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    My little golden book about manipulativeness

    Amritas writes that Arthur Golden’s book Memoirs of a Geisha is going to be made into a movie. Now that it’s mentioned, I’m surprised it didn’t happen long ago, when the book was an event.

    Not that I’m sad the movie hasn’t been made or eager to see it once it is. I hated that freakin’ book. And for once, I’m not heaping the usual Japan specialist’s disdain on someone who didn’t get things right. Golden has a lot of experience in Japan, by all accounts–and while the cutesy, contrived is-it-fact-or-fiction controversy was annoying, there were many passages that seemed genuinely revelatory of contours in Japanese thinking. (I should note, though, that the book is set in Kyoto and all my experience in Japan has been here in the Tokyo-Yokohama area.)

    No, what I detested about Memoirs of a Geisha were two things. One was its prose. People writing about Japan or in the voices of Japanese characters just can’t stop themselves from giving each word equal rhythmic weight. You know, that every-syllable-is-a-cherry-blossom-petal-floating-softly-to-the-surface-of-the-lake -while-a-crane-glides-by monotone that’s supposed to convey Zen-like contemplativeness, or something. There are writers whom it’s hard to translate without slipping into that, even if you try to put some gusto into it; Kawabata Yasunari is notorious for being difficult that way, for example. In Golden’s case, he was probably just giving the paying customers what they want out of their Japan fantasies.

    I’d imagine that’s the source of my second problem with the book, also. That is, Golden breaks faith with his readers from the very first paragraph:

    Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.” I expect you might put down your teacup and say, “Well, now, which was it? Was it the best or the worst? Because it can’t possibly have been both!” Ordinarily I’d have to laugh at myself and agree with you.

    Surely Golden could reasonably assume that the way many in his book’s potential readership were introduced to the very concept of the great novel was through reading Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in junior high school (at least, those of us who managed to squeak through before Dickens was thrown over for Toni Morrison). It’s hard to follow Sayuri into the world of the geisha when one is involuntarily giggling at the thought of putting down one’s chocolate (dutifully fussed over by four servants, of course) with a rattle and demanding, “Well, now, which was it? The best of times or the worst of times? Wisdom or foolishness? Come on! Belief or incredulity? Which, then? Huh? HUH?”

    But even for people who don’t remember their Dickens, this opening is a micalculation. It’s exactly because we’ve all felt simultaneously happy and sad, or triumphant and frustrated, that we go to novelists. The great ones, from Dickens to Austen to Melville, help us sort out and interpret and contextualize our own conflicts. The lesser-but-fun ones, like Agatha Christie, entertain us by turning human conflict into puzzle or drama. But whatever you’re looking for in a novel, contradictory feelings are part of it. This passage requires you to confront, consciously, the certainly that Golden thinks either you or his own narrator is a simpleton. And that’s before you even turn the first page.

    Of course, things get worse from there. Golden can’t be content to get some sexy good fun out of the fact that he’s writing about geisha. Whenever something amusingly trashy happens–the heavy-handed way our heroine’s rival descends from being one of the most popular and classiest performers to being a prostitute in the gutter is only the most obvious example–you’re not allowed to just enjoy the pulpy soap-operaness. Golden has to have Sayuri jerk back into that reflective tone that signals Mysterious Oriental Wisdom, as if she’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in The Joy Luck Club.

    All in all, an annoying read. The movie might actually be an improvement if it just gives way to stereotypes and, without asking to be taken seriously, titillates people for an hour or two.

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