Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005; 158 pages; $17.95.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
The recipient of two Booker Prizes, Peter Carey expands his extraordinary achievement with each new novel -- and now gives us something entirely different.
When famously shy Charley becomes obsessed with Japanese manga and anime, Peter is not only delighted for his son but also entranced himself. Thus begins a journey, with a father sharing his 12-year-old's exotic comic books, that ultimately leads them to Tokyo, where a strange Japanese boy will become both their guide and judge. Quickly the visitors plunge deep into the lanes of Shitimachi -- into the "weird stuff" of modern Japan -- meeting manga artists and anime directors; painstaking impersonators called "visualists," who adopt a remarkable variety of personae; and solitary otakus, whose existence is thoroughly computerized. What emerges from these encounters is a far-ranging study of history and of culture both high and low -- from samurai to salaryman, from Kabuki theater to the postwar robot craze. Peter Carey's observations are always provocative, even when his hosts point out, politely, that he is once again wrong about Japan. And his adventures with Charley are at once comic, surprising, and deeply moving, as father and son cope with and learn from each other in a strange place far from home.
This is, in the end, a remarkable portrait of a culture -- whether Japan or adolescence -- that looks eerily familiar but remains tantalizingly closed to outsiders.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
The Albany Times-Union: One of the strengths of this short book is that Carey doesn't dwell on the gulf between father and son. He lets their different expectations from Japan and their contrasting reactions to what they find speak for themselves.
At one point, they are amidst transvestites in a section of Tokyo; it takes Carey a few minutes to understand that these powerful-looking women are in fact men, and he wonders how he should explain these people to his son. But Charley is never confused by the encounter, rolling his eyes as his father struggles to enlighten him: "Dad," Charley says with some exasperation, "we live in the West Village, you know?"
The Washington Post: Carey would have been wiser ... to forsake sociology and stick to his travels with Charley, which are aptly drawn and full of pathos.
Time Out: As Carey puts it in his smart, funny new book: "Everybody in Japan reads manga, except those just born or about to die." The more manga and anime Carey consumed, the more surprised he grew that they cross over to Western audiences so readily. For one thing, much of the meaning hinges on culturally specific details.
Publishers Weekly: Novelist Carey's...fiction readers won't be disappointed. This travel diary reads like a scintillating novella, and Carey has, in fact, added his own fictional embellishments to the real-life events he reports. After his shy 12-year-old son, Charley, began reading English translations of Japanese manga, their Saturday mornings at the Manhattan comic book store Forbidden Planet spurred Carey's own interest. As their "cultural investigation" of manga and anime widened, "the kid who would never talk in class was now brimming with new ideas he wasn't shy to discuss." This father-son bond deepened when they flew to Japan to meet manga artists and anime directors, including Yoshiyuki Tomino (Mobile Suit Gundam. At publisher Kodansha, they learned of manga's history, and touring Studio Ghibli, they encountered the "most famous anime director in the world," Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). Their guide to Tokyo's cartoon culture was Takashi, a teenager the narrative says Charley met online (yet, as Carey revealed in a newspaper interview, he created the imaginary character of Takashi because the narrative needed conflict, and Carey wanted to avoid "conflict with anybody in real life"). Carey's fluid and engaging writing style gets a boost from 25 energetic black-and-white anime/manga illustrations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Peter Carey is the author of eight novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang and, most recently, My Life as a Fake. He lives in New York City.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Peter Carey was born in 1943 in the Australian town of Bacchus Marsh. On the afternoon that we talked Mr. Carey spoke from Seattle, where he was on tour with his new book. I spoke from home in California. I'd spent the previous weekend reading Mr. Carey's clever Wrong About Japan. The book's easy, querying tone made querying Mr. Carey seem easy. I confessed, "I've long wanted to ask you about the name of your hometown -- Bacchus Marsh. In the States we tend not to give towns such fancy names."
"Bacchus Marsh," he said, "sounds weird, but in fact it's rather pedestrian in that the 'Bacchus' doesn't allude to wine, alas, although I would like it to. The town did have seven pubs. But the town's name rather came from Captain Bacchus, who was an English soldier of some sort and presumably reinventing himself. Why I presume that is that he built a manor house. I suspect he probably wasn't very grand at all. But he was reinventing himself in the colonies, and he built this Georgian manor house that's still there and is named after him. I don't think anyone knows much about him. Everyone in town thinks he was very grand. He probably wasn't."
"Is it a little town?"
"Well, it was. It's 33 miles west of Melbourne. Melbourne now has a population of about three million, so it's a sizable city. When I was a kid, that 33 miles was like 200 might be today. We were living in the country, and I got a headache going to the big city. But now, there's still a separation between the city and Bacchus Marsh. It's not all continually suburban, but of course airline pilots and product managers and various people now live there and commute to the city. Bacchus Marsh was 5000 population when I was a kid. I don't know what it is now."