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Youthful Discoveries

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, December 5, 2008

THE LOVE WE SHARE WITHOUT KNOWING

By Christopher Barzak

Bantam. 288 pp. Paperback, $12

One of the virtues of "serious" literature is that besides opening up unexpected worlds to the reader, it offers a way for generations to communicate. The oldest of the main characters in this collection of linked short stories (labeled as a novel) is in her 30s, elderly in this context. Another is 16, and the rest are in their 20s. About half of them are Japanese; the others are Americans who have postponed or avoided their lives by deciding to teach English in the little town of Ami, about an hour outside of Tokyo. The Americans have many reasons for leaving home: 9/11, the Iraq war or more personal motivation. They want to explore their own sexuality; they wish to take off their American masks and find out what -- if anything -- lies beneath. These are mainly the concerns of youth. "The Love We Share Without Knowing" would make an excellent gift from a beleaguered youth to his or her parents, an indirect way of saying, "This is what I'm going through! Try to understand!" Or, conversely, a great gift from a parent to a disaffected 20-something who seems to have lost his or her way in life: "Yes. I know what you're going through. That's at least one thing you don't have to worry about."

The 16-year-old here is a brokenhearted boy transported to Japan because his father has a job with a company whose name rhymes with "phony." The boy runs in the countryside near his house in a futile attempt to shake off his despair. One day he discovers a tiny shrine and a beautiful fox who (we know) is actually a fox spirit. When he goes to Tokyo without telling anyone, it's the fox spirit -- this time in the shape of a beautiful girl -- who gets him on the right train home. We find out that she used to be a human named Midori, who lived on a nearby cabbage farm and committed suicide. (There's no point in dismissing this as "magic realism." The fox spirit, the dusty cabbages all are treated realistically in Barzak's book.)

The other characters line up on a spectrum between the spirit and the teenager. One Japanese young woman, who used to be Midori's best friend in high school, has hit that youthful wall so few of us in either country talk about. She's gone to school, gotten a stupid job, married a cheating boor. She could go on with this charade, or she could kill herself. She collects a few acquaintances who form a suicide club; they attempt to asphyxiate themselves in a rented van.

Four young Americans teach English as a second language at a school for upwardly mobile Japanese kids: Hannah, over 30, mourning a mysterious lost love; Ted, who has apparently come to Japan to womanize; Jules, a young girl just wasting time; and Laurie, who has fallen for a Japanese girl who's left him flat. And -- if I read correctly, and he's not one of the original four -- there's a nameless American guy who has unexpectedly fallen for a Japanese gay man. The American is passionately in love, but his partner's neediness eventually revolts him. He thinks more and more that he needs to go home.

They are all so foreign here! Stuck in a world they can't begin to understand. They never get the joke or comprehend the nuance. They haven't the foggiest idea why acquaintances or even strangers should decide to commit suicide in groups. They're new to "love hotels" rented by the hour, where lovers inscribe their sentiments in scrapbooks for the lovers who come after. They hang out at the local 7-Eleven, spend hours at karaoke bars, drink more than is good for them and ponder the meaning of their lives. They're stranded. They want to go home; they don't want to go home. They don't know where their real home is.

The strongest narratives in these entwined tales concern a wannabe Japanese musician who's mean once too often to a woman and is dealt an awful punishment, and the love story of the gay couple, who refer to themselves as "sleeping beauties." One of them will also receive an unexpected comeuppance. Love withheld is the greatest sin here, whether in the Japanese or American culture; love freely given would seem to be the ultimate redemption.

The only badly drawn character here is an American mother (depicted as a crone at the great age of about 45), who makes a cameo appearance and mouths every philistine platitude imaginable. The author, obviously, wants to be understood, but, in the old phrase, he himself doesn't trust any American over 30. That's normal. Not one of us wants to grow up. We don't want a mortgage. We want a glimmering shrine and a fox spirit. And no matter how old we grow, it's almost impossible to forget that.

Next Sunday in Book World

· Roy Blount Jr. gets lost in a metaphor.

· Walt Whitman's band of brothers.

· Michael Dirda gives away books.

· Jonathan Yardley picks his favorites.

· And the very best books of 2008.

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