It Can’t Happen Here

Rising Sun

by Michael Crichton
Knopf, 355 pp., $22.00

Once in a while—in America perhaps more than once in a while—a book comes along whose interest is chiefly in the hype attending it. Rising Sun is such a book. The text of the publicity handout announced that this “explosive new thriller [was] rushed to publication one month earlier than previously announced because of its extraordinary timeliness with regard to US–Japan relations.”

This is unusual: thrillers are not generally rushed out to match political events. Odder still is the sheaf of newspaper clippings about the decline of American industries and the predatory methods of Japanese corporations stapled onto the advance reader’s edition. Singular, too, is the bibliography at the end of the book, listing mostly academic works on Japan, but also, for example, Donald Richie’s study of Kurosawa’s movies. Strangest of all, however, is Crichton’s afterword, which ends with a homily: “The Japanese are not our saviors. They are our competitors. We should not forget it.”

With such a buildup, the literary press could not be left behind. On the front page of The New York Times Book Review the thriller was compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for stirring up “the volcanic subtexts of our daily life.”1 Kirkus Reviews promised the return of the “Yellow Menace,” only now “he wears a three-piece suit and aims to dominate America through force of finance, not arms.”

Volcanic subtexts, Yellow Menace, Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month club, first printing 225,000 copies, top of the best-seller lists, a Hollywood picture in the works—what exactly is going on here?

Michael Crichton clearly wanted to do more than entertain with a murder mystery. He wrote his book, so he told The New York Times, “to make America wake up.” Now, on the whole, people who go around trying to wake us up, as though we were all asleep, oblivious to some apocalyptic Truth, tend to be boring, or mad—like those melancholy figures who wander about with signs announcing the end of the world.

Crichton’s book isn’t boring. He is good at snappy dialogue—though his copious use of Japanese is often incongruous and sometimes wrong—and he is a deft manipulator of suspense. And he takes great pains to avoid giving the impression that he is mad. Indeed, the whole idea of the newspaper clippings, the bibliography, the afterword, and so on, is to make sure we get the serious message buried in the “explosive new thriller.” He dislikes the term “Japan-bashing,” he says, because it threatens to move the US-Japan debate into “an area of un-reasonableness.” The thriller, by implication, is reasonable.

Well, I wonder. But before going on, perhaps I should mention the story, the vessel, as it were, for Crichton’s awakening message to the American nation. In brief, it is this: a large Japanese corporation called Nakamoto is celebrating the opening of its new US headquarters, the Nakamoto Tower in downtown LA. A beautiful young American woman—Caucasian, naturally—is murdered during the party. Investigations follow. The Japanese obstruct, the American police bumble, the Japanese…

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