Look at “Harmless Like You” the way you should look at art on the walls of a museum: Look until you think you’re done looking, and then look again.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut is a beautifully textured novel, befitting the story of an artist and the son she abandons as a baby. The artist, Yuki, is an artist because “little things . . . abraded her mind,” a vulnerability that is both blessing and curse. We come to see those “little things” through her artist’s perspective, like a friend’s “pale eyes, the shade of lettuces fresh out of the bag.”
The composition of “Harmless Like You” is clever: It starts in 2016 with Yuki’s adult son, Jay, tracking her down, and then the story alternates between Yuki’s life in 1960s and 1970s Manhattan and Jay’s present-day life in Brooklyn.
Yuki’s story feels compellingly immediate, as prickly and unpredictable as its protagonist. She becomes a semi-successful performance artist whose works include a series of photographs of the all-white food she ate for an entire month. Her thoughts are brilliantly rendered in sentences that curl up into questions. At first, she seems as harmless as the title suggests, a little Asian girl who reminds people of the civilians getting massacred in Vietnam.
Born in New York to Japanese parents, Yuki fits in nowhere. At 17, she stays behind when her parents return to Tokyo, and she ends up in an abusive relationship that nonetheless inspires her creatively. When it ends, she wonders, “Why was it that when a fist slammed into your face, it was a jump-start, but heartbreak was a leak in the gas tank?”
Through Yuki, the novel probes the complicated politics of victimhood. She ultimately scorns harmlessness, “as if being unable to strike back was a virtue,” leaving the stifling comforts of suburban marriage to pursue her art.
The novel successfully walks a fine line in showing how Jay is affected by his mother’s departure while not stereotyping her as a selfish woman responsible for her son’s neuroses. And Jay’s understated reunion with his mother is both powerful and believable. If his resolve to be a good father feels overly redemptive, it’s only because Buchanan has so skillfully sketched the stories of those who leave, rather than those who stay.
Fran Bigman is a visiting researcher at Keio University in Tokyo.
By Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Norton. 308 pp. $24.95