Wrong About Japan, by Peter Carey
Random House Canada, 160 pp, $25, hardcover.
Peter Carey isn't wrong to think there's book-worthy significance in how North Americans are dazzled by the Japanese comic manga and the cartoon anime, their colourful big-eyed characters scurrying between cranked-up mythology and cool psychological reality.
And he isn't wrong to write an "anti-travel book". What he finds in Japan is brash and bourgeois, not tourist-quaint and traditional. In 10 days there, he can't be anything but a lousy tourist, regardless of his research. Carey is a goofy, 60-year-old Aussie-turned-Yank outsider too shy to tell his shy son, Charley, that a large nose in a Japanese woodcut signifies "a very large penis". Carey tries to find beauty through his own Basho-smeared aesthetic lens. An "anti-travel" angle seems apt.
And he isn't wrong to invent a fictional character-the manga-boy Takashi-and tuck him into the nonfictive world of Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son. Only in post-publication interviews has Carey talked about the device, and purists will say he's wrong to screw truth. But like the work of his contemporary, Michael Ondaatje, Carey's award-winning fiction-especially My Life As a Fake and True History of the Kelly Gang-glorifies the inept concealment of the clever lie. So be it.
Wrong is Carey pretending anti-travel is new. Wrong is Carey thinking a good book can comprise unedited journal notes, feeble narrative, terrible description, trite theories: "If this was pop culture, it was also art and history." Read Margaret Talbot's thrilling essay on anime director Hayao Miyazaki in the January 17 New Yorker and notice the appalling problems with Carey's technique and analysis.
Carey is most wrong to believe that by taking his kid to Japan they "might enter the mansion of Japanese culture through its garish, brightly lit back door" and we'll overlook the page count, the equally thin scope, and find the journey delightful because it's bloody Carey! But as Wrong About Japan sits, legs apart, on bestseller lists, it seems Carey wasn't so wrong about readers and their slatternly attraction to big reputations.