Big in Japan was the second book I managed to snag from Library Thing’s Early Reviewers Program. Considering how I felt about the first one, I did not have high hopes for M. Thomas Gammarino’s debut. But this character driven rumination on the relationship between physical desire and spirituality was a delicious surprise. At turns crass and cerebral, Big in Japan captures the distinctive blend of ambivalence and desperation that characterizes the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Big in Japan follows the exploits of twenty-four year old Brain Tedesco, guitarist for the Philadelphia based progressive rock band Agenbite. When the group realizes their independently released debut album is selling slightly better in Japan than in the States they convince their manager to send them on a promotional tour of Japan to boost sales. As the band tours Tokyo, playing venue after empty venue, they are forced to admit the tour is a failure. But having fallen in love with a Japanese sex-worker named Miho, Brain is too distracted to care. When Brain suddenly quits the band, deciding to stay behind and marry Miho rather than return to Philadelphia, the story kicks into high gear.
It’s risky to place an emotionally stunted character at the apex of a novel, and Brain Tedesco is nothing if not stunted. At the start of the story he is still living with his parents and working a crappy minimum wage job stocking shelves at a local pharmacy. He has never had a girlfriend, his deep anxiety, insecurity, and social awkwardness having paved the way for rejection after rejection.
The problem with emotionally stunted characters is they’re incredibly difficult to render sympathetically. All too often they’re immaturity and lack of self-awareness make them come off as whiny and annoying. And even though Brain is whiny at times, I never found him annoying. Gammarino imbues him with a naked vulnerability that is endearing and relatable. Even when Brain’s behavior crosses the line from self-defeating into selfish and cruel, I couldn’t write him off as just another man behaving badly. His motivations were far too complex and his psyche too broken for me to turn on him, and that says a lot coming from a person who is always prepared to turn on a character she feels is acting like an idiot. Gammarino deserves a world of credit for creating a character whose humanity is never eclipsed by his moronic behavior.
Brain is also kind of OCD. He is obsessed with order and routine; the kind of guy who has a place for everything and insists everything remain in its place. Initially, Brain is not happy about going to Japan. The trip is a major deviation from his normal routine; a disruption on par with leaving a magazine that belongs on the coffee table laying haphazardly on the couch.
But Brain’s desire for order also translates into a taste for purity. Brain is a virgin, and a typical one at that. He is a total horn dog consumed by sexual thoughts, yet reveres the idea of love. He believes love and sex to be neatly and inextricably linked, one following naturally on the heels of the other. So, it’s no surprise that Brain is automatically taken by the pristine beauty of Japanese women – women so physically and behaviorally different from women back in the States. On page 19 as his band mates discuss the pros and cons of sleeping with easy women, Brain thinks, “Horniness dried you out, made you haggard and ugly. These japanese girls weren’t that. They were so pure.” Drawn in by what he perceives as the unsullied beauty of the natives, Brain begins to view his trip to Japan, its alien language and culture, not as a disruption but as a coming home of sorts. He sees it as a place where his hunger for purity and order can be adequately satisfied.
Early in the story Brain visits the Tokyo National Museum where he comes across a series of scroll paintings of “hungry ghosts.” They are described on page 67 as “…[D]enizens of one of the Buddhist Hell realms. They had mountainous bellies and needle-thin necks that made it physiologically impossible for them to sate their hunger. In each of the scrolls, the ghosts…could be found squatting in latrines, trying and failing to gorge themselves on human waste.”
It quickly becomes apparent that Brain himself is a hungry ghost. His insatiable desire to do and be something more than the anxious, insecure, angry boy that he is leads him to a life of debauchery. He gluts himself on sex until the activity becomes toxic; a mechanical act that he no longer enjoys but can’t bring himself to stop.
This compulsion to internalize that which is poisonous stands in stark contrast to his search for the pristine, though both spring from the same well of insecurity and both shield him in some way. By accepting only perfection Brain kept himself from having to engage the material world, whereas consuming only the profane prevents him from having to fully engage others on an emotional level. It is only as Brain learns to balance the needs of the body with the needs of the mind and spirit that he begins to grow up.
Gammarino’s writing is strong and evocative, if a little self-conscious at times. Big in Japan maintained a sense of urgency throughout that had me rushing to turn each page.
Normally, I’m a serial reader. I finish one book and dive straight into another. I couldn’t do that with Big in Japan. I had to take two days to emotionally process the story before I could bring myself to start a new book, that’s how much it got to me.
Haunting, sad, and unflinchingly honest Big in Japan will leave your mouth watering.