A Japan of the Mind
By Kane X. Faucher.
The Berlitz phrase book meant to throw a linguistic bridge between two tongues is an otiose item in my hip pocket, and any attempts I make to crunch and grind the appropriate phrases in their English pronunciation are met with confusion, snickers, or derision.
I am en route to have an evening with Tom Bradley, author of Lemur, Even the Dog Won’t Touch Me, Vital Fluid, and books like The Curved Jewels that scandalously have black-marked him for his brazen critique of a country he still resides in: Japan. I am ferried along by a perpetually smiling rent-a-driver as we swish through narrow winding roads rimmed on all sides by an austere dun landscape like one of those antique sepia photos of exaggeratedly stiff people sitting for the Sunday portrait. The mountain of Hijiyama is an etiolated backdrop, the windward western slope that took the cauterizing brunt of an atomic bomb, nature weakly creeping across its once vaporized face. I do not pay a visit to the atomic bomb museum. The entire region is now patched with American impedimenta and the ragged poultice of commercialism across its indelible scars.
As we sluice toward the previously arranged meeting place, a chome virtually untouched since the era of the Shoguns, other details insinuate themselves within the paucity of features: miniature gardens, homunculus-sized houses topped by roofs with the trademark wisp on their edges. The angular mushroom caps of hokora Shinto shrines erupt every few blocks as a diminutive spirit-suburb grafted upon the village-scape. The meandering, anfractuous streets are filled with menacingly overwhelming choice of direction, an ancient labyrinth boiling up from the earth that takes the form of a feudalist version of a miniature golf course. I am let out by the driver who places his hands together with that same obsequious smile of servitude, apologizing in broken English that he cannot take me any further.
My first step in search of Bradley is definitely on the wrong foot, my large boot almost throwing my whole body over the crumbling rim of an open sewer with its noxious bouillabaisse of old, dead carp. Recapturing my step as to avoid being immersed in that slurry, I notice that eyes have already clapped on to my movement: seemingly eldritch inhabitants are a proxy backbone support to the lumbago-afflicted structures, no doubt mumbling the suspicions and disapproval of the spectral kami that act as a sentry against foreign curiousity. A sound like the snapping of balsa crackles from beneath their faded indigo kimonos. Accustomed as I am in Canada to gratuitous space, I find myself bumping into these stern observers repeating Gomennasai a word that crumbles out of my mouth as “go-men-a-zeye”. Shadows throw themselves in a patchy umbra in such a crowded place, varicosed by alleys that were never kissed by the fatal absolution of the atom. These alleys are as braided as the Confucian strictures these people still abide by. I cannot fathom by recourse to any Cartesian grid the quasi-Byzantine hierarchy of obligations and moral debts, their resentments and timelessly inactive vendettas. I wonder if Bradley has become some kind of Asiatic Kurtz and I am to retrieve him. I wonder if there is a streak of sick humour in him in arranging for us to meet in Hiroshima, nearly 65 years after the atom’s harness was broken in an act of unfathomable aggression.
I strain my vision, long-trained to identify the usual landmarks that infest every region around the globe — that common architectural currency of McDonald’s and Starbucks that shoulder their arrogant way even in the most sacred and ancient of places. Yet I can find nothing of the kind, not one single sputtering tubeful of neon squeezed by the western world’s commercial grip. Tiny antique shops dot the streets, entrepreneurial residents making a scrap-salvage operation of their own past, the vintage of Japonoiserie long fallen from global fashion.
This western edge of Hijiyama brandishes the dull glints of a pre-Macarthur Nippon history: dusty display windows disgorging their contents in a Klimt-esque mosaic of twisted kyogen masks, devotional icons of Hirohito, dubiously serviceable telescopes, brass compasses with healthy patina, horn-rimmed spectacles, old Greater East Asia maps tattering themselves into dust, and bullet-riddled radiating sun banners that seem cruelly a portent to the twin blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of it, and me with it, are threatened to become swallowed up by the sallow light of the evening. I tarry at one window, under the watchful eyes of a motionless proprietor, gulping with one glance boy-sized uniforms pilled with mothballs, flexibly phallic swagger sticks, swords, horsewhips, more swords, daggers, scabbards for swords, long knives, swords, swords, swords; and perhaps in a back room are Manchurian scalps ranged neatly beside shrunken Indonesian heads. History, usually ensconced under hermetic glass in museums, is all for immediate sale here.
