Friday, August 18, 2006

Book-A-Day #32 (8/18): Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey

This is a short, supposedly non-fictional book about a novelist's trip to Japan with his twelve-year-old son (though I recall some reviews saying that liberties had been taken with the truth -- as one would expect from a novelist). Carey's son, Charley, had just become fascinated with some anime and manga stories (mostly Gundam Wing and related stuff), and Carey leveraged that into a father-son trip to Japan in which Carey would interview some people related to anime and manga (for, presumably, this very book).

I see from looking this book up at Amazon that it has a lot of one-star reviews from people who claim to know a lot more about anime and manga than Carey does, and knocking this book as a poor introduction to those areas. These reviews would have a bit more weight if that was anything like what this book is trying to do, but of course it isn't. Carey doesn't claim to be even the expert his son is; he's an interested layman, and a careful reader/viewer who's just started to work out all of the subtleties and cultural assumptions of these works.

It's a slim book, and doesn't really come to any conclusions -- Carey is trying to get closer to his son through the trip to Japan and a series of interviews with creators of things that Charley likes, but Charley spends most of the book either quietly sullen or just plain quiet. Carey did invent a fictional young man, Takashi, who acts a bit like their guide, but he doesn't give Takashi very much to do, and the conflicts that were reportedly the reason he invented Takashi don't actually add up to much.

But the writing is superb and the tone is thoughtful. Wrong About Japan might not be a great guidebook to Japan, or to the world of anime and manga, but it's a fine meditation on fathers and sons, and different kinds of cultural estrangement. While reading it, I came to regret recent time spent reading bad novels, or minor, light non-fiction. Carey is a writer who doesn't settle for OK, and he makes me want to be equally demanding as a reader. I've only read one of Carey's novels so far (Jack Maggs), but I want to read more of them now, and I want to read better books in general, instead of settling for literary junk food. So this was well worth reading.

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