A Billion Wicked Thoughts

Title: A Billion Wicked Thoughts:
What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire

Authors: Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Dutton Adult
Pages: 416

I recently purchased and read through Lisa M. Diamond’s excellent study Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, so Amazon recommended that I try A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire. I was intrigued by the debate in the comments on the reader reviews. Apparently, some people loved this book – but the majority hated it and accused its two authors, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, of sensationalism and poorly conducted research. The topic of the book (sexualized texts and gendered patterns of desire) is somewhat close to my own research, so I decided to give it a shot. Even if the negative criticism were indeed warranted, I figured that it might still be interesting.

To make a very long story very short, I was wrong. A Billion Wicked Thoughts has no redeeming qualities and is not valuable to a real academic project in any way – except perhaps as a telling example of blatant sexual essentialism passed off as science. The project is indeed guilty of sensationalism, and it’s more than a bit condescending to its readers. However, as Rita Felski entreats feminist critics in the opening pages of her introduction to Literature after Feminism, “we do better to deal with the substance of what is actually being said, rather than trying to impugn the desires or motives of the person who is saying it. To accuse someone of sexism or misogyny is not to begin a dialog but to end one.” Therefore, I’d like to make full use of the substance of what is actually being said in A Billion Wicked Thoughts. This review is thus filled with quotes, which are documented not by page numbers but by the Kindle’s system of “positions.” I should also mention that the Kindle edition of this book contains no signals for identifying endnotes within the text itself (which is highly unusual; every other Kindle edition I have encountered thus far has had no problem with hyperlinked notes). Although I was aware of the existence of an endnote section while I was reading, the Kindle formatting made it extremely difficult to consult these notes. This has most undoubtedly influenced my perception of the validity of many of the statements made by the text, but I believe there are much deeper problems than those solved by careful endnotes, and I will address the issue of references later.

Red flags started springing up in my mind even before the text proper during Catherine Salmon’s introduction. She states, for example, that “there is a real advantage in finding other methods [than accredited scientific research] of insight into our desire – unobtrusive measures that don’t require people to actively participate in the process of data collection. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam study digital footprints on the Internet to illuminate our understanding of the stark differences between the desires of males and females” (80-83). The first red flag is planted firmly in the soil of “the stark differences between the desires of males and females,” a statement that betrays non-scientific sexual essentialism at its worst. The second red flag marks the questionably ethical territory of “unobtrusive measures that don’t require people to actively participate in the process of data collection.” In the very title of the book, the authors refer to the internet as “the world’s largest experiment;” however, unlike more conventional experiments, the consent of the participants is apparently not strictly mandatory. I am not a social scientist, but I’m pretty sure that this sort of attitude is frowned upon by most researchers. In any case, Salmon moves on to a short sketch of the principles of evolutionary psychology and what she calls “an adaptionist approach to human sexual behavior” (89). Her failure to problematize this approach or concede any sort of social and cultural influence on human sexual behavior raised a third red flag for me. An introduction is merely an introduction, however, and blithely non-footnoted introductions are a dime a dozen. Surely the actual authors would be a bit more careful in their assumptions and broad generalizations.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Instead of beginning their study with an introduction of the academic and clinical debates on how biology and society each influence sexual behavior and an explanation of how their research and research methods will contribute to this debate, the authors succumb to brute sensationalism. “In the pages that follow,” they promise, “you’ll learn the truth about what men and women secretly desire – and why” (145). They thus tempt the reader with “the truth” and “secret desires” in a tone far more reminiscent of snake oil salesmen than scientists. They then attempt to lure the reader into the doorway of their circus tent by offering membership to a select club of brave souls who can handle the truth: “We need to warn you up front. In the pages that follow, you’re going to peer into other people’s minds without filters or cushions. The sexual brain is guaranteed to upset the politically correct, the socially conservative, and just about everyone in between” (151-53). Finally, instead of acknowledging the existence of the overwhelming amount of research on human sexuality in the past three decades, they set themselves up as solitary crusaders fighting The Man in order to impart their revolutionary findings: “Many social institutions don’t want sex to be in studies, either. Federal funding agencies, advocacy groups, ethics review boards, even fellow scientists all bring powerful social politics to bear on those researchers brave enough to investigate human desire” (208-10). I am not a social scientist, so perhaps I’m not the best arbiter of the veracity of these statements, but I suspect that the hundreds of studies listed in the dozens of pages of the “References” section at the end of the book might tell a different story regarding the funding and institutional encouragement of studies on sexual neurology and psychology.

