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Oh! A mystery of ‘mono no aware’
By Todd Shimoda
Chin Music Press, 2009. 310 pp.
Todd Shimoda moved to Kauai just five years ago but already grows his own pineapples and seems to have soaked up relaxed island ways. When he appears at mainland bookstores to promote his new novel, he wears shorts, shoots the breeze with audience members and speaks in a mild, casual way, intonating statements as if they were questions. One wouldn’t guess that the laid-back Shimoda earned a Ph.D. in science and math education, has had his novels translated into six languages and has tackled a topic as dark as suicide in his new novel, Oh! A mystery of ‘mono no aware.’
Shimoda thrives on creating juxtapositions and then developing story lines from there. His previous novels (365 Views of Mount Fuji and The Fourth Treasure) each contrasted a traditional Japanese art with a technical or scientific aspect of modern society. The latest novel explores both Japanese poetry and a social networking culture that makes it efficient for people in Japan to commit suicide in groups.
In another striking contrast, the protagonist of this novel feels dead inside. And yet Zack Hara, of all people, travels to Japan on a quest to understand mono no aware. This subtle emotional mindset involves a heightened awareness of life’s beauty, as well as acute sadness at its impermanence. Zack approaches the topic with an analytical, detached perspective.
As if to mirror his approach, the book contains fact-filled endnotes befitting an academic paper. But the hardback book is heavenly to see and touch, giving readers their own mono no aware experience. The paper is satiny (except for the textured endpapers), and nuanced artwork by Shimoda’s wife, artist L.J.C. Shimoda, streams through the volume. (Caution: pages of art clustered at the back practically hide an epilogue that entirely changes the ending, so don’t miss that!)
Shimoda creates an intriguing tension between two states of mind, and readers follow along raptly, waiting to see how opposites will converge and what they will become.
Eve Kushner: Did you feel that writing about an emotionally dead character had any risks?
Todd Shimoda: It was really risky, because you didn’t want him to be like a zombie or like Spock. [Both laugh] It was risky in terms of having people buy into the idea that somebody could be perpetually numb, because there would be no biological basis for someone not having any emotions.
EK: Actually, I had a different risk in mind.
EK: Yeah. I once wrote a novella, and the first sentence was, “I dreamed that Ed put green snakes in my mother’s mailbox, but I just didn’t care anymore.” I was in a writers’ group, and they said, “If the narrator doesn’t care anymore, maybe readers won’t care either.” So if Zack is too dead to care about what’s really happening to him, then maybe readers can’t feel emotionally engaged with the text.
TS: That’s a good point. I had to make Zack likable, so they would want to see him come to some emotional awareness and attain some emotional life. I gave him an edge, but he was also sympathetic enough that his lack of emotions wouldn’t put readers off. It was really tricky to get that balance right.
EK: Did you try a few chapters out on people?
TS: I did. I used to belong to a writers’ group in Colorado, and they read some of it. And I read the first few chapters at a writers’ conference to a couple hundred people. That was really risky!
EK: [Laughs] How did it go?
TS: They really liked it! People said, “Oh, I want to read this! I like this character.” Even the conference director said, “Wow, you’re a hit! People loved it.”
EK: What was it like for you to spend months or years thinking about suicide while writing this book? And how long did it take you to write it?
TS: I wrote the first three chapters a few years ago as a short story. But to turn it into a novel, I blocked out three months last year, and that’s all I did for 10 hours a day. At the end, I felt like killing myself. [Pauses] No, I’m just kidding!
EK: [Laughs hard] I bought it!
TS: You know, I’ve never had any suicidal thoughts at all. I’ve never gotten depressed enough to consider it. It’s never even crossed my mind. But 20 years ago, I had three or four friends who committed suicide.
EK: Did they know each other? Were they influenced by each other?
TS: No, they were all totally separate instances. But I never saw it coming. They weren’t the kind of people you would think would commit suicide. They never seemed sad or depressed. They were really successful. And it was difficult for me to understand.
EK: Did you do any research like Zack does? Did you talk to survivors to figure out the reasons?
TS: I didn’t press friends or family to tell me why they committed suicide. I did hear that one felt burned out and another had an aggravating but nonfatal health issue. But it must have gone beyond that, because those sound like minor problems. So I never really got clear answers. Part of Zack’s trying to understand why these people would commit suicide was my own trying to understand why my friends committed suicide.
EK: In the novel, did you feel tempted to let us get to know one of the characters who committed suicide?
TS: I thought of that. And I didn’t want to get stuck on one character’s reasons for committing suicide. I wanted Zack to look around at different types of people that had done it. I really didn’t want it to be about the act of suicide, per se, but more about the emotional and psychological antecedents to suicide.
EK: You’ve taken a scientific, analytical approach to perhaps the most emotional topic in the world — mono no aware. It seems kind of like timing an orgasm!
TS: Really clinical.
EK: Yes, exactly. Does your clinical approach kill anything that was emotional for you or for others?
TS: When I do a novel, I tend to do a lot of research. And I also approach it as academic research in some ways, because that’s how I’m trained. I like to get the facts, or at least the theories behind things. And I find intriguing bits of information that I’d like to include in the books. But I also like to make sure there’s a good story line to tie all those things together, because that’s how I’d like to read about a topic. I like to learn some things, and I like to have some basis in reality, but I also like a good, page-turning story.
EK: Do you enjoy and admire certain novelists who approach it that way? Maybe Haruki Murakami?
TS: I admire Murakami very much, although he doesn’t write much about science. Kobo Abe incorporates science more directly. He was trained as a medical doctor, so that could be an influence. An American writer, Richard Powers, has done some interesting things with science, specifically artificial intelligence and brain science.
EK: How about Ian McEwan?
TS: I like Ian McEwan. He does a lot of the same kind of thing.
EK: Have you seen it done badly?
TS: I started James Frey’s new novel and didn’t finish! He tried to take a lot of facts and integrate them into his story, and it just didn’t work. It didn’t have a lot to do with the plot. In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, there are thousands of footnotes about miscellanea and drug compounds, but for some reason that worked. I don’t know why that worked and James Frey’s didn’t. But either it works or it doesn’t. With mine, some people find it off-putting to have so much nonfiction in a novel.
EK: Readers have told you that? Or reviewers?
TS: A couple reviewers said that. And a couple people. My mom! [Both laugh hard] She says it’s way too complicated. She’s never finished any of my novels! But my dad has a Ph.D., and he likes it.
EK: Do you find that your stuff appeals mostly to the Ph.D. set?
TS: Oh, no, no, no. Not necessarily. All different types of readers have been my fans. It’s hard for me to figure out my fans. [Laughs]
EK: If understanding mono no aware was the initial impetus to write this work, how does it feel to have grasped it now?
TS: It feels very satisfying that I was able to create a fictional story around the idea. Until I finished, I was never quite certain that that was going to work. So I had a mono no aware moment when I realized that it actually was going to work! When you achieve what you set out to do, those are the moments you live for as a writer.
Eve Kushner (www.evekushner.com) is a freelance writer in Berkeley, CA, who specializes in Japan-related topics. She is the author of Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters (Stone Bridge Press, 2009). From 2007 through 2010, she wrote the weekly blog “Kanji Curiosity” for JapanesePod101.com. Soon she will launch a website called Joy o’ Kanji, where she will publish essays on each of the Joyo kanji, the characters used in daily life in Japan.
Causes Eve Kushner Supports
The Milo Foundation, Planned Parenthood, Doctors Without Borders, PCI, FINCA