I turn a quick corner as though I am confident of finding my bearings, as if one place is just as any other, that it is only the details and the props that vary. My stomach muffs the face of a grandmother, the face recoiling and the obasan’s eyes throwing up a look of contortion before fine-tuning into a gaze of utter inscrutability. Despite having collided into an enormous white devil, she achieves a state of complete emotional inertia incapable by the gibberish-sputtering gaijin, making her and not me the immovable object. I tower over her as a trespassing ghost, a gust of tall wind easily traversed.
The voluntary exile and reclusion of tall men is difficult since they can usually be spotted from a distance, and here I was in search of a man who had chosen a lilliputian setting for his refuge, tucking himself behind a monocultural camouflage that is barely belly-high. I wonder if the best way to remain obscured is by becoming the most conspicuous figure possible, banking on being more easily purloined by a hyperbolic absurdity. Tom Bradley is perhaps the largest figure to be tossed off a piano — or out of China. Pitched out drunk on his ear by some surly Communist bouncer. It is this gargantuan dimension that always made me think that his physical magnitude would first throw a mighty shadow over his work that he would topple over one day, biophysical detail flattening the mythographical village he has erected.
Hiroshima mon amour: Bradley with affectionate cheek calls this Boom Town. Tacked on to the sad authentic remainder is a resolutely un-Japanese salad bar, tucked as a fast-food trough to a traditional Nippo-eatery like some jerry-rigged annex. That was where I was to meet Bradley, an eyesore embedded in an eyesore like a neon Hawaiian print on a variegated paisley tie.
What were my first impressions of a writer I had only met via his novels and over email? My messy kludge of assumptions had already become unclasped. I envisioned a Mongolian war-mystic, a one-time contestant on Confucian Idol, perhaps even an aqua-serpent emerging from the troubled meniscus of the Yangtze to do combat with a rubberized B-flick monster. Instead, he said hello.
He waved his Mr Elastic Man arm in invitation for me to sit at one of those low-slung tables with no chairs. His legs were already uncomfortably square-knotted on the unbearably quaint rice-straw floor mat, but this posture was just for show.
“What the guidebooks will never tell you is the key to cultural survival here, and that is to be the picture of obnoxiousness,” he said, turning his back, stretching out his legs, and using the table as an elbow rest. “We’ll eat off our laps,” he said over his shoulder with a twist of smile both rueful and benign.
He was less honey-toned than burred and raspy, a transmission from an alien craft in a first wave assault to overwhelm the human race with galactic poetry readings.
As if a blow against my largely phantom sense of masculinity ingrained by patchy absent paternal forces, I was not duly self-prepared for meeting an author with more vertical lift than myself. My height is something I awkwardly stumbled into and gradually came to enjoy for its apparent benefits of lording my size over others to defuse violence or let the assumptions of others run away with them about what my moderately built and loftier height potentially threatened. It always screwed with the optics: I look more the goon than the academic or literary sentimentalist I am on the page. Some of my more pretentious academic writing would easily figure me as being hatched from Harvard, and my occupation as a writer is enough to court all sorts of bleached assumptions that I must be a rakish stunt double for Baudelaire. But here I was lounging with an author ten inches taller than me, a 7’2″ ginger-furred yeti. If I was going to retrieve any lost masculinity, itself an unserious little jape of a concern, it would be through my more favoured sport of the arm wrestle. In light of the average height of this region, our ominous frames must have seemed much starker.