Well, okay. So the introduction to A Billion Wicked Thoughts is a bit silly. If the authors are trying to entice the general public to actually read their groundbreaking research, then perhaps such inanities can be forgiven. What, then, is the book actually about? What have the authors discovered during their research on the internet that is so new and fresh and visionary? In an early summary of their findings, the authors state, “On the web, men prefer images. Women prefer stories. Men prefer graphic sex. Women prefer relationships and romance. This is also reflected in the divergent responses of men and women when asked what sexual activities they perform on the internet” (439-41). This seems, at first, to be common sense; it’s what I learned as a teenager by reading the 500-words-or-less articles in Cosmopolitan magazine. I have a few questions about that last sentence, though. What sort of sample of “men and women” are we talking about? Did the authors conduct a survey? What do they mean by “sexual activities performed on the internet,” exactly? Perhaps I’m not supposed to ask questions like these, though, because they’re never addressed or answered.

In any case, let’s move on to the specifics. Essentially, the male sexual brain functions like Elmer Fudd:

Solitary, quick to arose, goal-targeted, driven to hunt. . . and a little foolish. In other words, the male brain’s desire software is like Elmer Fudd. Fudd, the comic foil of Bugs Bunny in the Looney Tunes cartoons, is always on the hunt for a specific target: rabbits. Or as Fudd says it, wabbits. Fudd is a solitary hunter who likes to work alone. Fudd is trigger happy. The moment he sees a wabbit – or thinks he sees a wabbit – he squeezes the trigger and fires. Fudd is easily fooled by ducks dressed up as rabbits and other tricks played on him by Bugs Bunny. But even when Fudd shoots his gun at a phony rabbit, he never gets discouraged. He reloads and gets back out there. (1061-66)

The female sexual brain, on the other hand, functions like Agatha Christie’s elderly spinster detective Miss Marple:

A female brain [is] equipped with the most sophisticated neural software on Earth. A system designed to uncover, scrutinize, and evaluate a dazzling range of informative clues. We’ve dubbed the female neural system the Miss Marple Detective Agency. (1223-24)

In women, then, “the Detective Agency always craves information to make good long-term investment decisions – and the more information, the better” (1931-32), while men are all sex all the time. Forgive my French, but this sounds like the same stupid shit pop journalists and relationship manuals (such as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus – my, that sounds like a familiar analogy) have been touting for decades. Women are different from men? Women are apples, and men are…hamburgers? Okay, I get it, but I thought this book was supposed to tell me something I’d never heard before.

If I have allowed my frustration to bleed through into the previous paragraph, it’s because I’m extraordinarily frustrated with A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Some people hold the male/female dichotomy to be self-evident, but humanities scholars and scientists of both the hard and social varieties have been successfully challenging it for a long, long time. In their conclusion, even Ogas and Gaddam acknowledge that their findings demonstrate an extraordinary degree of sexual fluidity. One of their main arguments (and perhaps their main organizational principle) throughout the book is that individuals pick up and are aroused by different sexual cues, and these “cues can flip, change, or transform, resulting in endless variations of sexual identity that defy easy labeling” (3685). Furthermore, “sometimes female software ends up with male components, sometimes male software gets female components” (3701-02). In a leap of logic contrary to evidence, however, the authors persist in their Fudd/Marple model, asserting that “the very gulf that separates a woman’s brain from a man’s brain is responsible for all the wondrous diversity of human sexuality” (3703-04). Perhaps I’m being a bit obtuse, but throughout the book I had difficulty understanding the paradox of how hard biological sexual fluidity is somehow a result of hard biological sexual difference.

It doesn’t help that the authors consistently fail to cite their sources and methods. Here again the notation issues of Kindle edition come into play, but I feel that the authors could have done a better job of integrating information theoretically contained in the endnotes into the main body of the text. For example, in their chapter on romance novels, Ogas and Saddam claim that “we analyzed the text of more than ten thousand romance novels published from 1983 to 2008 to determine the most common descriptions of the hero’s physical appearance” (2566-67). Ten thousand romance novels is a lot of romance novels. Even if it doesn’t take an extraordinary amount of time to read a romance novel, ten thousand of them is still a lot. What texts were analyzed? What were the criteria for selection? How did the authors “read” them? Were there research assistants involved? Were there computers involved? What was the process of analysis? How was the numerical data calculated? None of these basic methodological issues were even hinted at in the main body of the text. They may or may not have been addressed in the endnotes (as I mentioned previously, the Kindle edition made it very difficult to actually check the endnotes, as they were in no way hyperlinked or otherwise attached to the main text), but by all rights the reader should not have to go chasing endnotes in order to clarify the fundamental nature of the research methods.

