My reading group has chosen Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic for its next book, and I approached it enthusiastically. The reviews were ecstatic: “An understated masterpiece…that unfolds with great emotional power…Destined to endure” (SF Chronicle) and “Otsuka’s incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry” (The New York Times Book Review). I wanted to be a believer.
As a writer, I think I’m more focused on style and structure than some readers might be, so I was curious to see how Otsuka handled these things and more. And I’m always interested in seeing inventions: W. G. Sebald, who has conceived a new hybrid novel—part memoir and part travelogue—remains one of my favorite writers. So is Roberto Bolano, another original writer whose 571 page The Savage Detectives has a four hundred page central core titled “The Savage Detectives” that offers the viewpoints of 38 friends, lovers, acquaintances, and enemies of the main characters, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. This chorus of characters describes encounters with the two poets over a period of 20 years in Mexico City, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, and beyond. Clearly, Bolano isn’t trying to write the traditional novel.
Neither is Otsuka. She seems to be creating more of a sociological study of the Japanese women who immigrated to America in the early 1900s, mail order brides to Japanese men who had preceded them here. But instead of exploring a handful of these females in depth, she uses a collective voice. The first line is “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall” (3). The collective “we” prevails throughout.
At the beginning, I didn’t mind this group point of view. I was willing to see how the writer narrated the various situations these women found themselves in once they landed. Some worked in the fields with their new husbands. Others lived in cities and found similar menial work to do. But none of these situations is covered individually. We learn that “They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands” (29). I never experienced one particular character and followed her through the build up to WW II and Japanese internment.
For someone who values original ways of presenting a narrative, I wanted this collective voice to work. Unfortunately, much of the account just lists what happened, and that approach gets boring. It also keeps the reader at a distance from the emotional heart of these lives. Yet it wasn’t until the final third of the book when many were moved to internment camps that this collective voice works. By then it is a collective situation, and it makes sense to approach it as such. The most compelling moments happen after that.
But overall, I don’t believe the novel lives up to its hype, and the Japanese men and women who created new lives on American soil deserve to be represented as individuals, not ciphers.