Saturday, August 20, 2005

a life in books

“A book is a mysterious object... once it floats out into the world, anything can happen.” –Paul Auster, from Leviathan

1. Fiction.

Read one too many novels and your life starts to resemble one. Everyday objects morph into personal symbols (“beer cans”, “the rusty faucet”, “favorite pair of jeans”), you try to guess out your friends through internal character sketches, remembering a girl from high school becomes a flashback. But hanging over every paragraph spent comparing fish prices at the local market, every stretch of dialogue with friends (“You should start doing push-ups...”), every chapter ending (“... raspy sounds of a man croaking out karaoke curled in through the window and wriggled into his head to tangle and tease the thoughts inside.”): arching over the whole thing are the plot questions, the career and love and family and death questions. Like a well crafted novel we usually tend to wrestle with these issues every day, in fits and spurts, in lies and wishes, without even realizing it. Eventually we tumble out the other end, and the world looks a litttle different.

Ever since it came to light that my work visa renewal was not exactly a sure thing I had to split my mind down two paths, preparing both for an abrupt return to the states and another year of life in Japan. I spent two months gathering the necessary documents and putting off writing my letter of apology and explanation to the immigration bureau until the last possible minute.

Once all the other documents had been cleared I holed up in a cafe and wrote the damn thing in a two hour burst, just in time to meet up with a Japanese friend who helped hew my rough and boastful Japanese into something clean and laced with formal pronouns. She had also insisted on adding a final paragraph where I pleaded for a visa not simply on account of my job but out of a sense of responsibility to an international exchange group that I volunteered at, doing my humble part to broaden and internationalize the greater Saitama area. It was exactly the type of meaningless drivel I’d avoided throughout the entire letter, trying to project myself as confident but affable, a productive and harmonious member of Japanese society; I would appeal to the system’s sense of decency, I wouldn’t pull out my Americanness, whiteness, or maleness just to get a visa. “I know these people,” she said firmly, cutting off my objections “they eat this stuff up.”

After having spent several hours in the dead flabby air of an aggressively air conditioned Starbucks I left the place lightheaded, my throat aching. I spent the last day of my deadline worrying over ever sentence in the grips of the early stages of a headcold. Did my friend really “know these people”? They dealt with lines of Chinese and Brazilians every day – people who had lived here for most of their lives, their Japanese unmarred by accents but marked by a kind of alien directness and brevity that bowled through the paragraphs of apologizing that usually frame a conversation. No way these hardened immigration officers would fall for my white boy shtick, waving a certificate of Japanese proficiency (Not quite first level yet!), gee- shucks American apologizing for a year-and-a-half of visa violations (well, this alien culture just so confusin’...), and a desperate plea to help continue my “internationalization” activities. Right. I could see the guy already, little bureaucrat with a face that looked and smelled like creamed coffee, brow knotted over this letter that begged him to consider my community service in spreading American culture. But then again, somebody had to be buying all those Norman Rockwell collections I’d seen placed so prominently in the arts section of the local bookstore.

With less than an hour left before the office closed for the weekend I finally decided to agree with her and kept the paragraph in. I tucked the printout into a folder with signed letters and officially stamped tax records, timelines of my workplaces in Japan, certificates of Japanese proficiency and my college diploma. I arrived sweaty from my mid-summer bike sprint, t-shirt sticking to my back, sweat contracting to salt as I plunged into the bubble of air-conditioning. The large waiting area was mostly empty, the staff shuffling the last of their papers before the weekend. Waiting numbers floating in electric red above the service counters, but no one there to service, or to wait.

I stepped out ten minutes later with a “Visa in Processing” stamp on my passport, arms and organs shivering like I'd just walked off a first date. There was nothing I could do but wait for the gears to whir through their course and just have the machine spit out my goddamn fortune already.

2. Book Worm.

Between the ages of ten and fourteen I was thrown into a Kafka fucking holding pen called Coleytown Middle School, and I hated every minute of it. It was a four year educational white out between the blissful romps of elementary school and high school’s scramble into jobs and colleges. No one had any idea why we were there or what we were supposed to be doing, least of all the teachers. Our geriatric English teachers hadn’t read the assigned books in years, so we simply invented plots and characters in our weekly book reports. I failed a sixth grade geography project for being too lazy to include an isthmus in my diorama. Computer skills classes mostly dissolved into furious typing battles, filling the entire screen of our Macintoshes with fuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyou
fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou...

