Less Than Zero
Lafcadio Hearn despaired of capturing the charm of Japan and perhaps it is the elusiveness of that quest that causes Danny Ott, the hero of Brad Leithauser’s Equal Distance, to dwell at such length on his impressions when he disembarks at Kyoto. Hearn, self-conscious about being short, felt less like a gaijin, a foreigner, in Japan than he did in the West, but Danny, a do-gooder from Harvard Law School on the Wall Street track, seems to regard being tall and fair a form of patriotism. He is nostalgic for the lost entrepreneurial spirit of America, and defends its messy democracy over the dark discipline behind the Japanese economic miracle. After all, Dad works for Ford Motor Company, and Danny often has a rush of feeling for his home town, Detroit, when he rides in a Japanese car.
Novels set in distant places give us expectations not unlike those we have of travel writing, and often the distinctions are blurred, as in, say, the way the low life of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward is depicted in John David Morley’s recent Pictures from the Water Trade. But Equal Distance turns out to have little to say about shiken jigoku, the “examination hell” of Japanese law schools. Though Danny arrives with language tapes and good intentions about his year abroad as an assistant to a distinguished professor, the absence of the grind is an unsettling state of freedom for one who cannot remember a time when “he had not been enrolled in school.” Danny passes the hours thinking back on his life stateside, and Kyoto becomes a backdrop for a story of coming of age or finding self-knowledge, things Danny calls “progress.”
When the Handsome American is not planning ahead to his third-year paper on the “interlaced relationship of law and punishment and responsibility and free will,” he mourns his grandfather, worries about the Reagan–Carter election, the hostage crisis, the impending divorce of Mom and Dad. He also wonders why he can’t get over his first true love and whether his adolescence is “still pursuing him.”
Oh, the whole notion of manhood was an interesting issue; he had adeptly managed, as demanded of him, to refer to the girls in his classes as women, and even to think of them as such, but the guys remained guys, not men. Men for Danny were still the professors, or, less distantly, the people who came to interview from the law firms…. Men were still primarily those dapper figures who had entered the game of buying cars, trying to beat taxes, earning a living.
Brad Leithauser is a poet of remarkable delicacy and skill, yet the voice in Equal Distance seems irresolute. As a result, everything, down to the tatami mats, must have its day. Danny’s numerous asides, however sweetly intended, have much to do, too, with the shapelessness of the book. His inner weather is conveyed in passages that remind one of an alpha-rhythm trance induced by staring at a tank of fish or a painting by Sotatsu.
The air smelled marvelous—preponderately of pine, but with a hundred other odors tucked in below. It was amazing just what a pure gold—as if flushed completely of any vestige of green—some leaves could assume in the right angle of the sun; with others, their green made greener, you’d swear they had to be wet to wear such a gloss. At each of their path’s bifurcations, Danny, moving on a heady tide, felt himself contrarily tugged, a frustrating but familiar sense that each path not followed meant some rare and irreplaceable loss—some vista missed, some harmonic clump of trees, some rare conjoining trick of bird-flash and -cry. It was an old desire, a yearning to hold in his hands a sort of comprehensive map of loveliness (Mother Nature’s very own) which would guarantee he missed not a single gemmed toadstool.
Leithauser means to suggest an unfolding in a youth who previously has been too busy doing the right thing. Instead of giving Danny’s exploits an atmosphere of gentle discovery, the novel’s cheerful expansiveness about fleeting sensations—sex, the taste of sake, a joint furtively smoked in a train WC—has a leveling effect. In today’s novels about youth’s romance with its sensibility it is hard to pull off with a straight face those scenes in which the hero comes down with what James called “an aesthetic headache.”
Such innocence as Danny’s cannot long go untested. He meets Greg, a precocious roué who has been floating around the Far East. Greg is Southern (aristo), Harvard (College), and self-destructive in a predictable, summer-stock fashion. He is also extremely talkative. “You’ll find I have a great sense of style.” They share a “common frustration with the ineffable,” which they believe separates them from other pink-faced tourists, and drink into the small hours. Greg spins “crazy philosophical monologues” of “vast” assertions: “Postcoital depression is worth it.”
They meet and pursue Carrie, who is in Japan on a kind of rich girl’s sabbatical. She hitches her wagon to the affable achiever instead of to Greg because Greg is “bad intense.” The “conservative” or “parental” in Danny comes out, but he cannot dissuade Greg from a life of subsidized dissolution. Homeward bound, Danny has accepted his parents’ divorce, and is relieved that the firm that has been courting him has found a suitable Park Avenue sublet in which he can install Carrie. “It will all work out.”
Why Japan for this story of love and anxiety among the Doonesbury generation? Maybe it’s just for the hip of being on location, so to speak. And not just anybody can afford the trip. Things Japanese are sort of fashionable right now, but Danny’s courtship does not gain much from the exotic setting. He and his friends might as well have met at a sushi bar in Manhattan. Even the Great Adventure, Equal Distance seems to say, turns out to be just another road on which to chase the American Dream. But Leithauser writes as if he is caught up in nostalgia for the ritual of the year abroad, and his narrator has not much distance from and little humor about the hero.