I could hear the inane tootling of music meant to be the diners’ emollient. Tom explained to me, given that I warned him of my fierce appetite, that this was an all-you-can-eat salad bar, a claim I think he wanted us to team up and challenge. Tom was a dedicated vegetarian, and I had tried a similar dietary regime for three years before defaulting to my more fiercely carnivorous self. Gorging myself on greens would be as affective for my gluttonous hunger as gulping air. But, Tom’s arena, Tom’s rules. Fortunately, while he snarfed up entire hedgerows of unidentifiable roughage, produce sections of bean sprouts, and fecund harvests of leafy greens, all of it levered into his mushy black-green mouth, I could busy myself with guzzling. He ate, in short, like a ravenous goat. This, of course, did not perturb me in the slightest, for it was great to sup with someone who dispensed with the unnecessary niceties of dinner nibbling since I tended to gobble in record black hole times myself. Since there was no consumable flesh on offer, I was happy that they had Sapporo. When I initially bearded Tom, I had erred on the preconception that he would be shutting the bar down with me, but he declined with the explanation that veggies are mostly water and so require nothing to wash them down with. I, of course, needed a barge of drink regardless of any practical purpose of washing something down.
Tom began braying for more, and I joined in the glutton’s chorus. Of course, it was less the bean sprouts or cabbage that I was after, but for the beer to arrive at the pace at which I drained them. Tom’s manner oscillated between being cordial and belligerent, so it may be easy to understand why so many have chosen him to be their go-to literary shaman. His deftness with language is beyond dispute. Whether it was the effects of intoxication — me 16 Sapporo in the bucket or him having eaten an entire prefecture’s worth of annual harvest — or the ease of familiarity between us, we began trading quips and talking the kind of shop relegated to those who are devout bibliophiles. We mounted topics of medieval occult, threaded this with segues to modernist American lit, chopped fine the failures of the Enlightenment, told bawdy jokes related to that historical sliver of mannerism, and matched our literary, aesthetic, cinematic, musical, architectural, and theatrical tastes with eerie similarity. We were both as equally home sparring on particulars of Roger Bacon as we were the poorly bequeathed hacked up quotations of Vegetius. Late era punk was buoyed by recourse to no less than Tesla, the Crimean War, and the invention of different pudding flavours. It would not be long before we arrived at the same conclusive stop on the mental crossroad: the inevitability of either collaborating on some work or vowing to destroy each other as mirror nemeses. There simply could not be two people so alike in many ways, coinciding in a place so alien and displaced, that we could not also adopt this view. We were both manically prolific, our writing at the speed of pen-thought, so a collaboration would at least be at an even pace. Plus, we were elusive writers, and when others would try to typecast our work, we proved slippery indeed. Polymathesis universalis.
Tom’s own eclectic life has made him a bit of a pasticheur, a writing where a mass of concatenating absurd items correspond in an electric if not tantrically suspect fashion. He keeps these things “on message”, so when I quiz him on his job of teaching dentists, his involvement in Tiananmen Square and the way he urged students to burn their papers so as not to fall into state hands, or even his American particulars, he quotes almost by rote the biographies one can peel off his interviews or from Wikipedia. As frustrating a mum journalistic subject he may prove to be, perhaps the story was in meeting him in person — a rare privilege so few have been given. And, perhaps the biographical details of his life — impossibly exotic or grayed out in the banal — are immaterial, and only serve to bring respite to those neurotic minds that need the backstory, to construct an entire edifice of “deeper meaning” by appealing to the messy particulars of an author’s life. It is a crude and senseless game of playing pin the life event on the literary donkey, and it really gets us nowhere no matter what the psychoanalysts say. Let Tom be his own enigma, and who are we to tut-tut if what he fashions for the public is a confabulation or an outright mythography?
In fact, I am so enthralled by mythography that this was part of the reason I was drawn to Tom’s work in the first place. My own mythography, that of Jonkil Calembour, is met in turn by Tom’s Sam Edwine and the motley of other characters he employs. It seems that we have both taken Borges almost too literally or perhaps psycho-textually: the line between fact and fiction is an antinomy, a method of division for those with limited imaginations. What was Céline’s autobiographical narrator but a mythographical Céline? What was Burroughs’ self in Junky but another patchwork of fact and fiction? It is a rather silly pursuit to resolve the issue of where the author’s life intrudes or becomes active in the author’s work. What can anyone hope to learn from it? Some authors are so zealously private that there is no hope of knowing them in any meaningful sense, so unless one is a rabid Platonist insisting on absolute truths, what difference if the author throws up a mythography in the place of a biography?
