"Ah," he said, "one of the things about those sorts of people, which I know enough about from my research, of course, is that they've got day jobs. Somebody can be an accountant in the day and dressed up like a carpenter at night. Or the kids that are dressed up as Elvises -- well, they've got jobs. There's the imaginary life, and there's the other life."
"It's like being a writer," I said. "A sensible 'day job' part of you takes care of the zany part of you that writes."
"Exactly. That's good. It's very hard the way people read this sort of thing. There's a review that's coming out which has been read to me. I decided I didn't want to read it. But it says, 'Well, yeah, the hero of this is Charley, and his father did boring stuff in Japan and made Charley put up with this boring stuff.' There's a lot of primitive reading going on.
"Because obviously the Charley in the book is not quite the Charley who is my son. There's a real Charley who's made of his idea of himself and everybody else's, and then there's the one on the page, which is a quasifictional Charley. And whatever he suffers, I'm presenting to the reader as something that this 'not quite' Charley is suffering."
"I think it's interesting," I said, "the way reviews more and more often have begun to sermonize and moralize about the tale itself instead of leading discussion of the way the tale is told."
"Maybe I'm wrong about this, because I've lived here for 14 years. I'm still a foreigner. Sometimes I'm looking at you guys -- which includes my children as 'you guys' -- and I think that there's a thing in American culture which is about 'the story.' In the American novel, the flap copy has to tell the story. If you think of Hollywood and the pitching of the story, it's always the story. Reviews tell the story. So there's an investment in story that is foreign to me and forever puzzling. I don't know quite what it means."
"But this view," I argued, "is fairly new in America. Certainly 25 years ago you wouldn't have read as many book reviews that get angry because a character in a novel slaps his wife."
"Primitive. It's not a very sophisticated form of reading, no. And this is to leap sideways a little bit, but it's not unrelated; there's an enormous investment in the idea that this has to be from a true story. You do get from all this that many readers and reviewers suffer from a suspicion of the imagination."
I said that one aspect of Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son that I had enjoyed was Mr. Carey's misreadings of the Japanese.
"One doesn't think about these things when one's writing. I've only just begun to talk about the book. But you begin to think -- well, in a way, this level of continual misunderstanding is what I've always written about. I never thought about this before.
"But one character doesn't understand the other character. And what's interesting in life is that, for instance, we have our conversation, and I think I'm saying one thing, and you're thinking I'm saying another. That's how it is.
"And the other thing about Wrong About Japan is that there's another element to it, which is that the Japanese don't like the notion that a foreigner could understand anything about them. And so, even though it's clear that I am often completely wrong and ignorant, why wouldn't I be? I think there are times when maybe there's a little bit of insight there, which just can't be ignored by the Japanese. There's something of that in the conversation with the guy who does the robots, where he's insisting that this robot-making is absolutely not Japanese, and he's therefore presenting something wildly different about whatever it is he thinks he's doing."
"There are also moments in the book," I say, "where people whom you are interviewing simply didn't want to tell you what they think or believe."
"Right. And, of course, no one wants to publish the book in Japan either."
I mentioned a passage on page 128 of Wrong About Japan. This passage seemed to explicate the book. I read from it. "Was there a mystery here? I seriously doubt it. Although this is how it is with traveling -- the simplest things take on an air of great inscrutability and so many questions arise, only to be half born and then lost as they are bumped aside by others. The most mundane events take on the character of deep secrets."
Mr. Carey said that at his Seattle reading that morning, he had read that passage to his audience. About the experience he describes in those sentences, he said, "I don't know whether I'm smart enough to add an awful lot to it. I flutter almost between my having written it and your appreciation of what I said. There are things that I think I mention somewhere else in the book, and it's also the nature of travel for the traveler to give offense -- small offenses and slights -- and to come back with those and to remember those with regret.
"But I think to travel mostly is to misunderstand. When I was very young, in my 20s, I got a job to go up to Thursday Island, which is an island like a little dot on the tip of Australia. I wanted to go. It was exotic and different -- racially, historically, in every way. But I thought, 'I can't go up there and write about this, how can I go up there for a week?' So what I did is I went up there and I collected stories. People's stories. I thought I could do that honestly. And I did it. So I've always had this problem. I know there are people who can go to a place and come back after a relatively short time and be able to tell you something about it. But I've never felt capable of that. I've always had to find strategies that confessed my ignorance or shallowness or lack of understanding."