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Strangers in a stereotyped land

Country of Origin A Novel Don Lee W.W. Norton: 352 pp., $24.95

August 08, 2004|Ben Ehrenreich | Ben Ehrenreich is a writer whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, the Village Voice and McSweeney's.

"The Japanese are a very strange people," says the dashing if dilettantish foreign service functionary Tom Hurley to his soon-to-be lover about a third of the way through "Country of Origin." The two are flirting beneath fake palm fronds on the artificial rubber sand of a giant indoor beach and pool complex outside Tokyo. So even if we know well enough at this point that we're reading a novel about stereotyping and the confounding fallout of cultural collision, it's hard not to take Hurley at his word. Rubber sand? That is pretty weird.

Nearly all the characters in Don Lee's novel are ethnic misfits of one sort or another who are seeking some kind of home or hiding place. Lee, a longtime editor of the literary journal Ploughshares and author of the prizewinning short story collection "Yellow," is a third-generation Korean American who spent much of his childhood in Asia. His unsubtly named protagonist, Lisa Countryman, is half African American and, perhaps, half Japanese. Countryman's disappearance -- she dies of an overdose in a flash-forward first chapter, no mystery there -- drives the plot, if not always smoothly. Kenzo Ota, the lovably neurotic detective assigned to find her, wants only to conform and to be accepted, but he can't hold his liquor well enough to take part in the requisite after-work male-bonding rites. The aforementioned Hurley, investigating Countryman's disappearance on behalf of the U.S. embassy, is half white and half Korean but tells people he is Hawaiian because, well, at least it's something. Hurley's lover, Julia Tinsley, an awkward cross between Daisy Buchanan and Mrs. Robinson, hails "from a long line of white trash" but does her best to pass in the tartan and topsider WASP world of ex-pat diplomats. Her Japanese American in-laws were, her husband says, interned at Manzanar by the government he now serves -- as a CIA agent, no less. But then, of course, he lies a lot.

To amp up the tension, the novel takes place in 1980, when the Japanese economy is ascending and a post- Vietnam America is seemingly on the skids, humiliated by OPEC, the Ayatollah Khomeini and recession. Thus, the stage is set for culture clash, for a literary exploration of ethnic identity and difference, all hinged on the common search for -- ahem -- a countryman. Detective Ota, who is the book's most compelling character when Lee isn't making him stand in for Japanese nationalism, decries American commercialism, arrogance and individualism. "What had they expected with their self-indulgence and immorality and rampant consumerism?" he wonders, contemplating the decadence across the Pacific Ocean. The missing Countryman, in turn, is a graduate student in cultural anthropology who is, she says, ostensibly researching "something or other about Japan as a patriarchal society and the subjugation of women, the dismissal of individual worth over cohesion and homogeneity of the group, the sad, brutal reign of conformity."

One expects that these old saws will be sharpened by book's end, that the competing cliches will battle it out, knock each other down and stand up again with a little more texture, some more complex understanding of otherness, even perhaps of that unavoidable otherness with which we regard ourselves. But the conflict never quite comes into focus, largely because Lee's narrative so rarely drops its tone of touristic wonder. "Country of Origin" too often reads more like an anthropological report or a travel feature about the exotic Japanese than like a novel of ideas.

Lee provides an extended tour of shasei sangyo, Japan's sex industry, with its "no panty" coffee shops, strip clubs where men can rent magnifying glasses for close inspection of their entertainers' nether parts and fantasy replicas of subway cars in which paying customers can guiltlessly grope young women dressed in short schoolgirl skirts. He takes us to a Love Academy, where bumbling would-be Romeos study to be romantic and into "the exquisite, rarefied world of Kaiseki, the most exclusive dining experience in Japan." We learn that the Japanese cutely mangle English, that they love Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," that karaoke is not mere entertainment but "another ritualistic initiation [through which] everyone felt closer after a weaker member had endured such a petrifying trial, risking exposure and embarrassment but pulling through with the others' support."

If this often feels more educational than literary, it can be entertaining. In a low-rent hostess club, boorish patrons clinically critique the "big-boned" physique of the woman whose companionship they're renting: "Paradoxically she has a skinny person's neck and wrists and ankles." But the pleasures Lee offers only serve to strengthen the cliches that he elsewhere seems eager to overcome. In the end, you're less enlightened or challenged than amused and baffled, shaking your head with Hurley at how flat-out foreign foreigners can be. *

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