The salad bar proprietor was a little put out by our barking demands, and service was becoming gradually and intentionally slower. In the half-masked gloom of the Hijiyama night, I did pry further, probing my way to discern more about him. Only after the night was over was I held to strict confidence over some of the more delicately personal matters, matters I adamantly refuse to betray for any reason. I am left to speak superficially about the man, yet am at liberty to get strangled in the seaweed of his written depths. I can say this: there is one element of his disposition I could never square; namely, somewhere in that magma depth is the gelid, vibratory core of the mystic, and it is perhaps more this than the absurd volleys of hot plasma that move the archipelago of his literary themes by means of strange tectonic collision. Is he a closet mystic or is he just having us on? Those who attempt to approach him with such questions — which I knew better than to pose with such bald arrogance — are easily deflected by the zig-zag bunny hop of his fleet-witted one-line toss-offs. But are his witticisms laced with oblique references to St John of the Cross, Sufi poems, Albigensian ritual, and little black skulls with shining crystal eyes peering from an occultist’s curiousity cabinet? Perhaps. More salient still is the image of a man of 7’2″ bunny-hopping with bean sprouts in his teeth.
We didn’t default to interview-interviewed mode any more than we would be comfortable with the analyst-analysand model. It is for this reason that I won’t sully this encounter with the tedium of the Q&A seesaw. Nor did we opine the contemporary state of writing and writers, prattling on with shop-talk that serves no one’s interest except those would-be authors who desperately scan such encounters for some clue leading to their own way to recognition.
Japan has an interesting way of dealing with dissent. More effective than a barrage of rubber bullets or a miasma of tear gas, their method is quite simply to ignore it. The mighty Japanese snub of ignoring your existence has been wielded with saddening success against the Burakumin whose righteous complaints of being persecuted or getting less pay for more work is paved over with traditional Japanese stiff-lipped silence. When Tom came out with The Curved Jewels, he was treated to the double-barrel effect of being maligned as an outsider and for having the impropriety of critiquing the nation. His book was not suppressed — it was simply ignored by the mainstream press that was staunchly predisposed against it. In some other countries, Tom would have been dragged from his bed in the wee hours and shot black-ops style behind an industrial shed; on that apostrophe-shaped island nation, it was just yet another reason to despise him with restrained and polite silence, a method that has proven far more efficient than beating people with clubs or packing them off on a forced vacation at a re-education facility.
According to the slur to slander ratio, our respective home countries — for Tom the US, for me Canada — has a chequered past in relation to the treatment of the Japanese. Both our nations, in the febrile hysteria of the second World War, thought it would be a swell idea to round up all the Japanese in our countries and send them to camp. Not the kind of camp where you go canoeing and have fireside marshmallows and wieners while singing songs. If that were not enough in trying to beat down the moral and spiritual pride of a people, we engaged in broad spectrum domestic hate propaganda (and everyone from Bugs Bunny to Superman to Popeye was urging people on to “slap a Jap”, fomenting Japanophobia by means of ridiculously offensive caricaturing). If there is any residual ill-feeling some Japanese still feel toward North America, it may be somewhat justified on account of an atrocity committed 65 years ago, and a nation with the highest percentage of centenarians is bound to remember. Since then, the bombing campaign has taken the form of corporate American annexation of space and thought, a kind of baffling recidivism on the part of a nation that senselessly vapourized two small cities with but the push of a pen. As a token of our apology, please accept this Big Mac.