Sometime back in prehistory the popular cro-magnons had staked out their territory closest to the windows and bequeathed the space to their descendants, who claimed their birthright each year, sliding into the same plastic scoop seats as their forefathers. They ate trays of hamburgers and brown bag lunches bathed in sunlight, the doors to recess luxuriously convenient. My first lessons in real estate. Location, location, location. Your social position corresponded exactly to your seating positions: the farther you sat from the doors, the lower you sank on the social graph. I treaded water somewhere round the lower end of the average boys, a seat barely touched by the sun. The bodies around me were savage, unfathomable. The other boys at my lunch table blazoned their bodies with sports jackets and baseball hats bearing the icons of wild animals: Wolverines, Bruins, Hornets. To my right was a small jungle of snarling thirteen year olds, to my left, the pitch black depths of the socially unmoored. They floated aimlessly in ones and twos in the dark corners of the cafeteria, bathed in odors belching from the kitchen doors; ghosts and outcasts, chewing their food in silence. They terrified me, and I hated their injured animal eyes that would search my face for compassion. I had nothing for them. With my whole field of vision as clogged by rabid creatures. I developed a habit of looking down: most often straight into a fantasy novel.

Fantasy. Contemporary Fantasy. I had started years before with Lloyd Alexander’s dark and beautiful amalgams of Welsh legends in “The Horned King” and “The Black Cauldron”, and was probably triggered even earlier by the gorgeously illustrated D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths. But by middle school I was chomping through reams of novels by contemporary American writers like Raymond Feist, David Eddings and Anthony Jordan. All of their books were wonderfully small variations on a story that I never tired of reading: orphaned and misunderstood boy turns out to be messiah, thrust out into a cold and uncaring world with a small band of companions on some quest, beset by [insert author’s monster preference here: orcs, goblins, dragons], romantic awkwardness with feisty girl his own age, battle with forces of darkness, social order overturned, evil punished, boy has become a man and hero. These books were wonderfully predictable in overall plot and structure, but they were delicious in their details, in their deep imagined histories, in the crude and stylized maps tucked into the front cover. They were coming of age stories draped in iron age legends and World War II alliances of good nations banding together to defeat the armies of darkness. They crushed up the emotions of my daily life and distilled them into a sweet clear vapor that plucked my soul like an open guitar.

I devoured them savagely, gulping down whole chapters without pausing to think, absently skipping descriptive paragraphs for meatier ones. I read during recess, I read during study hall, I read between classes, I read in my room when I got home. If I was reaching the end of a fantasy novel I’d make sure to bring its sequel to school with me. There was always a sequel. My dolphin blue backpack, already stuffed with math and social studies textbooks, was also crammed with at least two fantasy hardbacks. Mom raged at me as I shouldered this bag of boulders using only one strap. Everyone knew going two strap was for losers. I honestly didn’t notice the weight, my mind too busy flickering with images myself wracked in study of ancient scrolls and spells: hours of careful study over precious manuscripts while the world of evil armies and mindless politics swirled around me.

My fifth grade social studies curriculum consisted of a year of studying the social habits of animals. I can remember learning exactly two things from the class: seagulls regurgitating food for their young (A: You are totally gonna regurgitate that those curly fries. B: What, you wanna eat my barf or something? Eww, you’re such a sicko, SICKO!), and that Eskimos clothing left pockets of air between the cloth and the skin to stay warm. Apparently Eskimos were also considered animals, being the last species covered that year.

It was unclear exactly what lessons we were supposed to take from the class, so many decided to pursue independent study projects in farting noises and ways to torture our social studies teacher, Mr. Hanson. He always seemed like a nice enough guy to me, but Mr. Hanson must have done something really terrible in a previous life to be given this job, shivery as his body was with Parkinson's. He looked like a skeleton marionette, clanking into class on a special pair of crutches, his skinny limbs twitching to invisible strings. His voice wavered as well, but at least he spoke to you and not an idea of you, brown eyes soft behind his thick glasses. He was frail and nearing the end of his tenure, but he wasn’t sour or bitter or gray like my other teachers. The kids in the class called him Dancin’ Hanson.

