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?
''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.''