Tom was quick to spread his jeremiad evenly across Japan and the USA, and I was eager to receive them. His own writing attests to the cheerful barbarism of Americanization as well as a pointed critique against contemporary Japanese mores. It seems as though both sides — the bomber and the bombed — became irrevocably traumatized by the event, caught up in a vicious chiasm that it is hoped big business will resolve. If Tom has any likely precursor, it might be David Derek Stacton. Certainly, the same criticisms from the peanut jury of critics would apply equally: anachronistic, florid, paradoxical, and pretentious. Stacton’s gift, one shared as well by Tom, is in turning the fresh phrase so that the novels read like a series of connected aphorisms. Both of them wrote on Japan and were scornful of the US, and this is where the parallels end. One wonders why Tom elected to begin his Asiatic journey in a country bamboozled by a mole-marked man who urged everyone to burn their belongings so as to rip out the root of any possible chance for nostalgia. Let one hundred flowers bloom so that they may be mowed down or sprayed with cultural herbicide. Not much is known about Tom’s time in China — and his lips are sealed to anything but the right incantation of words yet to be uttered — but one can verily assume it was not a pleasure jaunt. Tom’s flight to Japan seems to make a bit more sense given the troubles of ’89, and yet it is a strange thing for an author to be both iconic and obscure in his self-representation, for the skill at cultivating such contrariety of character is a wager against a public that will seek to close the contradiction with a summarily shoddy conclusion. What is odd is that he chose to flee — not the opposite end of the globe — but virtually next door.
Tom’s novels are not portents of things to come, but are hypnotic forays into the things that cannot be changed — just as one of the cheap arguments by the US for the justification of nuclear build-up was that atomic weapons could not be disinvented, so may as well manufacture more. The events cannot be erased any more than we can pretend nuclear bombs are simply fiction. Tom is not a preacher of that gospel of hope and change, for the inherent cynicism of his novels betrays an absurdist streak that always brings us back to the beginning of the circle: it’s too late. Not that Tom walks around with a sandwich board bellowing that the end is nigh — no, the end was nigh long ago, and the horrific events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only serve to carve the last piece of punctuation on history’s epitaph. Today, even with suspicions around Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s own aggressive posturing via its nuclear tests, the era of fear surrounding the Big Boom has faded into the rug pattern of an indifferent history, the image having burned our retinas with an inconceivably effulgent force before our vision returns to near-normal. Still, it is in the shadow of this mountain, and that million-suns radiant bomb, that we still write beneath. It is that umbrella of a now more spectral horror that we attempt to defy such slogans as “there is no laughter after Auschwitz”. No, after Auschwitz and the Atom Bomb, there is arguably more laughter, a madcap variety shot through with gamma particles and pulverized by the deep crease left in our human condition. It is not a gallows humour, and it is not Chernobyl black comedy, but a warped and tinny laughter emitted by the patchwork men that were left to mind the nuked remnants of modernism’s apogee: the bomb and television — nucleations of different types. No, Tom’s novels provide us with the laughter of Kafka’s courts and Beckett’s Endgame. This laughter is articulated in the absurd studding of his sentences with as much bric-à-brac as they will carry.
Anyone who reads Tom already knows that he treats his sentences harshly, whipping them on like mules. This unity of the uncanny and the hyperbolic of Tom’s laughter — eliciting this risibility in us as well in his impossible plots — is already forecast in Lemur and runs to the present in what can be called his continued cresting of an engorged mating signal to court our inner penchant for the absurd.
The proprietor of the salad bar, no doubt ruined by our olympic consumption in exploiting the “all you can eat” promise beyond its assumed limit, was now gritting his teeth and telling us that he was closing. We made to protest since another half hour remained to us as was printed on the bar’s hours posted on the door, but we opted for uncharacteristic mercy, paid our bill, and left. My beery head, smothered by poor ventilation, needed some air — if air could be found in this compact space. Of course, I was more intent to smother myself by an acute need to powder my lungs with a cigarette. It would have been an incomplete encounter if I didn’t attempt to pry out of Tom some sort of scoop to appease the literary audience. Like two oversized pinballs in a machine choked with bumpers, we took our wending walk through the crinkle-cut Pagoda-inscribed-on-a-rice-grain labyrinth. It was during this jostled march through Tom’s adopted pied-à-terre that he apprised me of his next book, the contract just recently signed with ribald and upstart publishing house, Enigmatic Ink.
