By Calton Breen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Working within the emotionally associative forms of poetry and memoir, award-winning poet David Mura has already created a body of work that tackles head-on complex issues such as sexual desire and addiction, race relations and the unspoken consequences of U.S. WWII internment camps on later generations of Japanese Americans.
By grappling with what, for most of us, constitutes a craggy, confusing and deeply charged terrain, he has exposed his own personal roots and probed them with great candor and poise. His intelligence and artistry, along with an unflinching eye, are what make his third collection of poems, “Angels for the Burning,” and his memoir, “Turning Japanese,” exceptionally powerful. With a writing style that relies heavily on collage, he uses it to enliven all his work, creating provocative yet resonant emotional landscapes.
With “Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire,” Mura expands his reach by bringing his poetic technique to the forefront in the novel. Covering basically the same territory as his earlier work, he presents here the mid-life story of Ben Ohara, an American-born Japanese living in the Midwest, historian by trade and coming to grips with his failed life.
He deals with the difficulties of an interracial marriage, hints of sexual abuse for both Ben and his brother Tommy and their father’s suicide, made incomprehensible by their mother’s determined silence about it. Additionally, there is the shadow thrown over Ben’s parents’ internment in Heart Mountain camp during WWII. Hardest of all, there is Tommy’s suicidal walk into the Mojave Desert. Each layer of emotional sediment must be stripped bare before Ben can find ground firm enough to support a future freed from his past.
Mura, a first time novelist, works hard to keep up with his story. But like many novice fiction writers, he falls into some basic traps. He tells us things instead of showing them, presents his authorial judgments on characters without offering action, thought or the opinions of other characters as evidence. He uses shorthand references to pop culture instead of exploring his ideas in full.
He also lacks a clear picture of the story’s physical terrain. Scene description, atmosphere, key details that might make a place vivid are missing. Ben’s world is left an uninflected void. The main characters suffer from this as well. Hints about their appearance are withheld until absolutely necessary, often revealed only late in the book. Minor characters are not much more than a type and a name. Without this necessary physicality, the novel often veers off into easy cliché and risks becoming too generic to keep the reader interested.
However, Mura’s poetic sensibility still manages to bring something unexpected to the material. While generally maintaining a forward chronology, he builds up each chapter out of small disjointed pieces. Instead of constructing a traditional plot based on narrative causality, he stresses collage over linear story.
For instance, the chapter entitled “The Bomb” begins with the 1950s fear of an atomic blast and its subsequent radiation. From there, Mura weaves in two thematically related events: Ben’s explosive rage when a neighborhood sansei taunts him about his father’s No-No Boy past; and the quieter, though equally devastating “bomb” that younger brother Tommy has been sexually abused by a stranger. Through association, Mura deftly captures the anxious, figurative fallout concomitant with these parallel scenes.
Yet, while emotional complexity is gained, something greater is lost. As a whole, the book reads like a loose collection of well-constructed prose poems or aggregated vignettes of a fictional memoir. It doesn’t read like the powerful and cathartic novel of redemption it wants to be. Release and recovery are ultimately what Ben is after.
Here is where plot based on causality, not collage, would have helped.
The interconnected thread of how characters act and react gives inherent structure to events. It is seeing the consequences of actions and learning from mistakes that create wisdom. Through choice then, the defining agent of plot, we truly learn who we are and what we believe. Only then is redemption possible.
“Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire,” by David Mura. Published by Coffee House Press, paperback, 2008. $14.95.
Calton Breen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.