For Brain Tesesco, life as an adolescent is — much like his Napoleonic physical stature — nasty, brutish, and short.
There is no figure more wretched than a dweebish alpha-male aspirant. An efficacious cad is loathsome in uncomplicated ways, but a failed cad provokes a much murkier emotional response. Someone like this might, for example, tour Tokyo with his band, fetishize the local women, lose his virginity to a prostitute, betray his friends, and reap the narcissistic bliss so long denied to him — the relish of philandering in a foreign land. But occasionally, the tortured neurosis of an underdog still haunts him. It’s painful-hilarious like watching a boy trying to outrun his superego.
This is where we find Brain Tedesco in the first half of Big in Japan, M. Thomas Gammarino’s debut novel. At first a touchingly ineffectual lead songwriter for a nerdy prog-rock act, Brain slowly forsakes his inner life as he discovers his blossoming fetish for Japanese women. He marries Miho, the first masseuse with whom he has painfully awkward sex. His hedonistic high does not last for long, of course, and soon we find him literally eating shit. We’ll get to that in a moment.
If this premise sounds uncomfortable to you, it’s because it is. It’s hard for any urbane reader to disassociate such a narrative with the squirm-worthy moral ick of racial/sexual politics, especially as it relates to white male fantasies of a submissive, conquerable Asia. The title and premise alone will attract readers reverent of Edward Said’s Orientalism and already determined to loath the novel’s anti-hero.
To the novel’s credit, Big in Japan is more complex and self-reflexive than the title suggests, and Gammarino deserves congratulation for his courage in opening this can of worms and staring it down so unflinchingly. He’s critical of the gaijin‘s ignorances but resists the urge to wallow in contrived racial apologetics. To call this novel unflinching might even be an understatement. Gammarino describes, in Hi-Definition visuals and intricate neuro-dramas, such sordid things as coprophilia (Google this at your own peril), interrogative genital torture, racial exploitation and the ugliest of them all — the unchecked male ego.
This is, as one advanced internet reviews put it, not a book you would lend to your mom. It’s a book you filch from your bawdy older brother’s collection. I’d call it brutalist lad lit. Think a more jocular Joshua Furst, a much smarter Chuck Palahniuk. Think a hipper cross-cultural version of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons as narrated by the suitors. As in a lot of belligerent pomo white male lit, there’s a lot of stylistic pyrotechnics — there’s even a bold-faced, size-14-font stream-of-consciousness Japanglish monologue towards the end. Whether this strikes you as odious or not will depend on your mood.
And Brain is not the same brand of nerd as Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao, another fictional virgin on a mission to get laid. There’s little of that innate sweetness, just a bruised male ego trapped in an unlovable body. It doesn’t help that the most articulate characters in this novel are caddish adolescent guys, and the whole work practically marinates in bitter testosterone. Indeed, in the process of fetishizing the Tokyo girls, Brain comes to believe that the logos of the universe resides in ruthless sexual competition, that in “the primacy of fucking” we find the raison d’être to every human practice, that “if everybody was getting laid as much as they wanted to, there’d be no need for such things [as God or music]” — or any sort of civilization.
It’s a testament to Gammarino’s wit and craft that we can take the slightest sympathy in Brain’s petty competitive urges and anxieties. Brain grins when his overachieving friend gets fired, bullies his Japanese students when they spurn his advances, and steals from his band mates to finance his brothel habit. The novel takes an especially dark turn after Brain, in a fit of post-coital bravado, brutally pummels his drummer (and supposed best friend) and quits the band, essentially declaring all his past music and politesse a moot necessity of sexual repression. Then of course comes the torture scene and shit-eating. It gets fairly bleak. For those who don’t enjoy a bit of Bret Easton Ellis-esque grotesquerie and cruel humor, the urge to abandon this book may at times become overriding.
But to focus on the lurid plotline is to do Gammarino’s talents injustice. Gammarino possesses a tart, pitch-perfect voice that would whip any McSweeney’s (or Gawker) writer into an envious frenzy. The novel is aggressively readable and luridly entertaining to an almost televisual degree. It’s more laugh-out-loud funny than most TV comedies (to which his voice owes a debt), and his relentless prying into male insecurities, though unpleasant, will ring dismayingly true to anyone who has talked to frat boys and businessmen.
And behind the comedic fireworks lurks something more serious. The author himself sees Brain’s odyssey as a negotiation between “the Apollonian and the Dionysian.” A few figures emerge as moral beacons in the shit storm of Brain’s life. The story of the hedonistic bassist’s surprising conversion to Christianity offers one of the most moving defenses of religion I’ve encountered in recent fiction. In another scene, a charismatic punk girl offers a delicious deconstruction on the history of white male ‘yellow fever,’ interrogating Brain until, finally, he admits to wishing to undo all of Western feminism. An American conservative seeking a patriarchal Neverland in Asia — why, I never. From my experience talking to the more conservative sort of gaijin (I grew up in an expatriate community in Taiwan, after all), I find this exchange to be hilariously accurate.
Lastly, Gammarino’s brand of racial humor is admirably self-conscious, though perhaps less so than he presumes. He isn’t above retreading stale jokes about conflating L’s and R’s, for example. The last time anyone considered this even remotely edgy was when American tabloids discovered Yoko Ono. By now it’s worse than offensive — it’s totally lame, dude.
I want to give Gammarino credit for a cleverly written and archly entertaining debut novel, but aspects of the book sit uneasily with me — the grotesque cynicism, the pervasively rotten views on sex, the fact that Brain’s failings are portrayed as personal while the Japanese characters’ flaws are portrayed as ingrained, cultural. Or perhaps the repulsive selfishness of the main American characters is meant as the more damning of the critiques. In which case, kudos, and tenderness be damned — this book is a comedic indictment of everyone.
Kevin T. S. Tang recently graduated Dartmouth College with a honors degree in English, a post-bac in saying hi when you’re actually waving at the person behind him, and a M.A. in retracting his greetings awkwardly and running away. Besides his short stories and book reviews, Kevin has also published a translation of Huang Fan’s short story on Words Without Borders. He is now an MFA student at Columbia University. You can also find Kevin’s design portfolio at: http://kevintstang.com/