While I was really underwhelmed by the one upcoming Perennial title, Everything Here is the Best Ever, that I picked up at Pub Rep several weeks back, my time has been redeemed: the wasted hour and a half spent with the short story collection has been exchanged by the splendid several hours of reading I had with Malena Watrous's upcoming debut novel, If You Follow Me. So, Harper Perennial, good work. You're still my favorite paperback line from one of my favorite publishers.
A year after her father's suicide, following graduation from college, Marina follows her girlfriend, Carolyn, to Japan to teach English to the students of Shika, a rural Japanese town. Expecting the cliches of urban Japanese life, the two women are surprised by the positives and negatives of living in a Japanese small town. Much of the book is framed around Marina (and Carolyn) consistently failing to follow gomi law, or Japanese garbage law. After each garbage slight against their neighborhood, Marina receives notes from her supervisor, Hiro Miyoshi, who despite his disappointment in her failure to quickly acclimate to the rules of the village, understands her need for defiance and companionship. As the relationship between Marina and Caroyln evolves, collapses, and falls apart, the forces of a foreign land lay their claims to both women, and the culture that was locked out of their two-person house encampment becomes a refuge for Marina, a chance to come to terms with the recent past, the troubling present, and the unknown future.
Whenever I pick up a book about Westerners in Japan, I am usually prepared to put it back down. These "fish out of water" stories are so often flimsy excuses for cultural prejudice and gleaning laughs out of foreign cliche. Japan is the biggest target of them all - it seems that the more vivid a culture, the more likely it is to be skewered and parodied by the Western world. There is, of course, nasty historical reasons why the Japanese have so often been caricatured for American and European nations: mean-spirited propaganda dressed up in a Bugs Bunny cartoon was considered a point scored for Uncle Sam.
I get the historical reasons why such horrible representations exist, but the fact that it so often appears in present day Western pop culture is abhorrent. I was not the only one made uncomfortable by the race relations of Lost in Translation, where one of the protagonists is a recently graduated intellectual American girl, in Japan for an extended stay while her photographer husband travels around for work. Marina and Charlotte (of the movie) have a bit in common - they are similar strangers in similar strange land, except that Marina's perspective on Japan is of a small, rural village, while Lost in Translation bombards its characters with all that is bright and strange and frenzied of Tokyo urban life. I suppose encountering an after-school karaoke club and learning the many terms of gomi law is not quite as an exuberant as what urban Japan would offer, but the real difference between perspectives is that Marina, while striving to do better and frustrated when she does worse, lacks the malaised contempt that seems to drive the characters in Lost in Translastion. While they are careful to be separate entities - the Westerners in Tokyo, Americans traveling abroad - Marina and Carolyn face a a cultural challenge with a genuine attempt at fitting in.
The novel doesn't make easy jokes of its foreign subjects. Marina, quietly giggling at a superior's English pronunciation, still reminds herself that after all the time she's spent in Japan, "I shouldn't still think this is funny."
Gomi law becomes much more than an obstacle for Marina to overcome. It becomes the overwhelming point of her year in Japan - What is to be thrown away? What is to be kept? Where do you put your discarded things? Why do we put them there? What should we do with what is no longer of use to us?
I can recommend If You Follow Me for both its coming of age story and its cultural fairness. I don't strive to make political correctness a requirement in what I read, but in this case, being fair helps to elevate what could have been an episodic tale of Americans in Japan into a heartfelt document of a young woman attempting to get the most out of the new world around her.