Thursday, May 27, 2010

How To Kill My Interest as a Reader

"The emperor of China once asked his court painter, "What's easy to paint and what's hard to paint?" the answer was, "Dogs are difficult, demons are easy. Quiet, low-key things like dogs in our immediate surroundings are hard to get right, but anyone can draw a demon."--Alex Kerr, Dogs and Demons p. 10

I was reading Catherine Valente's Palimpsest last night. It is a famous book, nowadays, in certain circles. It's nominated for a Hugo, and is written by a young woman garnering a lot of attention in the SF/Fantasy world. And rightly so, the writing is rich and deep (if at times overpowering..."a bee sting blooms on her cheek like a kiss" (p. 6) is one of the more meaningless similes I've seen...).

It starts with some lovely fantasy, introducing a city of beauty and mystery, with impenetrable rituals and inhuman citizens. And just as I was settling into the new world, ready to explore it, I was whisked away to the mysteriouse oriente....

Sorry, I mean Japan.

The action jumps to a the interior of a Shinkansen, and within a paragraph I was utterly and completely disgusted.

For, you see, Japan here (as it so often is) is used as shorthand for exotic, unusual places with mysterious people. The manipulation is terrible. We are introduced to a young, apparently really hot, woman named Amaya Sei. It is implied that her name is intriguing because of it's meaning, "Purity". Unfortunately, that's 1.) not how Japanese names work and 2.) "Sei" does not mean purity. The sound "sei", depending upon the kanji used to write it, can mean:

Sex, gender, fault, energy, military strength, nymph/sprite, semen, true, regular, saint...and a hundred other things, due to the plastic relationship between meaning and sounds in Japanese.

A great number of things. And without seeing the word written, without context, it's IMPOSSIBLE to know the meaning of the word. That's how Japanese works. But for the story, of course, it's important to manipulate the reality of a culture and people.

Of course, the names being meaningless is mentioned (Ms. Valente did, apparently, do some research):

He quirked an eyebrow briefly, slightly, in such a way that no one afterwards might be able to safely accuse him of having done it. Sei knew the look. Names are meaningless, plosives and breath, but those who liked the slope of her waist often made much of hers, which denoted purity, clarity—as though it had any more in the way of depth than others. They wondered,
all of them, if she really was pure, as pure as her name announced her to be, all white banners and hymeneal grace.

--Palimpsest, p. 9

(Another nit to pick...neither of the names, Amaya Sei and Sato Kenji, contain any plosives. Sorry, linguist.)

But again, HE COULD NOT HAVE KNOWN the meaning of her name.

But the thing that really gets me is the depiction of the SHinkansen itself. Because NOTHING SHE SAYS about the train is right.

Let's start with:
[S]he was always moved to do this on the long-distance trains which crisscrossed the islands like corset stays. They were so pale and pure and unfathomably fast, like iridescent snakes hissing down to the sea. The Shinkansen was always pristine, always perfect, its aim always true.

--Palimpsest, p. 7 you go:


So...look like a corsetlace to you?

And then...

He gestured for her to sit down and, though she knew better, they sat together for a moment, her body held tense and tight, ready to run, to cry out if need be. Their thighs touched—a gesture of intimacy she had never allowed herself with another passenger.

--Palimpsest, p. 9

The seats on a shinkansen:

The two varieties. You'll notice that the only way it would be POSSIBLE to let your thighs touch would be if you really tried...there's a good 8 inches between "normally sized" people sitting here.

But really, this is nothing compared to:

[S]he took Sato Kenji by their linked hands and led him to the rickety, shivering place between the carriage cars, where the wind keened and crooned through the cracks in the grating and the white walls gave way to chrome.

--Palimpsest, p. 11

There is no place, on any Shinkansen in Japan, where this could have happened. There is no grating, no wind (the shinkansen travels at speeds of up to 186mph...) no's a seamless, pressurized environment. That's part of what makes the shinkansen special...

And what bothers me about all of this, as minor and nitpicky as it is, is that it implies that Ms. Valente relies on the ignorance of her readers to maintain her illusion. Fiction is a grand lie, and you have to do it RIGHT to make it believable. Fantasy is easy--cause no one knows what a demon really looks like. But truth? You can't fake that. You have to do the research. You have to care about the details. For God's sake, the characters in this section LOVE the Shinkansen, and it is indeed worthy of love. So why didn't the author take the time to check out the beauty of the real thing? All it takes is a couple of minutes on Google, and you'll know all you need to know.

The short of it is, I'm not going to invest the time in this book that it probably deserves, because the author didn't invest the time in her subject that it deserved. There are lots of people who will say that all of this isn't important, and it probably isn't, but it ruined the book for me.

But hey, maybe you'll love it.

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