Lethbridge Goes to Tokyo

Realia

By Ian Ferrier

A review of Realia by Will Aitken

Published on October 1, 2000

Realia
Will Aitken

Random House Canada
$29.95
cloth
256pp
0-679-31040-1

I have to confess that I had a soft spot for this novel even before I read it. I like Will Aitken, partially because he was a founder of l’Androgyne, which was the first bookstore to take me out of my hetero rah-rah upbringing for a few minutes, and give me a window into gay culture.

And in Realia Will Aitken’s hero is Louise Painchaud, a big tall redheaded young woman from Western Canada, living in Japan in the mid-1980’s and teaching English.

In the mid 1980’s I myself was going out with a big, tall redheaded young woman from Western Canada who had been living in Japan and teaching English.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

So I was very pleased when this – his third novel – was released, as I thought perhaps he was planning to explain her to me. (She’d always been something of a mystery.)

I was wrong, of course. As I should have realized (what got into me?), just about every literate gaijin who isn’t dripping in cash seems to support trips to Japan by teaching English.

Ah well. Reality is what you make it, and that should be true of fiction more than anything. And by that time I was a third of the way into the book.

This is an excellent book in its depths and in its details. In the depths, we really do get inside Louise, and the “doomed love” story in which she is both narrator and principal actor. In the details Aitken is a fine writer, incisive, graceful, and sometimes downright hilarious.

In the middle scale though, of presenting and linking people and events and getting characters from one place to another, Realia takes a while to get airborne.

This often happens in first person novels, as the writer can’t rely on a narrator to say “then she drove to Osaka.” Everything has to come out of the character’s mouth.

But in this book it’s as if Louise is not quite committed to the reality of which she speaks. She would prefer (as we would) only the events that resonate.

So how to deal with the linking and maneuvering? Aitken keeps dropping hints at what his choice will be. When Louise goes to visit a golden statue of Buddha, it speaks to her, saying “stop dawdling, Louise.” At that point it’s still possible for her to believe she’s been hallucinating. But what happens when a pearl starts to grow in the middle of her forehead?
This second bump in the smooth structure of reality points to how the narrative will take off. Just afterwards Louise is swept away by her handsome new lover – Oro – a massive star floating high above the Japanese pop horizon.

And into the typhoon of glitter, adulation, helicopters, managers, and screaming fans that surround the star – in go the narrator and the rest of the story. “Traffic lights apparently mean nothing when you’re a big Japanese star,” says Louise as they exit a building in a Maserati. And from then on it’s settled. Travel from A to B will be by helicopter, hydrofoil, or Jaguar XKE.

For me this was the most satisfying part of the book. The dizzying heights of Japanese pop culture are beautifully presented, and so intrinsically surreal that the distinction between real and surreal blurs, freeing the novelist to always choose where his interests lie, regardless of whether it’s real, surreal, sensible, doomed…who cares? When a book starts to power itself on every event like this, I like to just hang on and enjoy the ride.

We are going somewhere though, and Louise is falling in love, and she doesn’t much like it.

In Realia, love is the weapon that pierces isolation. And what might have been tolerable had we never let our guard down, now becomes so painful that even the mind closes down.

Some statements seem to ring far outside the bounds of the story:

It’s always been like this, says Louise. It’s not that I don’t see the patterns in my life. It’s more that I’m helpless to correct them. I always do OK in a new place. People think I’m funny, unusual. That lasts until I’ve been around for awhile. Then they get to know me and they find out how unusual. When that happens there’s nothing for it but to leave.

Leave and go where? To isolation? To emptiness? And if a gaijin and a Japanese pop star actually did fall in love, what would happen to the carefully crafted image of the star? Would it be destroyed by the natural insularity of Japanese culture? Or would the star himself be destroyed, singing songs that are suddenly too sad for anyone to listen to? This is the last and darkest part of the book, and I’ll leave it to the reader to find out what happens. mRb

Ian Ferrier is a poet and musician well-known for literary performance. His current collaboration — entitled For Body and Light (forbodyandlight.org) received superlative reviews at the Kraine Theatre in New York this winter and is currently touring cities in Western Canada. His next book of poems is scheduled for publication in French in 2015.

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