Book Review 25: What's the point?

Sarah said my geisha problem was related to this. My love of geisha was a manifestation of an impossible longing to experience a Japan that doesn't exist anymore. She said I would continually be frustrated in my quest for something culturally savage and pure in a world where culture is a domesticated mutt. I would keep falling into the arms of the lovely geisha, searching for an epiphany which would never come because I was after something forever lost.

Page 159-160

I really wanted to like Isaac Adamson's "Tokyo Suckerpunch: A Billy Chaka Adventure" more than I did. It promised to be a humorous detective story in Tokyo. Unfortunately, it just glides over the plot points and cultural references without doing anything "real."

It's like going a bus tour of a city where you don't get off the bus. You see a lot of stuff, but don't actually do anything. At the end of the day, it was a nice way to kill a few hours. You witnessed stuff, but experienced nothing.

That's the way this book feels.

Billy Chaka is a reporter for a magazine with the cliché title of "Youth in Asia." The pun was funny when I first heard it in the 80s, but Adamson wrote his book this century and could have done better.

Chaka is in Japan to cover the 19-and-Under Handicapped Martial Arts Championship. This is a neat idea and Adamson explores it a little, but before he can actually get into the story of the tournament, Chaka gets pulled in to other adventures.

Chaka is a regular visitor to Japan and wears the title of Gaijin (foreigner) with bemusement. He speaks fluent Japanese, knows all there is to know about Japanese culture, and has friends throughout Japanese society. He is expert fighter.

Chaka is also the best writer Youth in Asia has ever seen, and he gets tons of fan mail. He alone is responsible for the high circulation figures the magazine has.

Yet for all the magic he offers as a writer, he is much more a private detective.

I imagine Adamson is building up Chaka for humorous effect. The guy is the best at almost everything he does, and is smarter than anyone else around him. By making Chaka an absurd hero/character, Adamson may be trying to prepare a reservoir of humor. But it doesn't really work, and I have trouble suspending my disbelief with Chaka.

Chaka's main weakness is the Geisha. He is obsessed with Japan's traditional hostesses/entertainers.

My reporter's eye for detail was compromised when there was a geisha in the room.

Page 18

Chaka's adventures begin when he is sitting in his friend's bar after arriving in Japan to cover the tournament. A Geisha comes in, trying to escape pursuers. He helps her, then single handedly beats up four mobsters. And thus the chase begins.

When another friend is killed in a fire, Chaka hires his driver, and goes on the trail of this mysterious Geisha and the truth about the fire.

The story has some interesting twists and turns and Adamson does a good job of tying different elements of the plot together, in a story that involves film, organized crime, and unnamed religious cults.

While he does tell us what is happening, Adamson doesn't bother to tells us why it happens. At one point, about two thirds of the way through the book, a major character starts to give Chaka the full story and background about what is happening, why it's happening, and why it matters.

Rather than take this opportunity to actually give the reader the background of the story and put all the weird actions into context, Adamson takes the cheater's way out. Chaka falls asleep at the beginning of the exposition and wakes up when it's all over. So after all this time, the reader never gets to learn the back-story.

Much of the story is actually pointless. Like the bus ride I mentioned above, most of the book moves along with Chaka acting as a mere observer. The hero doesn’t really do anything except try and figure out what happened. While he appears to be a central element in the story, he does almost nothing to move the story along.

Billy Chaka isn't driving the boat of the plot here. Instead, he is bouncing around in the wake, like a water skier who lost their skis and is desperately clinging to the tow line. And yet, according to characters, he really matters. Maybe we would know why if he hadn't fallen asleep during the explanation.

While the over all plot is interesting, the problem is in the story telling.

The book tends toward the cliché, and not just in the magazine title. I am certainly no expert on Japan, but Adamson's Japan doesn’t seem real. The Japan of this book is built on a foundation of popular American preconceptions about Japan.

If I asked a bunch of different Americans, who have no direct experience with Japan, to list a bunch of things that they associate with Japan the list might look like this:

  • Geisha
  • High-end vending machines
  • Used panty vending machines
  • Yakuza members with missing fingers
  • Odd religious sects
  • Strict social hierarchy
  • An obsession with politeness in speech
  • Not saying anything directly
  • Love hotels
  • Karaoke
  • Bullet trains
  • Clean taxis

All those elements are in this books. Yet there is something fundamentally inauthentic about the way Adamson writes about the country. It's almost as if he made a point to stick as many "Japan" references into his book as possible, just to get them in there. In the end, we get an American pencil sketch of Japan, rather than any kind of authentic portrait or backdrop with the detective story.

In Japan, it was different. The trains were surgically clean, built with cutting-edge technology. To preserve their famous efficiency, they were crammed too tight for sentimentality. When you rode them, you didn't even feel like you were travelling, but being transmitted from one place to another like ones and zeroes being sent over the Internet. Japanese trains were just as depressing, only in a different way.

Page 108

Several cars blasted their horns, but it was impossible to tell whether their response was in agreement, dissention, or related to the Tsuguri sentiments at all. The sword society ultranationalistic ideology truck was bringing traffic to a standstill.

"We Japanese, the people of the sun, were once feared and respected as the mightiest nation in Asia. Now countries laugh at us. We have no defenses, no warriors, only an army of greedy slaves bowing to the West! We traded our swords for cell phones, our pride for microwave pizza!"

Page 11

Adamson does have some nice phrasing and descriptions in the book.

I stopped imagining long enough to cross the room and have a look inside the hotel mini-fridge. There wasn't anything left but a single kiwi-lime-strawberry flavored wine cooler. I needed a drink, but not that bad. I hoped I never needed a drink that bad and closed the fridge.

Page 187

She wore a simple black baby T, remarkable only for its elasticity and a purple vinyl mini-skirt shorter than haiku.

Page 254

Adamson puts together some vivid phrases that made me laugh with their understated humor. He goes off on some fantastically absurd tangents. At one point his characters spent four pages discussing the merits of taking the stairs in a building, instead of the elevator. It had almost nothing to do with the story, but it was awesome. It was fun, absurd, logical, and silly all at the same time. Sections like that and lines like those above show that Adamson has real talent.

But Adamson can't leave behind the cliché jokes.

As a writer, Kawabata was a pretty good terrorist.

Page 58

Now that's a joke I enjoy when I run across it in everyday life, but it's certainly not a new joke.

He was moving so slowly that he could have been working for the government.

Page 300

And I'm sure there were lines like that in Plato's Republic.

Perhaps I am missing the point. Maybe Adamson isn't writing a humorous mystery novel. Maybe he's actually writing a satire of a private detective story. Or maybe it's a satire of American in Asia stories and cultural conflict. It's possible that's what he's doing, and I simply don't read enough of those genre's to get the satire. It wouldn't be the first time I missed the point.

Even satire requires a level of authenticity which is too often lacking in this book. The author may be making fun of typical writing conventions, but if that's the case, he's not embracing them enough to turn them inside out. Instead, he's just checking them off a list.

I did get some enjoyment from the book. I wanted to know what was going to happen next. In general, I couldn't predict the next plot twist, but afterwards, the all made sense. And the book is great for some light reading. But it's too shallow to really dive in and take a look around.

I can't really recommend this book. It's too cliché, too stereotypical, and too pointless to be a must-read. I may try some of Adamson's later novels to see if this is an ongoing problem. "Tokyo Suckerpunch" is entertaining at times, and if you prefer to see cities from the inside of a tour bus, you may enjoy it. But if you prefer to experience something more deeply, this may not be the book for you.

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