One day when he hobbled into the room and took a seat at his desk only to find the chair slathered in the gel from a punctured executive stress squeeze ball that some rich little shit had probably stolen from his stock broker father. As the entire class of twelve year olds dissolved into a hurricane of yells Mr. Hanson’s gaze flailed around wildly, eventually meeting my eyes in the front row. “Jamie! Get help!” I froze in my seat. The old bastard was going to bring me down with him, he’d cursed me with trust, he’d pulled me out of my warm little anonymity in the second row. There was nothing to be done. I sprinted across the hall to the principal’s office and retrieved a younger and scarier disciplinarian whose voice stung like whip, slapping the hooting room of primates into a grid of children, shivering at their desks.

Years later even girls in the class would be able to stop me cold with a warbly “Jamie! Get help!” After a whole year of seagull, otter and Eskimo filmstrips I had finally learned something useful about animal behavior: anyone straying from the pack will be culled. There was no messiah story here, there was no kindly older wizard, eyes twinkling with the secrets of the universe. My reading was an opiate, it had nothing to do with the world I lived in. It was fantasy. Contemporary. Fantasy.

3. Auster.

Somehow I limped out of the petty tyrannies and dark woods of middle school intact, and by high school I’d put aside my fantasy paperbacks with their oil painting covers of boy wizards and elfin maidens with breasts the size of their heads. I would occasionally see them in curls of smoke at a New York rock club or popping out of carpets like a magic eye poster. All the dope I smoked and mushrooms I dropped tickled through years of dreams and images, dredging up old stories and hobbling together new ones from the cracks and crevasses of my fifteen year old skull.

It was around this time that the fiction of Paul Auster began to creep into my life. An English teacher handed my class a bizarre little New York Times piece with his name attached. It was like a case file from a detective story, a smattering of clues paper clipped together in a binder marked “Why Write?” Under that cryptic title were about a dozen anecdotes of chance and coincidence, of families and lovers torn apart, reunited in strange coincidences, each as unique, strange and inevitable as Oedipus. Icy and precise little crystals. I puzzled over the thing for close to a month, the title boring at me insistently. It was my first exercise in close reading, in engaging a piece of writing that wasn't barreling through the familiar stops and plot points to end at the same terminal. This wasn't a ride, this was a maze.

His work popped up again, tucked away innocently on a back shelf of the high school library like an undetonated bomb. Auster books are like that, exquisitely crafted little packages whose design just barely keeps the whole thing from dissolving into chaos. They trace the madness and mystery of living in a calm, cold and controlling prose that is coiled just tight enough to not explode. “In the Country of Last Things” was a purely invented world, but it was not magical or wondrous. There were no kindly old wizards, it did not arc to final battles of good and evil. It was a young woman crawling through a decaying urban landscape fenced off from the outside world, searching for her disappeared brother. It was a small packet of horror, an amalgam of decaying New York of the 70’s and 80’s and closed off Jewish ghettoes of the holocaust, it was stories of middle class civilization chewing itself to death. And there it was on the green gunmetal shelving next to Auden, ignored by the librarians and the few students who ventured into the library.

With their stark covers, slim two hundred page sizes and odors of years in public libraries Auster books were a very different species from the chunky five hundred page dragon and wizard splashed epics I'd been lugging around years before. But they both had self contained worlds churning beneath their covers. To move through Auster writing is to stare at the eternal strangeness of the human universe, a series of shocks and chances that twist and warp the characters into strange new shapes by the end of the book, so that they are left alone, blinking at their lives and calmly thinking “how did I get here?” His books are peopled with men and women possessed by ideas, ideas that shifted the world around them. Mr. Auster will descend into the story to talk with them himself, discuss their goals and fears. But essentially they are calm, stoic and resourceful against the horrors around them. Here was adulthood, here was responsibility, staring down the horrors of life. I would close Auster books a little bit older than when I started them, a little bit warped and weathered for the experience.

It was all so New York, all so literary, so liberated, so fucking ex.
uh.
stential.

4. Immigration.

And it was after handing in my visa application that I settled down to Paul Auster again: a new edition of one of his novels from the late eighties. It was wrapped in a sexy new cover, solid black stripes crowding across a photograph of a Brooklyn tenement. Here was another small bomb left ticking on the shelf.

That strange logics of the book were doing laps around my head as I headed back to the immigration bureau on a Monday morning, my college diploma and two passport size photos in hand. In all my haste to get the application in, I had forgotten these two essential components. I fear bureaucracy like a computer, one typo throwing the entire process into spasms of error messages and barred entry. I learned to type a long time ago, but I haven’t renewed my passport yet.

