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On Jeff Backhaus’s “Hikikomori and the Rental Sister

20 Feb


Jeff Backhaus makes a valiant attempt at conquering the nearly impregnable fortress that is grief (I’m sorry, but I’m still reading Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, so fortresses and conquest have taken over my mind. Just wait until Game of Thrones is back on the air.), and he is mostly successful. The grief of a parent having lost his child is unimaginable, and it drives Backhaus’s protagonist Thomas Tessler into hiding–a particular type of hiding called Hikikomori. Thomas burrows away in his room, never speaking, even to his wife (who lives in their dead son’s room), and only leaves to buy instant mac at the corner store. This isĀ Hikikomori: cutting oneself off from the world.

It turns out Hikikomori is actually rampant in Japan’s youth, and refers to a disorder caused by the extreme social pressures. Thomas’s Hikikomori is a loose interpretation at best: Thomas abandons his wife, his job, the world because he blames himself for his son’s death, but I guess this gets lost in translation.

Our second character is Megumi, the “rental sister,” someone trained in the Oriental arts of drawing someone Hikikomori out of his hermitage (also known as the Oriental arts of exotic seduction). There’s nothing like a little Orientalism to spice up your life of self-pity.

Thomas starts channeling all that energy for grieving into energy for an ongoing affair with a young Japanese girl.

Can anyone say, "fetish"?

Can anyone say, “fetish”?

Occasionally, Backhaus’s prose steals the show, and I’m a sucker for books about silence. As Megumi and Thomas are introduced to one another, silence is the magnetism that draws them together: “Silence is silence. It doesn’t sound like anything. But it’s also true that there are different kinds of silence, and one is the kind that draws you closer.” It’s Backhaus’s prose that will allow him to become a great writer, too. This was a daring first novel, but it takes more than ambition or even raw talent to create a true sense of grief in writing. It takes writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Virginia Woolf, or Elizabeth Bishop to write convincingly about loss, and I think Backhaus could eventually reach that great, gloomy pinnacle of sadness. I look forward to reading his second novel.

On Bray’s “Beauty Queens”

10 Dec

images“Miss Congeniality” meets “Mean Girls” meets “Lord of the Flies” in Bray’s newest young adult novel. An airplane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crash lands on a tropical island, and some expected oh-no-I-broke-a-nail-while-building-a-water-catching-trap comedy ensues. Bray introduces a pleasant variety of girls–some stereotypically ditsy, some overly ambitious, some resentful–but it’s her attempt to tackle the much more complicated issues of nascent womanhood that makes this novel worth reading.

The young adult genre has traditionally been wholesome, didactic fare safe enough for even the most conservative PTAs of our country, but it’s evolving thanks to authors like Bray. In “Beauty Queens,” characters deal with sexuality, gender identity, abusive childhoods, single-parent households, and love (obviously), not to mention guns, conspiracies, reality TV drama, and evil dictators.

This isn’t to say the book is all adolescent feelings and controversial teen sex. I haven’t laughed so hard reading a book since … well, since reading “Going Bovine.” This certainly isn’t great literature and may not be introduced into high school classroom curricula, but it’s entertaining, and I value that pretty highly among literary qualities. “Beauty Queens” also appreciates the complications of being a young woman in American society, and doesn’t shy away from difficult human issues that are hidden away from young women in particular.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys YA fiction or a good, easy laugh.