Big in Japan by M. Thomas Gammarino is yet another book where the literary and the musical converge. Have I mentioned that I tend to enjoy when that happens? No? It’s true. And it only seems like these are the only kinds of books that I’ve been reading lately. I’m reading other stuff, too. Really. Anyway…
Big in Japan begins with a going-nowhere-fast prog rock band called Agenbite plotting their next big move. Agenbite take their name from a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Speaking to me. They wash and tub and scrub. Agenbite of inwit. Conscience.” I’ll admit that I had to look up “agenbite” even with the context. ”Agenbite of inwit” sounds like a Hobbit’s name, and even though that would fit very well with the prog rock ethos, it is not. It means remorse (and is my new favorite word). And if there were ever to be an embodiment of remorse, it would be Agenbite’s leader, Brain.
Brain is an ironic nickname that stuck when Brian misspelled his name in grade school. He’s a nerdy guy and a perfectionist in his craft as a technical guitarist and Agenbite’s songwriter. He seems a little despondent to note that most of his band’s fans are dudes, which is doing nothing to help him land his first real live girlfriend. When the band decides to go to Japan in an attempt to boost their lackluster record sales, Brain is the last to get on board with the plan.
Once in Japan, Brain promptly falls down the rabbit hole. An encounter with a Japanese sex worker is the catalyst that sends Brain’s life directly off the rails. Like the Chinese idea of yin and yang, from there on out the novel explores the opposing forces at work in Brain (and by extension – us). East versus West. Love and lust. Sacred and profane. Intellect (or Brain!) versus the body. Striving versus slacking. And so on. These dualities lead to some questionable behavior in Brain, which of course leads to the agenbite of inwit – the nagging of conscience.
Remember the questionable essay in the New York Times Book Review last weekend, the one where the author noted that modern American male writers no longer write about sex as a conquest or means of redemption/salvation or whatever? I had this novel in mind when I was reading that essay and immediately thought “bullshit!” Big In Japan is all about sex as conquest and a possible means of temporary redemption/salvation. The novel places these ideas in Japan, questioning the cultural imperialism of the conquest and the human cost of the redemption/salvation. The novel also highlights some of the cultural differences between Americans and Japanese in attitudes about sex.
The subtitle of the book, “A Ghost Story”, baffled me until the very end. This isn’t a horror novel nor are then any phantasms rattling chains on the fringes. However, a jarring vision does come to Brain in his most desperate hour that explodes his conceptions of where things stand in the world and his place in it. The stunning denouement arrives at a conclusion – a very Eastern conclusion – that puts all of Brain’s internal deliberations and waywardness into the ultimate context.