I suppose all the visa issues that had built up over the weekend burst out on Monday morning. It was a press of bodies, a loud, brassy, and distinctly un-Japanese mob of Chinese, Koreans, Brazilians and Filipinos dotted with a few black and white faces. I left a small space between the family in front of me to let people pass through and was promptly cut off by a fierce looking Thai woman. The Chinese family protested helplessly in confused Japanese as the immigration official curtly tried to explain that Mom would not be able to join them in Japan. This went on for a few minutes, the father and daughter eventually leaving with rain clouds circling their heads, Mom no closer to them than we they walked in. The Thai woman finished her business quickly and I stepped up to the counter.

Maybe it was just imagination, but the face of the woman behind the counter seemed to curl into a genuine smile as I approached, something reserved for the handful of white folks who make their way through this immigration bureau. I asked her where I should submit my diploma and pictures, which launched us into a brief debate on visa application procedure. In my favor I had two passport size photos, a copy of my diploma, and all the shit my friend had told me. In her favor she had a few decades of experience working for immigration. I was pretty confident of winning, but somehow her age and experience in visa applications trumped my youth and hearsay, so I left with my college diploma and two regulation size passport photos, no closer to my visa than when I walked in. I wandered to the mega-bookstore next door and browsed the long rows of paperback fiction. They were grouped by publisher into uniformed little squadrons, height and length regulated, spines all a single color. I picked out a book of short stories by a mystery writer I knew, buying it for a few hundred yen.

5. Reading Japanese.

Every book leaves an aftertaste. The fantasy novels were M&Ms and cans of Coca-Cola, leaving you thirstier and hungrier than when you started. I would finish each one on a quivering sugar-high, too pepped up to think beyond the sequel. I finished Auster books satiated, the tastes of pepper and salmon lolling around my tongue. You don’t close a book simply full, your body has just emerged from a bath of sensations. Dreams and symbols digesting in your mind, moving into the bloodstream, into your bones and out your ass. The cells in our bodies regenerate completely every few years along similar patterns, how often do our minds regenerate?

Speech and language are hard wired into the brain, God’s anonymous little gift to the baby shower, but writing and letters were made by human magic, scratches willed into life. They bear the contradictions of their makers, are in need of constant tinkering and adjustments, follow the laws we give them. Speaking always flows in the same direction in time, but words can move in any direction through space, English words stacked in horizontal brick rows, peppered with periods, commas, exclamation marks, Arabic drifting from right to left in continuous smoky curls, Chinese characters dangling top to bottom in long beaded curtains unbroken by spacing or punctuation.

Five years ago I embarked on an expedition outside the English language and into the shifting urban jungles of Japanese. Even as I made my first tentative forays into speaking (“Is this a pencil?” “The post office is across the street.”), their written counterparts always seemed much more mysterious and sexy, long draping columns made of thorny little symbols. The promise of diving into the raw, untranslated literature of a country removed from the winds of European thought would be like walking on the moon, testing out the altered physics and fingering the dust of another planet.

A friend once told me that after English Japanese is the most published language in the world; the language of 120 million island dwellers living on the edge of the world beating out French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian. I don’t know if this is true, but it rings true. While the thousand tentacle branches of national and local governments do their part to flood the world in Japanese documents, the publishing industry is no slacker, with at least a dozen telephone book size comic publications coming out every week, succeeded by a rich array of novels and histories, quietly consumed in train cars and rackety bedrooms. I had unknowingly leapt into one of the largest linguistic oceans in the world.

After a year or so spent deciphering the speech bubbles of comics I dove into the deep end of the pool, flailing my way through an extended essay by Haruku Murakami on his whiskey tasting trip through Scotland and Ireland. When I emerged grasping at the other end I checked myself, I swallowed the taste in my mouth. It was raw and wooly, with overtones of Auster’s clear polished intelligence and clarity but shot through with smoky little bits of poetry. He had squeezed these symbols into extistence and they had shone off the page, burning images of Scottish distilleries, wild Celtic drivers on country lanes and old men trading stories over glasses of single malt whiskeys. The first Japanese book I had read told me about life in the British isles, where they speak English anyway. Oh well.

