Title: Gold Rush
Japanese Title: ゴールドラッシュ (Gōrudo Rasshu)
Author: Yū Miri (柳 美里)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2002 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Welcome Rain Publishers
I recently stumbled across an article titled Reading List: Books to Help You Understand Japan, which is a transcript of a conversation between NPR’s Neal Conan, the Brooklyn-based poet Kimiko Hahn, and Donald Keene, who recently retired from Columbia University in order to live in Japan. When Hahn and Keene were asked to list their top five works for understanding Japan in the wake of the recent disasters that have beset the country, they fired off titles like The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Essays in Idleness. This bothers me for three reasons.
The first reason is the blatant cultural essentialism, or the idea that one can understand everything about contemporary Japan by reading texts written in the Heian period, as if nothing has changed in the past thousand years. It’s like saying that one can understand everything about contemporary America by reading Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Japanese people live (and have always lived) in harmony with nature and posses (and have always possessed) an innate understanding of the beauty of impermanence – and Americans are all God-fearing Puritans who stifle their artistic creativity and capitalistic interests in order to serve their small agricultural communities.
The second reason is the academic elitism. The Tale of Genji is indeed a great monument of Japanese literature. It is also more than a thousand pages long, written in a style that is frustratingly elliptical, and set in a time period and society that are fairly alien to anything a contemporary American (or Japanese) reader would be familiar with. Reading The Tale of Genji is hard, and reading it without guidance is even harder. To assume that even a highly educated and intelligent reader could just pick it up and understand the unadulterated beauty of every word is somewhat presumptuous. Hahn’s recommendation of two literary anthologies is even more baffling. It’s like saying, hey, if you can’t crack open a 421-page anthology of medieval literature and read it in one sitting, there must be something wrong with you.
The final reason is the utterly bizarre assumption that, in order to understand the contemporary Japanese imagination of disaster, one need not read anything either written or set later than 1945. This is doubly strange to me, as Donald Keene recently published an excellent translation of Oda Makoto’s 1998 novel The Breaking Jewel (Gyokusai), which depicts a Japanese soldier’s harrowing experiences during the last few weeks of the Pacific War. Moreover, even if tales of firebombings and severe food shortages and suicide attacks and two atomic bombs and total defeat and occupation by a foreign power wouldn’t give us any insight into postwar and post-earthquake Japanese society, perhaps something like Murakami Haruki’s After the Quake, written in the wake of the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, presumably would. To suggest that we can best understand Japanese anxieties regarding nuclear power by reading the poetic travel diaries of Bashō is, quite frankly, ridiculous.
I think Yū Miri’s novel Gold Rush is a perfect antidote to the sort of essentialist thinking demonstrated in the conversation on NPR. Gold Rush is set in Yokohama’s Kogane-chō neighborhood, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks sort of neighborhood filled with small bars, cheap restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love hotels. When most people think of Yokohama, they probably picture the swanky and high-tech Minato Mirai waterfront area or the upscale Motomachi shopping and residential district that serves as the setting of several Tanizaki and Mishima novels. Kogane-chō, however, is a grungy, run-down pleasure quarter that has seen better days, as is the neighboring Isezaki-chō. The streets are dirty, the Ōoka River is dirty, the karaoke bars are dirty, the train station is dirty, the cheap hotels under the railway bridge are dirty, and I imagine that even the many soaplands that dot the area are dirty. Gold Rush begins when four middle school boys pick up a high school girl in this neighborhood. They get her drunk, have her come with them to one of their houses, and then rape her. To be more precise, three of them rape her, and one of them watches.
The one who watches is the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Kazuki, and abetting a rape is just the beginning for him. If trigger warnings were applied to mainstream fiction, Gold Rush would be slapped with all of the big ones. Rape, violence, child abuse, murder, more rape, more child abuse, substance abuse, abandonment, sexism, self-harming behavior, eating disorders, more child abuse, and then more rape. There is also a particularly nasty scene in which Kazuki kills a dog with a golf club. One might question the existence of a plot buried under all of these triggers, but the plot isn’t really the point of the novel. The reader is instead engrossed in following Kazuki’s slow psychological deterioration from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator. Kazuki is like Holden Caulfield on crack, and the reader can’t help but identify with his adolescent frustration at the realization that his life and his destiny are not entirely his own, even if he continually takes his rage one step too far. The people who surround Kazuki aren’t much better than he is in terms of acting like decent human beings, and the world they all live in is a bitter, nasty place. In a way, though, Gold Rush is also a twisted sort of love letter to Kogane-chō and the low city charm that permeates it.
Reading Gold Rush is like reading a full-length Ionesco play like Rhinocéros (or a Bret Easton Ellis novel like American Psycho) in that it’s trenchant and biting and brilliantly absurd, but difficult to actually read for the very same reasons. It doesn’t help that Gold Rush is two hundred and fifty pages of ultraviolence unmitigated by chapter breaks. If there’s a reason the novel won the Akutagawa Prize, however, it’s because the writing is excellent. Perhaps it’s also because the physical and psychological spaces written by Yū Miri are more than a little familiar to Japanese readers. So yes, classics like The Tale of Genji are very Japanese, but so is Gold Rush, which is written by a zainichi Korean telling a story about juvenile delinquency in a decaying neighborhood of a seedy commuter city. Yū is a good writer, she tells a good story, and Gold Rush is good Japanese literature. It might even give the reader some small insight into contemporary Japan as well.