10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
The blurb on the cover of my copy of Japanese By Spring reads "Just the sort of weapon we need in the war against academic pedantry," and I totally agree. Ishmael Reed creates the perfect caricature of a liberal arts college and its faculty, students, and administration. Jack London College is a typical liberal arts college with all common sense, interpersonal decorum, and cold weather removed. It's a liberal arts college on speed. The faculty portrayed in JBS behave as if they've had all their personal, emotional, and extracurricular dimensions surgically removed, and operate only as mouthpieces for the curriculum they teach and the intellectual/political ideas they espouse. Reed sets them up as raging, one-dimensional adversaries with whom Chappie does battle. It almost reminded me of any of the numerous popular teenage films where the protagonist is an inept pariah, picked on by all manner of his/her high school peers, and then, at the movie's midpoint, s/he obtains some device-a superpower, a fashion makeover, or in this case, a Japanese takeover-which allows him/her to exact revenge on his/her tormentors. As banal as such films often are, we enjoy them because we like seeing the good guy get his. In Japanese By Spring, we sympathize with Chappie (as ridiculous as he is) when he is harassed by his peers, and we enjoy the inevitable payoff, when he gets to fire them. Normally, I'd be disappointed with one-dimensional characters, but they are means to a greater end for Reed.
And I loved the intrusive author bit. I haven't read anything else by Reed, so I don't know if he does this in other books of his. But the first time his name appeared in the text of the story itself, I did a double take-which is probably exactly what Reed wants the reader to do. As far as confounding readers' expectations and conventional narratological rules, this device is effective and entertaining. Most readers will probably spend the first several chapters of the novel thinking that Chappie Puttbutt is Reed's alter-ego, his voice within the story. But then, Reed himself appears, and before long, he's having a conversation with Chappie. Now what to think? Readers might find themselves wondering what the point is of having a fictional alter-ego in the story at all, if Reed can just walk right in. I'm not sure the answer is an easy one, but one guess is that Chappie represents all the aspects of Reed that he (Reed) would be embarrassed to acknowledge, sides that most people probably don't see. The laughable sycophant, waffling on all the issues; his pretentious, single-minded pursuit of tenure and a house in the Oakland Hills. I didn't mind Reed appearing occasionally throughout the novel, but I'm a little annoyed that he completely takes over by its end. Where is Chappie during the Olódùmarè ceremony which ends the book? The book's ending is still valid, and a tranquil conclusion to a long and winding discussion about Rodney King, etc. But for its supposed protagonist to be completely effaced is unsettling.
I get the feeling that telling a story (my quick, crude, and conventional definition of "story" being an unfolding narrative which develops characters and themes) is not Reed's first priority. In Japanese By Spring, plot development (and resolution), character depth, and continuity of all kinds (thematic, stylistic, you name it) take a backseat-a way-backseat-to the spontaneous, scattered, and often confusing exposition of Reed's views on just about everything. For the first 150 pages or so, he manages to couch his diatribes fairly successfully within the context of the story; that is, Puttbutt and his fellow characters provide voice(s) for Reed's strong and varied stances on various social and political subjects, as well as for those of Reed's opponents. At no point does Reed really pretend that his characters exist for any purpose other than as mouthpieces for his views and, more commonly, for those of his opponents. Entire conversations-if they can be called conversations-are contrived just so Reed can air his opinions. One example is an argument, late in the novel, between Chappie and his father. It's partially about the Gulf War, and as such, functions as one of the many platforms upon which Reed can discuss Middle-Eastern affairs and Operation Desert Storm, which was still fresh in America's mind when the novel was written. Trouble is, this encounter between Chappie and his father happens amidst a sort of clattering trainwreck in the narrative, where the actual fate of Jack London College is left unresolved. I have no problem with lack of resolution in story. But lack of resolution in plot, narrative, and the structure of a novel itself is troubling for me.
