Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 in Shit: Fox Drum Bebop

Last year, Kaya Press put out what was probably my favorite book of the year, even if it was just the rerelease of a book that was self-published going on a century ago. So when they came to the Bay this April, I was excited to see some of their authors read. Shailja Patel -- whose work I am unfamiliar with, but whose twitter presence I am not -- and Sesshu Foster were on the lineup, along with two others. I did go, and enjoyed it; I even went to the reading's afterparty, though I didn't really talk to anyone.

The two readers I didn't know were the two who had books coming out this year, and of them it was Gene Oishi's book that I bought and will be reviewing here. Before that though, a short story; of the four readers, the only one I haven't mentioned is Amarnath Ravva. He read well, and his book seemed interesting. I didn't pick it up, for whatever mixture of insignificant reasons (though I suspect I will at some point, as it seems very up my alley), and, since I didn't socialize at the afterparty, I figured that was about that, until I did get around to the book.

Hello Kitty turned 40 this year. You might have heard about it; it happened in Los Angeles. I went to the convention. It was my first convention. I'm not particularly fond of LA, but I know a decent number of people who live there. None I am super close with, but a few I have known for a long time. The night after the first day of the con, I reached out to a few people and, surprisingly (to me), got a response from one in particular. He's a twitter friend from the heyday of Deleuzian twitter, back when I was texting strings of words into a wall of text as poetic/performative/formal experimentation. Back when lefty trolls were in Soros' pocket and before, even, my university system was sending detectives out to threaten my mom about lawsuits against me. He's a good dude, but we hadn't been in touch for a minute. By chance, a space he helps run was having an event, and I was able to get there. So I headed over, and saw a couple readings, and it was cool.

After the event was over, we chatted for a little bit. It was the first time we'd met in person, so it was mostly old twitter shit, invitations, how cool the space was, that kind of thing. After talking for a bit, Amar walked over to say hello to David. I recognized him, said I had appreciated the reading, and we talked briefly. He was cool. And that's the story. On to Oishi's book.

I don't know that I'd say that Fox Drum Bebop would give Kaya Press the coveted Year In Shit award for best book two years running, but that might have more to do with the fact that I hardly read anything new this year than anything else. It certainly is a book well worth reading. In the afterword, Oishi notes that he wrote it, in part, to contribute to the still too-small conversation around the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As an artistic exercise, where it sometimes stumbles along the (false objectivity) of pure craft, this goal is, I think, upheld. One of the roughest portions of the book, along the lines of craftsmanship (and the section Oishi happened to read at the Kaya event) deals with the protagonist, Hiroshi, attempting to solicit a sex worker during his stint with the Army Band, after he has been accepted at a jazz club. Beyond how this scene reflects Oishi's own strengths and weaknesses as an author -- his best moments are all clearly in the memoir wheelhouse, where the emotional stakes are clear from the environment and don't need direct description -- it reflects how much the literature of Japanese American internment (and, even more broadly, if to a significantly lesser extent, Asian American literature that deals with that specific cultural experience) has been pressured to elide these sorts of experiences. There is not, in other words, a healthy world of letters dealing with the sexual experiences of those who lived through internment.

Other than this particular (and other similar) failures (and -- honestly -- including them, because though they have issues they do contribute to the overall engaging sense that the book has some degree of roughness) Fox Drum Bebop is a pleasure to read. It is sometimes overbearingly memoirish, but again the goal seems served by this.

As a whole, it's hard to say much about Fox Drum Bebop. It doesn't push enough to one direction to be, say, a No No Boy, nor to the other to be an America is in the Heart (which, issues of the author's personal experience aside, is the only other book I've read than FDB that talks directly about the area in which I grew up, which is a little weird), nor in a third to be a Language of Blood; which is to say that the prose is never exceptional enough to delve into at length, and the history isn't quite as focalized. The benefit of its being a "semi-autobiographical" novel (rather than a straight memoir), though, is that it structures itself to be read through as a story, with developing thematic and character concerns. This it does very well, if not in any magnificently unique way, excepting, perhaps, that it is strong and confident enough in that structure to take liberties with it.

Fox Drum Bebop is structured chronologically; each chapter has a title (a not unwelcome holdover, I presume, from its original form as a series of short stories) and a year or range of years. Over the course of the forty-some years the novel covers explicitly, there are occasional forays into the past; the lives of Hiroshi's parents and elder siblings are sketched out, and the futures of his nieces and nephews, with relation to that (and his own) past, are suggested. I don't know that this is an interesting thing to talk about on its own; it sounds, as I write, even to myself, like I am saying "wow this did things novels do." But it is done well, and worth mentioning, I think.

What actually sets Fox Drum Bebop apart, for me at least, is how Oishi interweaves political narratives into Hiroshi's personal story. FDB is necessarily a political novel, of course. But there aren't, to my knowledge, many discussions of things like the radicalization of young, interned Japanese Americans. Hiroshi, though young enough to spend most of his time apart from it, experiences a rift in his family as one brother becomes an advocate of American loyalism (with attendant military service) while another takes a strong leftist critique of the country that imprisoned his family. The characters themselves are written such that these positions feel like natural (but not inevitable) conclusions; the former a high school football player, the latter a student at Todai, both the sons of an American Dream-style immigrant success story who remained a nationalist that toasted to Pearl Harbor.

In the time the novel spends with Hiroshi after the camp (which, I should probably mention, is the bulk of the book) these political questions, both informed by that time and not, continue to arise. As with the passage about the sex worker mentioned earlier, the question of how this informing happens is often complex and not strictly an effect of established narrative causes. It is, in other words, interesting, in a way that rewards engagement.

Which is all to say that, yes, about all I have to say about Fox Drum Bebop is that it is a novel. And I liked it, and I think you could too.

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