Everything is filtered through Danny, and yet Leithauser has set him up as such a vessel of decent opinions that not much can happen to him. Small wonder that Greg, the doppelgänger, does most of the talking. When Danny remarks that he is saddened to think of the United States one day losing its economic preeminence to Japan, Greg responds that the Japanese are right to peel fruit, but finds that it’s “pretty much of a dog’s ass country.” It is, however, “a fabulous place to get drunk in because they’ve built themselves a toyland…. All these businessmen, these little boys, these Peter Pans.” Japan is a “humorous mirror” that “beats America in the one-on-one Crassness Competition.”
Here were all these non-Caucasian faces, and yet the people weren’t beggars, they weren’t sifting the feces out of their drinking water. They were builders of shopping emporia, importers of designer jeans from France!… It was just as though you’d gone from America to some country inhabited only by blacks, or Hispanics, or some other group you’ve always had to feel guilty about, and you found they were richer than you were. Were drinking Chivas-Regal in front of their big-ass color televisions.
The scene ends abruptly, without the expected reflections from Danny. One can’t help suspecting that the author has spared his hero having to identify himself one way or the other, as if Leithauser had taken on the anxiety of a publicity agent who whisks his client away from a sticky microphone.
Perhaps Danny’s naiveté is not entirely deliberate on Leithauser’s part. Early in the novel, Danny, like most Western visitors, is struck by the dualism of Japanese culture, by the apparent contradiction between Japan’s “spirituality” and its “knack for machinery.” Similarly, he, “a young man of extraordinary ardor,” gets nowhere chatting up Japanese girls because he gets the local c’mere-kiss-off signals wrong. What appears to be unrestricted is in fact off-limits.
Danny notes Japan’s “regimentation,” its “fascination with schedules and timetables,” but thinks nothing of his own “characteristic lawyerly penchant for lists.” He reads, as they say nowadays, a “system” called Japan, but does not question his own assumptions. That does not seem part of Leithauser’s intentions for Danny’s character. Notions are sometimes treated not as being in Danny-san’s head, but as attitudes in the world at large:
Either unconscious of the American stereotype of the Japanese as a camera-mad people or grandly indifferent, [Mr. Tanizaki] took dozens and dozens of photographs.
Who’s conforming to type? In Beauty and Sadness Kawabata observes two American couples on a train eagerly taking photographs as they approach Mt. Fuji only to turn their backs to it when it comes into full view.
Nevertheless Equal Distance gives an unaccustomed picture of American youth abroad. Danny and his friends are not Zen-struck free spirits. They have none of the rebellious enthusiasms of, say, the Canadian girl in Sarah Sheard’s charming recent novel Almost Japanese. (“I sawed the legs off my bed and dresser and took to eating on the floor.”) The novel is about Danny’s acceptance of his parents’ values, not his rejection of them, not even his challenge to them. His biggest worry in wooing Carrie is that he has only a middle-class background to offer. Despite its Bildungsroman tone, the novel is mostly a portrait of the acceptability of conventional class aspirations among the young.
Something stronger than the term “autobiographical novel” is needed to describe the mood of many of the recent works by the new generation of writers—maybe Diane Johnson’s phrase “fiction of the self” is best. Not only do young novelists for the most part write very close to their experience, but these days, more often than not, the self has been idealized, in the way people demand that the camera return an air-brushed image of themselves.
Lack of authorial distance implies identification with or at least approval of the characters. The new generation will not be remembered for its irony. Newsweek1 announced the arrival of the young urban professionals, the “restless vanguard of the baby-boom generation,” and with them came a rhetorical style that cast strategies of upward mobility in the jargon of a “personal growth” movement. Much recent fiction by young writers reflects the same radical departure from the popular image of youth of the Sixties and Seventies. In the fictional worlds of contemporary youth it is hard to find a single character with money problems.
The hero of Jay McInerney’s Ransom is déclassé, not poor. When the novel opens in 1977, Christopher Ransom has been in “inclement, ancient” Kyoto two years and hasn’t seen the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. He has “drab semi-employment” at a wobbly outfit where he teaches English to Japanese businessmen. He is one of those young people who love to discipline themselves, and, like Danny Ott, he runs in the morning along the Kano River. Ransom’s discipline, however, is more punitive. No pain no gain. His routine is centered around his dojo, or karate school, one that doesn’t usually accept gaijin. Ransom has much to prove to his sensei, or teacher, and, as one would expect, to himself as well. “He didn’t just want to be good. He wanted to be transformed.”
"The Year of the Yuppie" (December 31, 1984).↩
“The Year of the Yuppie” (December 31, 1984).↩