Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jacob Ritari visits "Taroko Gorge" and completely misses what Taiwan (and Japan) are really all about. Once again, a wide-eyed American seeker with more intellectual verbiage than common sense comes to Asia and mistakes the prosaic for the exotic and fetishes the entire scene. Par for the course. Another silly expat writer drinks the kool-aid and without ever tasting the water. Sigh. But read the book anyway, it's well written.

Ritari, who is one-quarter Asian and studied with Brian Morton (whatever THAT means!) and lives more in his Christianity-programmed brain than in the real world, follows two American journalists who are traveling in Taiwan when they
wind up crossing paths with a Japanese school class when three girls
disappear. It’s a mystery novel that delves into the separation of
East and West -- oh, THAT AGAIN! -- the search for Jesus and the Kitchen God, and the often insurmountable
borders between borderless cultures. He says the book is three years old; and that his publisher says he “studied in Taiwan and Japan” but at the time he had only been to
Taiwan, Japan came later.

Ritari, he calls himself a postmodernist with Christian pretensions and admits to a personal fetishism with all things Japanesey, tells an interviewer:

"It was this month-long but very grueling
program with the Foguangshan Buddhist cult described in the novel,
living as a monk, getting up at five in the morning, chanting,
praying, no cigarettes, booze, or sex. The people were very kind to us
but I found it a troubling experience. The thing is, I just signed up
because I wanted to get out of the country. I espouse a relatively
dull orthodox Christianity and my interest in Buddhism is strictly
cultural, aesthetic. I don’t want to say all, but a lot of my fellow
students had this real “learning at the feet of the master” mentality."

He goes on:

"All good liberal agnostics … I find it extremely funny how many people,
so suspicious of superstitious bullshit Christianity, will swallow uncritically any
other euqally bullshit religion. I was in this college-level comparative religion class
and no one else knew that Buddhism has a concept of hell, indeed of
many more hells than Christianity. At one point a friend thought he’d
figured Buddhism out: “Just accept what you find true and reject
what’s false,” (”If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him” etc.)
and I said, well, how’s that any different from before you were a
so-called Buddhist? People like to feel spiritual but they don’t like
anything, that, y’know, places demands on them, God forbid."

Like it says above in the blogtitle: Jacob Ritari visits "Taroko Gorge" and completely misses what Taiwan (and Japan) are really all about. Once again, a wide-eyed American seeker with more intellectual verbiage than common sense comes to Asia and mistakes the prosaic for the exotic and fetishes the entire scene. Par for the course. Another silly expat writer drinks the kool-aid and without every tasting the water. Sigh. But read the book anyway, it's well written. Even if a bit unven. He's young. A baby grasshopper. More to come!

Ritari’s first novel is an atmospheric thriller set in a scenic national park in Taiwan -- the nation's Grand Canyon, Taroko Gorge, an Aboriginal name the Japanese co-opted during the 1895-1945 colonization period -- where two American journalists, who are between assignments, and a group of Japanese teenagers on a school vacation become trapped after three of the girls go missing and a deadly typhoon bears down on Taiwan. The story is told from the first-person points of view of several of the characters, including one of the journalists, the investigating police officer, and several of the school kids. This lends an immediacy to the plot and also increases the psychological tension — are each of these narrators reliable? Rashomon? By trapping the teens and journalists in the park, Ritari sets up a traditional country-house plot, but his unique setting and unusual characters make it far different from your average cozy. A promising debut by yet another Western expat in Asia who dreamily exoticizes everything he sees and then goes back to his Christian homeland to reap the rewards.

