Thursday, May 24, 2007

My Year of Meats

I was planning to read this novel when it came out a decade ago but didn't get around to it until I was in the library a few days ago, and discovered, according to the library, that everyone in Vancouver was supposed to read this book now, and discuss it. Perhaps because it was written in the library? Or perhaps because it's a very good book, of particular relevance to the large portion of this city that is of Asian origin.
I rarely read fiction. I'm glad I recently read Fast Food Nation, and if you read my blog about it, am even more glad to have seen the fictional version of FFN as a flick before reading this one. Ruth Ozeki is a film maker and writes like one. The novel is a blend of Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book from 1000 AD, the travails of an American-Japanese film maker making a TV series called My American Wife to get its Japanese audience to buy US meat, particularly beef, and the even greater problems of the Japanese wife of her obnoxious boss. A very good blend indeed, unlike the stuff they put in that meat.
Something I've always disliked about novels and films by non-Japanese people about Japanese people is how stereotypical they are. As the excellent Japanese novelist (and recent Nobel prize winner) Kenzaburo Oe inquired, why are people so interested in Japanese technology but not in Japanese people AS people, not as stereotypes? The only novels I can think of that transcend these stereotypes are Quin's Shanghai Circus (only partly set in Japan) and Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle. One would think, with the millions of gaijin (non-Japanese) who have actual experiences with Japanese people by now, those stereotypes would have gone the way of Steppin Fetchit. Alas this is far from the case.
Ozeki wrote the book to be provocative, both with the subject matter of chancy meat and as cultural observations. The book is more about Japanese misconceptions of America than American misconceptions about Japanese people. In general, the Americans are portrayed as genuinely welcoming to the visitors from Nippon. A nation of immigrants, versus a nation besotted with the fiction that they've been there forever. One thing I disliked about the book, and about fiction in general, is the obvious story arc: girl gets boy, loses boy, gets him back that defines fiction. As soon as things are going well in any plot, you know problems have to arise for the hero/heroine to overcome, as if you can't appreciate a story without tension. Fiction seems to be defined by that. Life isn't like that, why must "stories" be enslaved by that formula?
That said, I enjoyed this novel more than I expected to, and I had planned to read it. I recommended it to my wife's friends, who have lived in Canada for decades. It is something worth talking about. Meat is more than culture. Sushi is more ubiquitous in North Vancouver than it is the similar sized town of Kamagaya where my wife and daughter grew up. Like Ozeki, Monique was a product of these two cultures. Growing up in Kamagaya, she enjoyed the priviliges she received from the populace because her mother was the town's English teacher, oblivious to the racism I continued to encounter because of my appearance throughout my 17 years in Japan. But in that sense, everyone's experience of everywhere is unique. If Japan hadn't been "other" it wouldn't have continued to interest me during those long years. But these things change. Perhaps beef will become the most consumed meat in Japan (if it isn't' already) while fish comes to dominate the Canadian market. In that sense, My Year of Meats is a snapshot of a particular time. Perhaps Ozeki will turn it into a film?


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