Boring crap about nothing

Being middle-aged I now consider myself entitled to the odd (frequent) curmudgeonly rant and so fair warning that this post will contain some. Entertainingly curmudgeonly though, I hope.

I recently read a review of a new novel about a Japanese-American couple living amongst the Japanese community in Los Angeles. The wife is a mixed Caucasian American and Japanese American, her father of Irish extraction and her mother Japanese. The husband is a “pure” Japanese American and condescends on this point to his wife, declaring that any child between them would be “more Japanese than its mother”. Into this situation comes a female graduate student from Japan to work with the husband and the wife suspects infidelity, though she does warily befriend the student and the two of them travel to Japan together following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Also at some point apparently a murder is involved somehow. In reading the review I thought the plot lame, tired, and boring, but then in thinking of that judgment something struck me: is it really the plot that matters?

I haven’t of course read the actual book and almost certainly I never will given both the depth of my current reading list and general lack of time but it seems likely that my reaction to the review was overly harsh, and that in part due to how the review itself was written. Take the husband’s racist attitude; if that is included then the book seems to be setting itself up for an extended exploration of identity. That is a very, very interesting topic, and a timely one. What question is being asked with more fervency in our era than that of what am I – where do I fit – and what does it mean to be me in this place and time? That topic is especially pertinent when it comes to a culture like Japan’s where ethnic “purity” is lauded so highly and is so intensely tied up with nationalistic issues, even to the point that schoolchildren are taught what it means to “be Japanese”. Surely those considerations and how the characters deal with them in their own internal struggles are far more interesting than the externals. The inner exploration that a book allows, where we even have access to characters’ thoughts, gives every writer a powerful tool that should never be overlooked nor underestimated.

As an example of a story where the externals are everything consider Star Wars. Now, I am only familiar with the movie series and not the many spin-off books and so I can only comment on that, but nevertheless it seems fair to say that what takes center stage in the tale is the action and events, even allowing for the fact that aside from techniques like an overdubbed narration we typically don’t have access to explicit thoughts in films (that is where the actors’ expressiveness comes in). There are many thoughtful movies where the main element is the characters’ inner lives but Star Wars is not one of them. (Admittedly, Luke Skywalker’s identity struggles in the original one and to an extent the following two of the first trilogy arguably fit this model and that is certainly what makes the three classic films the only really decent ones in the series of twenty-five or however many we’re up to now.) Without any pathos involved a story about flying around shooting things and running from one puppet-filled locale to the next is ultimately pretty shallow and, frankly, boring.

To be human is to have experience, to not only undergo the events that happen to us and to take the actions that we do in the wide world in which we live but to feel each and every tiny detail all along the way. What separates us from, say, a robot or even the most advanced artificial intelligence is that fact of feeling, that fact of the internals of which we are aware when we pause to look at them and which affect us in thousands of ways even when we are rushing about desperately trying to get this or be there and currently unaware of them. We have feelings that involve far more than just locomotion or objectives and every writer worth their salt will need to take such into account. Every writer worth their salt, I’d say, will need to place them centrally in any story. And every writer worth more than their salt, it seems to me, will make them the core of their story. That is what makes the difference between boring crap about nothing and an exploration of the human and the human condition; even if it is about “nothing”.

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