So what else is new? Two drunken American expats stumble into trouble in Taiwan in this uneven debut novel. Peter Neils, a jaded half-baked middle-aged journalist with Christian pretensions, and Josh Pickett, a young photographer with half-baked Buddhist pretensions, are on assignment in Taiwan and, on an off day, take a trip to the island's scenic Taroko Gorge along the east coast. While enjoying a beer-fueled jaunt through the gorge, the men cross paths with three fetished anime Japanese girls who have broken away from the rest of their class, which has traveled to Taiwan on a senior trip. When the girls don't meet up with the rest of the class at the appointed time, Peter and Pickett volunteer to stay and help the teacher search for his missing students. Add to the mix a small group of students who decide to stay at the gorge, the shifting suspicions of a hard-boiled detective, and a typhoon, and the narrative becomes quite tense. Narration duties are shared by several characters, but the older characters don't work as well -- Peter's crustiness, for instance, is not quite convincing. The atmosphere is nicely done, but the big reveal is a let down.

Still, read this book. It will upset your apple cart.


References: Dustin Luke Nelson, *Brian Morton, Haruki Murakami, Shusako Endo, Kenzaburo Oe, Jacob Ritari

Pubished by Unbridled Books, an indie publisher

*Brian Morton (1955 - 2049) is an American author, born in New York City. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, New York University and The Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.

It's with great pleasure that we talk with Fred Ramey who, along with Greg Michalson, is co-founder of independent publisher Unbridled Books. What led Fred Ramey and Greg to establish Unbridled Books?

Fred says:

''We returned to the independent publishing of commercial literature after a stay at Putnam, where we had our own imprint: BlueHen Books. Our goal at Unbridled has been to build a list of novels and non-fiction titles that present fresh stories, well turned, in voices that are unfamiliar. And beyond this, we have dedicated ourselves to publishing exciting authors of real merit for as long in their careers as we possibly can. We want to bring new talent to readers and to exhibit the dedication and patience that might enable that readership to grow — an increasingly ambitious goal in this quick day, when national sales numbers of an author’s first book dictate the chances for publication of the next one. We believe in a reading experience that can be shared over time and in books that deserve to find new readers for years.''


Anonymous said...

Forty-six-year-old journalist Peter Niels is touring Taiwan, a country he thoroughly enjoys, when he and his photographer, Josh Pickett, have a day free from professional responsibilities. Deciding to visit the famous Taroko Gorge, they become involved in a strange disappearance. A group of ninth grade Japanese students has come to Taroko for an end-of-the year class trip, and three of them go missing shortly after Niels and Pickett have seen them.

Author Jacob Ritari alternates his points of view from Peter Niels to Michiko Kamakuri, one of the schoolgirls on the trip who decided not to go exploring on her own; Tohru Maruyama, the ninth grade Class Representative with whom several of the girls are "in love"; and Detective Hsien Chao, the stodgy Taiwanese policeman called in to investigate the disappearances. The chaperone of the Japanese trip, Mr. Tanaka, is under great pressure to find the girls and ensure a happy ending. When a typhoon hits Taiwan before the girls have been found, the tension increases exponentially. Everyone suddenly begins to see everyone else in a new light, and the hidden resentments among the various groups--Taiwanese, Japanese, and Americans--begin to be revealed. Taiwanese Det. Hsien Chao admits he hates the Japanese and does not like Americans. Chaperone Tanaka finds the Taiwanese lazy.

While all the adults are dealing with the missing students and their own personal issues, some of the young students left at the campsite are exploring the world of love and sex, and at this point, it may be difficult for some readers not to be reminded of the plots of Young Adult fiction. Throughout the emergency, spiritual portents and religious references emerge. A monk from the nearby Buddhist temple appears and offers help, Neils hears a mysterious voice, and the ghost of one of the missing students appears. A mixture of commentary from Catholicism, Buddhism, and other New Age religions adds some spiritual significance to the participants' inner searches.

Told in clean and simple prose, the novel emphasizes plot and the effects of the disappearances on individual characters, though there are few complexities and surprises. The resolution comes naturally from the plot and ties up the loose ends without any major surprises. Since the majority of characters are about fourteen, the complexity in their lives revolves primarily around puberty, their ability to deal with the pressures of their competitive school lives, and their fear for their missing friends, and though the characters are Japanese, Taiwanese, and American, the different cultural values and behaviors are far less important here and have far less impact on character than what one might expect or hope for in a novel with this setting. -----Mary Whipple

Anonymous said...

