In 2002, Julie Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor was Divine came out. It was a spare novel, told through the eyes of a never named family, which told with their experience in the Japanese internment camps. For some reason, I always connect this book with our kids' buyer Amie, as she was a huge fan of the novel, and continues to be (it's still often on her staff rec shelf).
The new novel is just as spare, and mentions lots of names this time, but its format is just as unconventional. The in-store lit group was excited to read a short book for once, though the savvy ones successfully guessed that I would follow it up with something long (see below). We met yesterday evening to discuss our responses to The Buddha in the Attic.
The format of the book is first-person plural. While one can look back to Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” for inspiration, and the second coming in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, I was able to think of a few more titles had come out more recently—Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, by Dean Bakopoulos and The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard.
In Otsuka’s case, it worked to good effect, for most of us. The story was like an amoeba, telling a group narrative, while morphing to note individually stories, sometimes for just a line, with at most a paragraph. Otsuka's line is hypnotic,and as C. noted, you can see the author's background as an artist in the work, in the intricacy of the construction.
And then it was revealed. It didn’t work for N. Beautiful, yes. A novel? For her, no. Is there a plotline? But without a character or characters to follow, it just didn’t connect to one of our readers. I noted that having more poetry than I’ve read since leaving high school, it seemed like this book could have easily been labeled a poem, or a cycle of poems. But we all know that this change of category would have cut potential sales from 200,000 to 2,000. Not likely to happen.
For the most part, the rest of us disagreed, though I was on N.’s side for one point. Towards the end of the book, the voice changes. Otsuka switches the first person plural narrative from one amorphous group to another. I wondered if this was not one “we” too many. How would The Buddha in the Attic read if this coda had not used the device?
Needless to say, we didn’t spend an hour talking about structure. R. and M. both wondered how true the stories were. We were quite aware of the long list of references in the acknowledgements, but this was a novel, after all, and there was no need to hew closely to the facts of the researched lives. Only one problem—you know that folks will read this, even academics, and interpret these stories as facts, so it’s probably not a bad idea to make too much up.
Coincidentally I had just heard academic Leslie Bow on Wisconsin Public Radio's University of the Air discuss her book, Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South. One of the interesting things about her interview actually gave more weight to Otsuka’s unique structure. Alas, the book is a net-priced textbook, so don’t expect to find this at your local bookstore.
Bow constantly answered questions generalizing about the Asian American experience in the South. She’d have one example and that was the way it was. I thought more effective was the way that Otsuka told a group experience, but then was able to highlight the differences in the stories. One major difference was that Bow noted that in the segregated South, the Asians were often confused about whether to be categorized as “white” or “colored”, and while they themselves thought they were colored, more often than not, the society was willing to group them with white.
Not so in Otsuka’s narrative, where the Japanese were not allowed to eat at certain restaurants, and had to see movies in the section for African Americans. Sorry folks, I’m not using the term that was used. I wondered what explained the difference between Asians in the South and the West? We suspected that this was a question of relative numbers, but I’ll leave the answer to the historians.
I would say that aside from N.’s reservations, The Buddha in the Attic went over quite well, with several of us passionate devotees—two attendees had read it twice. J. loved it. S. loved it. C. loved it. C2 noted that she is not one to dwell on structure, and she enjoyed it as a good story. And as for N., she agreed, as did we all, that having a less-than-stellar read on a book can often make the conversation afterwards more interesting and spirited.
Here are our upcoming discussions. Feel free to attend:
Tuesday, September 4, 2012, 7 pm (date changed to avoid Labor Day): West of Here, by Jonathan Evison.
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