catching up to the disappearance (on their fifth anniversary), the husband's moving ahead from it.
I have to say, it is a goddamn relief to read good prose again. It has been ages, *ages* since I've read prose fiction that was written anywhere close to this level. Yes, this says more about my pitiful reading habits than it does about the book, but still: it's great to see a writer who can use an effective, evocative simile, or who can write distinct voices for dialog, or who can show deeply different interior lives depending on who's speaking. The little details of the book effortlessly bespeak a backlog of solid research -- gah, just to read a scene in, say, a small-town blood-donation center that actually feels like somebody made the effort to see what that was like and what made it unique -- just *that* feels like a vast relief, and some sign that maybe the bestseller lists aren't completely overrun with Dan-Brown-ish clumsy dreck.
And then, of course, is the twist. Yes, I feel like an utter idiot for not noticing the discrepancies between the two narratives, or at least not taking them for what they really were. As I saw Amy's storyline catch up to the beginning of Nick's, I figured there was *something* coming. And I figured whatever it was would be wacky and exciting and unrealistic -- and that, in a way, the real story is the usual depressing one, of a couple growing apart and separating.
So it was certainly an exciting and bravura twist (followed by another one, with Amy returning), but as my interest in seeing "what happens next" elevated, my interest in the overall story diminished. The book becomes a textbook case of Omniscient Sociopath Syndrome (see also: Moriarty in Sherlock), where apparently sociopathy is a neurological condition that makes it inevitable that even your most elaborate and Rube-Goldberg-like plans will come perfectly to fruition, no matter how many moving parts are involved, and no matter how many messy, unpredictable human beings come into play. So that was kind of wearying. It was nice to see things go wrong once for her, thus forcing her to improvise once, but the rest of the time, all the long-put-in-place mechanisms clicked predictably into place, in the same way that bricks float.
More concerning was the fact that the whole thing felt like some sort of MRA fever dream. Not one but two faked rape accusations, and generally taking advantage of a system that never sees the *man's* side of the issue, dammit. One of the most saddening (and trenchant) criticisms of the book pointed out that maybe its most improbable event was how a rape accusation in a small southern town was greeted with support and trust from the authorities, and not dismissal and suspicion. Ms. Flynn has a background in entertainment reporting, and is able to show that meeting place between entertainment and journalism with perceptive detail -- but it's a world that immediately trusts the "she said" side of any "he said/she said" dispute. (I guess reddit doesn't exist in this universe?)
That said, people make an interest argument that it's a feminist novel. And true, the first section of the novel clearly sets up a passive, Lifetime-heroine style character who patiently ignores her own needs and lives in denial as her marriage collapses. And in the second section, when "real Amy" takes the wheel... I don't think I've read anything since Game of Thrones that so hamhandedly belittled me, as a reader, for buying into a literary convention. With GoT, it was "how dare you take fantasy seriously -- medieval Europe was *actually* like this". With Gone Girl, it's more like "how dare you respect such a passive woman". So, yay, woman who takes charge? even if she's a depraved, relentless murderer?
I dunno. It still feels like a pretty profound/disturbing sort of victim-blaming on the part of those critics. And on some level I feel distressed that this book even exists, if it means that the next woman who reports being raped is asked if it was some crazy frame-up, like in Gone Girl. But I do have to ask myself if I'd feel such consternation towards that sociopath if she were a man.
And then there's part three, where Flynn turns the book towards what she, I think, sees as the real point of the book: a toxic marriage, and the lies such partners willingly tell each other in the long term. And this is where it felt like she was forcing things. She tried to get me in the headspace of Nick, who somehow needs this woman because nobody else would "kill for him", and his motivations began to feel alien to me. It was a similar problem with Amy, whose lack of self-awareness was problematic throughout, but whose "omg Nick really loves me" felt... oddly stupid, even if it made sense in terms of her narcissism. Basically it felt like Flynn had this endpoint -- getting them back together in a miserable, doomed marriage -- and started forcing the plot moves to make that happen.
It's the sort of story-engineering that makes you look back on the rest of the book with a suspicious eye: oh yeah, why didn't Amy ensure that there was a body for the police to find -- somehow cleverly engineering that another corpse would be mistaken for her? Surely our omnipotent sociopath would put that last nail in the coffin and ensure a conviction. Oh, right, so that Flynn could do the "Amy comes home" plot move.
It's weird -- I love genre fiction, but I preferred the 'literary fiction' parts of this story to the exciting, page-turning murder thriller.
For next week: I'm watching season 7 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising. I just finished Poul Anderson's delightful The High Crusade (aliens attack a medieval village -- hijinks ensue) and started The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku.
 It's a style very well-suited to Mr. Barry's occasional forays into breezy, Carl Hiaasen-esque Florida crime fiction.
 Or, let's be real here: Jason Robert Brown's marriage. There was even threat of a lawsuit.
 I hope there's a gallows-humorous novel out there with an antihero 'thriller villain' who watches their elaborate "predicting everyone's behavior" plan go completely and spectacularly to shit. "It was a perfect plan, a beautiful and flawless accounting of every variable, and now... now all the wrong people are dead and it's not my fault, okay?"
 Though to the book's credit, Flynn does a masterful job of hiding each of the plans in plain sight -- or at least burying an inscrutable hint about what's coming. "Ah -- she faked being tied up and raped in college + she found a 'useful' length of twine = she's going to damage her own wrists to implicate Desi" -- that sort of math, where it's nigh impossible to sort out what the clue means, but glaringly, embarrassingly obvious in retrospect.
 And I have to feel disappointed that David Fincher wound up directing the film adaptation -- the man who made Francis Urquhart seem dour and joyless must have created a villain here without any sense of relatable mischief.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none