A year after the attacks of Sept. 11, Julie Otsuka published her spare first novel about a family of Japanese Americans consigned to an internment camp in Utah. “When the Emperor Was Divine” hit a lot of notes just right in our newly paranoid country: Its lyrical style, emotional poignancy and historical content appealed to book clubs; its brevity, chastity and diversity appealed to schools. While splashy books like “Lovely Bones,” “Middlesex” and “Life of Pi” soaked up attention, Otsuka’s quiet debut lay the foundations for paperback immortality.
Her follow-up novel, a kind of prequel that’s just as slim, starts off with a louder critical boost: It’s one of the five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction to be handed out Wednesday. Every year the shortlist makes an easy target for complaints: The finalists are too commercial, too obscure, too not the books I happened to like. Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic” can’t be dismissed on any of those grounds, but the National Book Award judges have burdened this delicate novel with expectations it can’t comfortably carry.
Writing in the first person plural (“we”), Otsuka begins with a group of Japanese “picture brides” — some as young as 12 — sailing to San Francisco, thrilled to be marrying successful, good-looking men. Each carries what she thinks is a photo of her fiance. “Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives,” they say. “We knew how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours.” Those will be less useful skills than they imagine in their new California lives.
The dramatic irony gets laid on thick in this anxious opening section, “Come, Japanese!” when these naive immigrants reassure themselves that “it was better to marry a stranger in America than grow old with a farmer from the village.” But the book’s plural voice is particularly effective at capturing their long, giddy conversations on the ship as they wonder if American men really grow hair on their chests, put pianos in their front parlors and dance “cheek to cheek all night long” with their lucky wives.
It turns out that guys have been larding their personal ads with exaggerations long before Match.com. Enticing letters to Japan had claimed, “I own a farm. I operate a hotel. I am president of a large bank” and my favorite new pick-up line: “I am 179 centimeters tall and do not suffer from leprosy.” In fact, as their young brides discover upon arrival, most of these men don’t own anything at all. They’re poor, old and coarse. Still, “there was no going back.” What follows is a chorus of muted laments and complaints, beginning with a bracing short chapter called “First Night” that details scores of — mostly — painful consummations.
But no story in the conventional sense ever develops, and no individuals emerge for more than a paragraph. Whereas each chapter of “When the Emperor Was Divine” presented the family’s experience from a different point of view, in this new novel, each chapter focuses on some general aspect of Japanese immigrant life — sex, employment, children — and the great variety of their experiences is blended, often sentence by sentence: “Home was a bed of straw in John Lyman’s barn alongside his prize horses and cows. Home was a corner of the washhouse at Stockton’s Cannery Ranch. Home was a bunk in a rusty boxcar in Lompoc. Home was an old chicken coop in Willows that the Chinese had lived in before us. Home was a flea-ridden mattress in a corner of a packing shed in Dixon. Home was a bed of hay atop three apple crates beneath an apple tree.”
Though they’re often lovely, harrowing or surprising, these lists will have limited appeal to readers pining for more extended narratives and more emotional investment in individual characters. The very best sections of the novel reminded me of the poetic catalogues in Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” but periodically the rhythm turns flat and the lists betray a kind of pedestrian pattern, as when the Japanese women recite everything they learned from their white employers: “How to light a stove. How to make a bed. How to answer a door. How to shake a hand. How to operate a faucet, which many of us had never seen in our lives. How to dial a telephone. How to sound cheerful on a telephone even when you were angry or sad. How to fry an egg. How to peel a potato. How to set a table.” How to hide my impatience?
Unfortunately, we learn the strategy of Otsuka’s variations on a theme too quickly: Many poignant experiences, interspersed with rare joyous ones, all presented in parallel sentences, leading to an emotional punch line that’s witty, forlorn or tragic. A chapter titled “Babies,” for instance, contains more than 60 sentences that begin “We gave birth . . . ”: “We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta.” Etc., etc. And then this devastating last line: “We gave birth but the baby had already died in the womb and we buried her, naked, in the fields, beside a stream, but have moved so many times since we can no longer remember where she is.” But our over-anticipation of that finale taxes its impact, as though we’re hearing a comic who sets up every joke the same way. Aware of the author’s effort to manipulate our sympathies, we gradually become inured to the story’s emotional power.
As the internment demanded by Executive Order 9066 approaches, the book’s communal voice again becomes more appropriate to the paranoia and confusion these women feel. Their voices mingle, and isolated images, so precisely captured by Otsuka, deliver an explosion far beyond their size. And yet I’m troubled by the friction between this novel’s theme and its style. These are, after all, people who were cruelly stripped of their individuality and regarded as a monolithic peril in the heightened anxiety of the war years. Why, then, describe that injustice by reducing them all again to lists — albeit beautiful lists — of fragmented concerns, manners and moments? The plural voice is necessarily blurring and distancing. It can make us feel appropriately sad about how these Americans were treated, but it never really challenges the prejudice that made their internment possible. Had we known them as full individuals — as real and diverse and distinct — we couldn’t have whisked them away to concentration camps in the desert. A great novel should shatter our preconceptions, not just lacquer them with sorrow.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
the buddha in the attic
By Julie Otsuka
Knopf. 129 pp. $22