Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Julie Otsuka, _The Buddha in the Attic_

HOW MANY FIRST-PERSON-PLURAL novels are out there these days? The only one I've read is Jeffery Eugenides's Virgin Suicides; a cursory search reveals that apparently Kate Walbert, Joshua Ferris, and Ed Park have taken shots at it as well. (Ayn Rand's Anthem, let's agree, does not count.)

The Buddha in the Attic is not alone, then, but I would nonetheless say first-person-plural narration was a particularly canny call on Otsuka's part; it suits her subject matter perfectly. The novel is about the "picture brides," the Japanese women who made long-distance marriage arrangements with the Japanese immigrant men who were working in California, Oregon, and Washington state. These women, the novel's "we," crossed the Pacific and managed to make lives in the USA until the catastrophe of the internment camps.

So described, the novel sounds like one of those multi-family, multi-generational doorstops that requires a set of family trees on the end papers -- a Japanese Joy Luck Club, say. But it's a slender volume -- 129 pages -- in which a development that might have been four or five chapters in a saga turns into a few sentences. Infants become young adults, marriages struggle through incomprehension to reconciliation, small businesses rise and fall in a matter of a few pages. Names are few.

The book feels as though hundreds of sagas are unscrolling simultaneously, each flickering by in a few seconds. Some of the sagas are a bit sentimental or obvious, and one is not that sorry to see them disappear so quickly, but others are all the more poignant for their brevity.

Perhaps too off-beat to become a classic, but I can imagine this becoming a book-club standard, or a high school English standard -- unorthodox though it is, it has an insistent pull of a new kind.