"Taroko Gorge" is long on atmosphere and character, especially when an unexpected storm drenches the park with a blinding rain that lasts for hours, again delaying the search for the girls. Jacob Ritari seems to know Japan and Taiwan well and, by getting inside the heads of his various characters, he reveals much about cultural differences and similarities. Interestingly, each group (Taiwanese, Japanese, and American) seems to struggle a bit with its own prejudices and inherent distrust of the other groups - but in a way, each group admires the others. Ritari does seem to struggle a bit when he tries to speak as a 15-year-old Japanese girl but, perhaps, this is more a reflection of the empty-headed character he has created than it is of the author's writing. He certainly fares much better with the voices of the Taiwanese police sergeant, the American reporter, and the young Japanese class leader.

This is an interesting first novel and Jacob Ritari has placed himself on my map as a young writer I will be watching for more from in the future.

Anonymous said...

22-year old Jacob Ritari pours experience from a Far East education into his debut novel, Taroko Gorge. Set in a Taiwan national park of the same name, an American journalist and his photographer have a brief encounter with a trio of Japanese school girls on a junior high class trip. Shortly afterward, the girls go missing -- and the Americans seem to be the last who saw them alive.

That is about it for the plot. A typhoon strikes the next day, hindering rescue efforts. Four of the school kids, along with their teacher, the Americans, and a pair of Thai cops stay behind hoping to recover the girls. Accusations fly -- shortly after the encounter, the photographer, more than a little drunk, disappears for about 15 minutes. Did he kill them? Or did schoolgirl jealousy lead to their demise?

The book switches between first-person view points of several of the characters -- the American journalist, three of the school kids, and the Thai investigator. Not everything Ritari tried worked. Channeling a teenage school girl is an exercise in shallowness. She is just not a complex character. Ritari also tries to impress us with his knowledge of the Japanese language. I now know a few more words and phrases, but in an already thin book, in retrospect this comes off as mere filler.

Taroko Gorge is the sort of book you can read in an afternoon on the beach. But it is unlikely to change your life as it did the characters of the book.

Anonymous said...

Jacob Ritari's debut novel, "Taroko Gorge," offers a new take on the classic whodunit mystery. In the classic manner, Ritari has placed his murder victims and their likely killer in a self-contained setting, one from which no one is likely to have come or gone unseen. The setting is Taiwan's Taroko Gorge, a tourist attraction within one of that island-country's national parks. When three Japanese students (fifteen-year-old girls) who are in Taiwan on a school trip suddenly disappear, the number of suspects is rather limited - and the finger-pointing soon begins.

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you for being the first person to criticize me for something substantive, like being an Orientalist, instead of something silly like writing a failed mystery without a payoff. You hit closer to the truth than any critic so far. However, I find it interesting that while you accuse me of prejudice and naivete, I wrote what seems to me a thoughtful novel about my own prejudice and cultural myopia, while your clear-eyed, sober self wrote a brief pseudo-review in a crazed, almost drunken style, a laundry list of prejudices about Westerners in Asia whether they apply or not, mostly a collage of other reviews, deliberately misquoting me (with profanity), dismissing my religion as "pretension" and "superstitious bullshit," dismissing my ideas as "verbiage" (when they mostly consist of nouns) because you can't be bothered to respond to them cogently, and criticizing in me what I thought it clear I criticized in my characters. I've been called many things but to be called a "searcher" is a pretty dire insult.

If your point of view represented anything authentically Taiwanese, it would make me strongly reconsider my affection for the country. Luckily, I suspect that "Asia" largely gets by without you.....---danny....IT DOES... JACOB...IT DOES!---

Jacob Ritari

p.s. I have this vague premonition of your posting a mangled version of this e-mail on your blog that makes me look like a buffoon. I suppose I couldn't stop you from doing so.