Reed is known for improvising as he writes. This is quite evident when one considers the structure of Japanese By Spring. The structure here is, well, hardly present. Again, I have no problem with spontaneous or improvised prose. But here, it almost seems to thwart the story. It's so tangential it's clumsy. What seem like critical developments are mentioned offhand, in one sentence, or even half a sentence. "Oh, and by the way, Chappie's mother was kidnapped by Arabs." "Oh, and by the way, Chappie's mentor beheaded his wife and killed himself." Developments like these will come out of nowhere and then fade as quickly as they arrived. Meanwhile, the main plot is left hanging, and with a lot of slack.
Reed's writing is rich with satire, and as I've already said, he spends the first half of the book creating hilarious caricatures of academic buffoons. He should have taken the material from the novel's first half, fleshed it out, and created a more thorough story about the events at Jack London College; a truly singular and even more powerful "weapon against academic pedantry." Then, he could take the second half of the novel and use it as the basis for a series of non-fiction essays on Japan-U.S. relations, WWII theory, the Gulf War, the L.A. riots, race relations, Western-vs.-Eastern thinking, etc. I'd be equally enthusiastic to read both. But in Japanese By Spring, they've been conflated in a clumsy and often confusing manner.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
This book was much more than I had bargained for. I have a PC friend who had asked me to read it, and I thought it was going to be more PC affirmative-action driven drivel, and to some extent this was true. But it was hell-bent, crazy, hilarious, and it struck out in every direction at once, and was spot-on insightful concerning the Maoist Cultural Revolution in academia over the last twenty years. Reed is on the side of the Revolution, but he understands to some extent the mess it has made. He also appears to have studied Japanese and Yoruba, which is more than I can say for almost any other monoglot multicultural I have come across. He can order postage stamps and ask for directions in Japanese, as his main character could do, at least. This is way more of a second language than almost any "multiculturalist" (which generally just means anti-white male) actually possesses.
The sheer brilliant mayhem of this novel, as Puttbutt is put through his paces, is spectacular. At some points I thought I was reading Shakespeare. The book is never mundane, and always does more than you could have ever thought of by yourself. Reed is obviously a genius.
At other points, I lost track of the narrative. I couldn't figure out who was speaking. Sometimes, too, he would start a sentence talking about one figure, and then the next sentence would start with a "he" but it would be a different person he was talking about. In such a deeply important and major writer, this kind of obvious flaw should have been edited out.
But the weird comic paranoia of this book is the first I've come across to really touch the comic paranoia of academia in which everybody is worried about the slightest shift of wind, and what it means. This book caught that. He also has some of the most inventive racist slang I've ever read. This book is like Celine in reverse. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and read it straight through. It had sat on my shelf for three years after the PC guy had given it to me. Then, I read it, and I can say that Reed is the best new writer I've come across in five years or more. Very playful, and beautiful book, especially when he gets off his high horse (he sometimes rants in his own voice but not for very long) and does the Puttbutt.
I wish everybody caught up in the sick tensions and paranoia of academia would read this book. This is a very important novel, and will be on my syllabus for the next five years. Big fun here, and lots to talk about. What a brave and ingenious book! My real fundamental problem in the book is that he isn't critical enough about the Yoruba culture. This is the only culture that isn't ripped into the way he rips into white and Japanese culture. I myself don't know anything about Yoruba culture, but wonder if it is better than the American. Are women entitled to political representation? Is there freedom of speech? Where do they stand on the misery index regarding health, nutrition, sanitation, education for women, children, and the poor, decency towards minorities, etc? Reed, like most multiculturalists, seems to argue that all societies are the same in value but that the one he happens to come from is the best among equals. But this is only true if you completely get rid of any standards such as a misery index.
Multiculturalism means no standards of any kind except personal whimor self-aggrandizement. This is the final problem underlying Reed's hilarious, inventive, and sorely needed book. We need standards that we can agree upon, but any kind of standard is immediately torn to shreds by raging political fanaticism. At least in Reed's book, this becomes funny.