“The bomb is an end to one mode of understanding and the monstrous embryo of a new one,” he rasped. “The development of the brain that is our post-atomic condition has been pinched off at the stem. No matter if we remember the bombs because we were there, or know them as anecdotal in the fictional appraisal of history, it is all the same. I look around me here and it is almost palpable. You, me, these people…We are all bomb babies. We are all pin-headed heirs of a catastrophe that has made a mush of our genes and mushroom clouded our ability to comprehend. The successive generations are the fallout of a different kind of bomb only circumstantially linked to the detonation of the physical kind.”
“A modernist bomb?”
“Something like that,” he nodded, tugging and caressing his red bearded fringe. “The modernist project is the real subatomic force, the logical conclusion of which was purposely forestalled until mechanization hooked up in some dingy night club of the soul with the libidinal. We are the products of that chemo-ejaculation, irradiated seminal fluid swishing against the walls of a Pyrex test tube.”
The sleep of reason produces monsters, so says Goya. Is this what Tom was aiming at? Have we become metastasized monsters trucking across the landscape holding up false banners of peace and progress? The image Tom left in my mind struck up a conversation with memories of H. R. Giger’s babies in guns, babies in condoms, all these babies disfigured with nodular strings of warts upon their bloated corpse-grey skin — putrefying cherubs clogging an enormous machine. It was a damning pronouncement, but Tom made it without lamenting tone, as plainly stated as a matter of accepted fact. Atomic pinheads all, derivative “isotropes” from the atom’s split.
Tom seemed both nervous and enthusiastic about the release of his new novel, set for release on August 6th, coinciding with the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima’s kiss by Uranus. And if you approach Mount Hijiyama, on the side that was scorched by Little Boy’s equivalent of a 13 kiloton explosion, that lipstick smear can still be seen beneath the scrabbling attempts of vegetation to cover the nuclear scab. Days later, Pluto’s Fat Man would give its full-lipped kiss to Nagasaki. An estimated 140,000 people evaporated by one executive order.
It begins to rain, fat lazy drops. This is the tail end of the rainy season here and I watch as the aerial bombardment creates miniature detonations in the puddles on these uneven streets. Hiroshima has a population of 1.2 million, or almost four times that of pre-August 6th, 1945. It has mended in its own way. I don’t know where Tom resides in all of this, and he won’t tell me. He, too, must return home wherever that may be. If there was something symbolic about clasping in handshake at this most profane yet sacred place, I was at a loss to appreciate it at the time. I began to doubt whether this encounter had taken place at all, that it was just a Japan of the mind, another apostrophe of fiction in our respective mythographies. He will remain adamantly unapologetic for the scandals he writes, the little bombs he rains on his readers that are also executed by means of that pushing of the pen. But Truman’s war poetry is no match for Bradley’s post-war prose. It is still too early to tell what we bomb babies will grow up into, for our development is slow and protracted. Even 65 years later we remain in our swaddling clothes, and just maybe Tom Bradley will be there to document the moment when the bomb babies take their first, hesitant steps.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Kane X. Faucher is a puzzling, ubiquitous author of 10 or so books and a multitude of articles, poems, essays, reviews, short fiction, and miscellanea that nomadically traverse with ease from high falutin irrealism, impregnable polemical fiction, post-VisPo, vulgar gonzo, complex theory, journalistic reportage, contemporary art catalogue essays, political tracts, and crotchety Pound-style criticism. A chameleon of a scribe, an incorrigible maverick, and perhaps even a Wildean dilettante, he was won a smattering of modest awards in both literature and academia. He remains staunchly secure in the obscure, and has demonstrated a preternatural knack for authorial mimicry. He has been called many things, not all of them nice. He has been compared to a wide range of authors, but these comparisons are far too slippery. He is happily married and terribly secretive, throwing up occasional gusts of public smoke by way of some publication or an interview tucked in an obscure place.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 2nd, 2010.