6. The Big Day.

Here pasta was a big part of my diet and I’d run out of fucking olive oil. I had a whole cupboard stuffed with vinegars, soy sauces, dried pastas, and all I could think about was olive oil. But what if I was moving in two weeks? What would happen to that sweet golden syrup? I couldn’t just chuck it down the drain. And hell, all my friends around here live at home, they don’t even cook. I mean, I suppose I could do without it for a few weeks but goddamnit I wanted to dip my bread in herbed olive oil. Actually, the brown rice seemed to be getting low too, and they only sell brown rice in five kilo bags at the supermarket. I was dropping money left and right on histories of Japanese sake and George Orwell essays, but somehow I couldn’t spring for a bottle of fucking olive oil. I needed to start cleaning out that cupboard. It was good the postcard came when it did or I’d have been forced to stomach strange pasta sauces of red miso and black rice vinegar.

They said it would take a month, but the postcard had arrived after two weeks, requesting my presence down at the immigration bureau sometime before August 19th. I knew it. The whole application had been so riddled with holes and pockmarks they had taken one look at it and tossed it in the “Denial” bin with a cynical laugh. It would be better to just head in and get the whole damn thing over which I resolved to do the next Monday, when I had the whole day off.

My eyes fluttered open on Monday morning and I turned over the idea of heading to immigration or reading another chapter in the mystery novel I was reading. I recalled the press I’d experienced the last time I’d been down and decide to wait til the afternoon. Besides, the detective had finally located the apartment shown in the video of the missing girl. I would much rather spend the morning trailing the victim’s ex-boyfriend with private investigator Miro Murano than have my rejection summarily handed to me among screaming babies and lines of other foreign nationals desperate for a work visa.

It was two-thirty in the afternoon by the time I’d put the thing down and gone outside for a walk. I hadn’t eaten anything besides a quick breakfast, so I threw together a lunch of tofu and soba noodles, letting it settle in my stomach with a cup of tea. But now it was a little after three, and the place closed at four. Well, gee, guess I couldn’t make it that day, and I hafta work tomorrow...

Tuesday came and went, my mind was less preoccupied with the visa situation than with whether Miro was starting to fall for the film producer who was starting to look a lot like the perpetrator. Wednesday morning was wide open, and I resolved to go just after I’d found out who the mysterious woman was that seemed to be paying Miro’s employer large sums of cash. And so the morning disappeared. I was feeling vaguely ill when I left for work, body bored and restless from sitting with a book all morning, mind desperately burrowing into the novel and refusing to acknowledge any slighter larger issues that it might be better to start considering. Thursday morning and I had fifteen pages left and no excuse. Miro found the poor girl recovering in a hospital room, her mother having thrown herself out a fifth story window after confessing to killing her former lover in order to protect her marriage to the wealthy industrial heir. Miro had finally waded through all the lies and counter-lies to arrive at this hospital bed, the nineteen year old girl reading comics to shut out the cruelty that had been dogging her from page one. I closed the book and felt its last few lines bounce around my head, the detective walking through the empty hallway, tired and exhausted from confronting the world of human greed and lies for four hundred and thirteen pages, but walking away with the grim satisfaction of having confronted the world with open eyes. “Hey Jamie!” the world was screaming, “Get your ass down to immigration!”

I took a number and sat down on the padded benches they had laid out as a waiting room. It wasn’t so busy today, just a few Korean families and a score of nervous looking Iranians. I read the posters as I waited. Security camera photos of a Chinese man wanted for questioning on burglary and assault. An impossibly cute claymation woman in an immigration officers uniform gave me the rundown on recent changes in visa law. “Spousal visas have been extended to five year terms!” “Always bring four thousand yen for your visa processing fee!” “Remember, all violations can be punished by deportation and a ban from the country for up to seven years!” I finished that one when my number was called.

“Okay great, can I have your passport please? Excellent, here’s your one year working visa, make sure to head down to your local city hall in the next two weeks to register the changes on your ID card. Thank you very much for coming to the immigration bureau today NEXT!” And that was that.

7. One Last Thing.

I was bursting to tell someone the news so I hurried out past the book megastore down to a nearby imported grocery store where a friend works. I looked up and down the aisles for her but it looked like she had the morning off. I was just about to leave when my eyes fell on a rack of extra virgin olive oil discounted 20%. I had cooking to do.

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