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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Literary sludge insults child abduction issue


IN APPROPRIATE: A Novel of Culture, Kidnapping, and Revenge in Modern Japan, by Debito Arudou. Lulu Enterprises, 2011, $10, 149 pp., (paper)

That prickly gadfly of gaikokujins, Debito Arudou, has done it again, diminishing a worthy topic — in this case, international child abduction — into dross with a leaky, untrained pen.

His labored prose is tolerated when he protests monthly in "Just Be Cause" for The Japan Times. I wince through his columns to extract kernels of truth since, applaud or abhor him, Arudou's voice clangs out consistently and sincerely against injustice.

I may be a writing snob, but I recognize Arudou's work to fight discrimination in Otaru's public baths, his extensively researched "Handbook for Newcomers, Immigrants and Migrants in Japan," and his website, debito.org, as all necessary resources for victims of prejudice.

Yet reading a novel in Arudou's underwhelming style insults the seriousness of international child abduction, the literary form itself, and any reader expecting something more than sludge.

With his debut novel, "In Appropriate," Arudou goes beyond any column in its capacity to spread slime. His characters resemble nothing more than slanderous caricatures. In one short book, he manages to reduce Japanese women to one of two extremes: the Asian sexually free goddess or the hermetically closed puppet of a domineering family.

Japanese father-in-laws are sneaky, intractable and evil; the mother in law is barely mentioned. (The protagonist can not even remember her name.)

Even minor characters are stereotyped, from dim-witted and prejudiced Japanese officials to a coldly distant, bigoted estranged father.

Arudou remains steadfast in unfurling aspersions: His protagonist, Gary Schmidt, possesses every undesirable trait associated with the expat man in Japan. A most unpalatable hero, Gary resists any appeal for sympathy and suffers his "tragedy" with no discernible growth. A young Lothario in the early stages of flashback in the novel, Gary reduces the burgeoning love for his future wife to something revered mostly for its heightened sexual appeal: "after all, the harder the case, the sweeter the snatch."

Gary remains, alas, the same one-dimensional cretin through the final pages of the book, facing "the next stage of his life" — following his failed abduction attempt in Thailand, a place favored over others because "the women there are not only attractively Asian, but also more warm and accommodating than he had experienced anywhere."

Why should we care for Gary's pain? A university dropout who admittedly "milked both eikaiwa sectors" thanks to his "charm, good looks and party attitude" to make a modest, temporary success in a country he derides at every turn, he self-righteously attempts to steal his teenage daughter and 11-year-old son — "rescuing them from the racist, oppressive attitude" of his family in Japan after nearly 15 years of flaccid acceptance.

All sympathy flees as Gary paints even the children in stereotype: the angry, programmed teenaged girl versus the confused affable son.

The only character even remotely sympathetic is the American lawyer at the consulate, Scott Rostow, who advises Gary that "these kids aren't toddlers. They're teens who have been in Japan their entire lives. And you're just going to take it upon yourself to take them away?"

Hardly illuminating wisdom, but it's the best you can expect from this book.

As for plot, pacing and style — little of anything worthy resonates. In Arudou's hand, plot inconsistencies fumble an awkward structure and dialogue jars the ear with inauthenticity. Neither suspense nor tension enlivens the action.

With every advance a foregone conclusion, the plot serves only to forward numerous opportunities to insert one of Arudou's trademark diatribes, covering everything from discrimination against foreigners to Japan's postbubble recession.

Fighting social injustice in Japan for foreigners has become Arudou's lifework. In this book, though, the responsibility to refine his main weapon — writing — cries out more loudly than any of his accurate criticisms of Japanese policies.

If I could prick his conscience, I would tell Arudou to learn how to convey compassion in characters amid multifaceted issues, to discover the merits of presenting a balanced argument instead of venting blindly, to recognize his own limitations, and to improve his nonfiction writing style before venturing into fiction.

Readers who want a personal glimpse into the often tragic world of international child abduction may want to try a novel by someone who takes good writing, not simply issues, to heart. This one is simply a tragedy of hubris — in every way most inappropriate.



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