White Elephant cover[Chin Music Press; 2016]

INT. READER’S HEAD — AFTERNOON

Someone, it could have been you but in this case it’s me, opens up a book. She, in this case, I, starts to read Mako Idemitsu’s White Elephant.

Reader’s Head is an active place, not a stationary one, and this place is searching for several things: more information about the filmmaker-turned author Mako Idemitsu, a Japanese feminist from an aristocratic family, the poetic and emotionally cutting language that is, as far as I can tell, characteristic of Japanese literature, and, as relief, as education, an experience inside a few different character’s heads: perhaps that of the author’s alter-ego Sakiko, or her abrasive sister Hiroku, or the complicated if understated young mind of Sakiko’s son, Hiro.

BOOK waits patiently as words soak inside Reader’s head.

EXT. LIVING ROOM — CONTINUOUS

READER’S HEAD
Wait.

BOOK
What?

READER’S HEAD
This wasn’t — I — I mean — I — I was supposed to be learning something about a culture I don’t know and a place I don’t know and a time period I don’t know.

BOOK
The 70’s weren’t that long ago. You know from your parents.

READER’S HEAD
But my parents aren’t Japanese. I’m not Japanese. This aristocratic family and their incredible demands and this particular sister’s particular kind of rush to independence should be foreign.

BOOK
Is it not?

READER’S HEAD
It’s Japanese, obviously, but, this character is too close. Too much home. Too much — ugh, if I say she’s too much like me I’ll sound like I don’t know how to read books.

BOOK
Maybe you don’t. Just something to consider.

READER’S HEAD
No but seriously. I’ve never heard this story told.

BOOK
Who are you talking about? The main character, Sakiko? But her family took their aristocracy seriously, Japanese seriously, with demands to keep up at all costs.

READER’S HEAD
I know. That shit’s intense. (A crassly American way to put it, but perhaps appropriate for a setting in San Francisco.)

BOOK
You didn’t come from that kind of serious.

READER’S HEAD
No. Not even a little bit.

BOOK
And you have no problem saying no, unlike Sakiko, who’s introduced in the first chapter with the title “The girl who couldn’t say no.”

READER’S HEAD
Right.

BOOK
And you don’t have a kid, and if you did it would be your choice, not a choice you were forced into because right before you went to the abortion clinic you saw your hippie-husband’s smile and heard him say, ‘you’re gonna have my baby, right?’ and with his imploring voice ringing in your ears you couldn’t say no.

READER’S HEAD
Right.

BOOK
And you don’t feel like you’re two different people, one who’s effusively affectionate and open and confident and one who’s always shaking and nervous and — oh, wait.

READER’S HEAD
. . . Right.

BOOK
You do kinda feel like that, huh?

READER’S HEAD
Kind of, yes.

BOOK
Still. It shouldn’t have been a hard book to get through or a wrenching book to think about. You couldn’t relate to any of the other characters.

READER’S HEAD
UM!!

BOOK
I mean. There’s that sister, Hiroku. She’s a painter, and she moves to New York from Tokyo because her father has given her artistic career his blessing, so she sets herself up with these glamorous trappings — you’re not in glamorous trappings — and basically forgets that her unfailing material comfort is solely the result of the privilege she comes from.

READER’S HEAD
Yeah…

BOOK
She mocks her sister’s squalid bohemian apartment ruthlessly, and doesn’t say anything when Sakiko just reminds her, lightly, I think, “father’s paying your way.” There’s nothing like you here.

READER’S HEAD
Not there . . .

BOOK
But then of course she gets to that point where she stops painting, and she’s feeling guilty because her family is always asking her, supportively, “how is the painting?” and her father is waiting for her to exhibit in a solo show, which she can’t even begin to do because the New York establishment art scene is about as racist as Sakiko’s California suburban neighbors. And she ends up having an obsessive affair with her sister’s husband, and eventually meets someone else, but his friends basically steal her money by simply asking for it. She writes them checks for any amount they name, having no real idea what money is. Her life has been devoted to education and diligent painting and family and maintaining the respectability of her family name: things like “writing checks” were the jurisdiction of her father’s financial manager. Eventually she squanders her fortune on misguided generosity and drugs, crushed with the feeling of having failed her father. She’s invited to exhibit her art in a group show, but he’s not impressed: a successful artist has a solo show. She was supposed to be a successful artist. She was given considerable support in order to become a successful artist. And now she feels like, and oh my god do not tell me this character is like you.

READER’S HEAD
I didn’t say like me, but it’s a relatable situation: family, particularly a not-so-bohemian family, supporting someone’s art. But when she can’t think of herself as an artist anymore she loses all grasp on the possibility of being anything, even alive. She drowns herself, with her lover, feeling just that weighed down by having failed her father, failed his support, failed her family, failed herself and her own expectations. She was supposed to be great. She was supposed to be known. How is it that these notions of fame fucking kill us all, cross-culturally?

BOOK
I don’t know. But maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m here, to get you thinking about that.

READER’S HEAD
Brutal.

BOOK
You should read me in the original.

READER’S HEAD
I really wish I could. The images are evocative and the sensory details are vivid, especially for the brief portions of the book that we’re actually in Japan, but I feel like I must be missing something conceptually, especially in the meditative passages. There is something particularly striking about growing up, as Hiroku did, as a high achiever, in a culture that considers, “She’s so smart, it’s a shame she’s not a boy!” to be the greatest possible compliment. Not only that, but Hiroku agreed. “Very well, let’s say that she’s a boy,” her father concurred. Meanwhile, her life in America is one of heartbreaking feminine submission, with the pulse of her existence rising and falling with the attentions of her sister’s husband, an affair that’s all the more ruthless given Sakiko’s obliviousness to it. She talks, at points, like she actually wants her sister to know that he’s been cheating with her, giving her subtle hints that go unnoticed. All of this emotional nuance and unpredictability is likely staggering in the original, and sometimes falls flat in English; sympathy for the characters drives the prose more often and more effectively than its lyricism. Though at its strongest points, it feels like reading an experimental film: unpredictable images filling up the space in front of you, washing over you in the dark and peeling back the lens, or the page, over the feelings you haven’t confronted. Suddenly, here they are.

FADE TO BLACK.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance editor in Boston.


 

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