Moreover, responsible writers would have provided immediate context and justification for any broad, sweeping statements about sexual difference that, in the absence of any citation of scientific studies providing corroboration, simply come off as sexist. Such statements include: “In fact, many women report lubrication and even orgasm during unwanted and coercive sex: a woman’s body responds, even as her mind rebels. In contrast, if a man is erect, you can make a very reasonable guess about what’s going on in his mind” (1183-84); “Women masturbate less, fantasize about sex less frequently, and initiate sex less often than men. Women report low sexual desire much more often than men” (1206-8); “Women have superior autobiographical memory compared to men, they remember more details and their narratives of recollection are longer. Women recall their first life event more quickly, recall more life events, date life events more accurately, and recall earlier events than men” (1271-73).

Some of the statements made by the authors, however, cannot be proven no matter what sources might be cited. “On Ugly Betty, gay men would much prefer to invite Betty’s straight boss Daniel Meade into their bedroom than fashion reporter Suzuki St. Pierre” (2102-3) and “Harry Potter, Twilight, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer boast the greatest number of slash stories” (3562) are two good examples. Other non-attributed assumptions are, quite frankly, offensive, such as “[a certain sample of self-identified gay men] needed to get to know the personality of a man before hooking up with him, they were not especially attracted to straight men, they believed that whether someone was a bottom or a top was entirely socially determined, and they questioned the very existence of the top/bottom binary – even though they themselves were quite clearly power bottoms” (2402-6). It doesn’t matter what the men themselves say if they are “quite clearly” power bottoms, I suppose.

When the authors do cite their sources, said sources tend not to be of the most academic and reputable variety. These sources include Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, authors of Beyond Heaving Busoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels (1454-56), EroRom author Angela Knight in her book Passionate Ink: A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance (1564-66), fashion blogger Teresa McGurk (2608), Jeff Gordinier, the editor at large at Details magazine (3432), and Shannon, a twenty-three-year-old woman on her online journal (2732). Granted, the authors do mention Janice Radway two or three times, but they fail to touch on the various controversies among feminist critics in the wake of Reading the Romance. Furthermore, citing Radway does not make up for the fact that often, the “experts” quoted by Ogas and Saddam are not even named: “Most women cite a desire to feel safe as a reason for their preference for tall men. ‘It makes me feel small and secure; which is a lovely feeling,’ says one woman” (2605-6). This “one woman,” whether the same woman or a series of women, is cited again and again (examples can be found at 2594, 2603, 2622 – and then I stopped keeping track). Random men are cited as well, such as one man on reddit (2900) and one thirty-year-old gay man (3709-10). There’s even some guy named Rocco: “‘Black guys are hot,’ explains Rocco” (2836). Who is Rocco? I have no idea. Ogas and Saddam offer absolutely no explanation concerning where these people are coming from. Are they people who left random comments on random websites, or did the authors conduct some sort of survey or series of interviews? Perhaps the endnotes might help clarify, but again, I don’t think such vital information should be tucked away in the endnotes.

Essentially, what I’m trying to argue is that Ogas and Saddam, despite being accredited cognitive neuroscientists, have written a book filled with sexist nonsense based on research that does not bother to explain its methods or sources. Their arguments are founded on the flimsiest of facts and analysis, and it shows. I could point out their misuse of primate and rodent neurology and behavioral psychology, or I could point out their self-contradictory and condescending attitude towards the female readers and writers they have studied, for example. I am neither a biologist nor an anthropologist, however, so I’d like to restrict my own case study of their work to a subject I know a bit about – anime.

Ogas and Saddam introduce anime by stating, “With the advent of the Internet, Japanese anime quickly spread throughout the world. Japanese anime (sometimes known as hentai) is the most searched for type of erotic animation or erotic art on search engines in the United States, Russia, France, Thailand, Brazil, and Australia, suggesting that it is highly effective in exploiting men’s visual cues (803-5).” Apparently, all anime is hentai. I suppose someone should really inform director Miyazaki Hayao, as well as the Academy Award committee that gave him an Oscar from the family film Spirited Away back in 2001. Maybe I’m being snarky for no reason, though; perhaps the previous sentence was simply poorly constructed and the authors didn’t mean to suggest that “anime” is synonymous with “hentai.” Let’s try again: “It’s also worth noting that Japanese animation frequently contains men with gargantuan penises, sometimes larger than a girl’s arm” (810-11). Frequently? That’s strange, because I have yet to see a gargantuan penis in super-popular, long-running shows such as Doraemon and Sazae-san and Pokémon. Perhaps I’m simply not looking hard enough.

However, these statements were drawn from the beginning of the book. Certainly the authors cannot continue to operate under the obviously mistaken assumption that all (or even most) of Japanese animation is pornographic. Hopefully, by the conclusion of their study, Ogas and Saddam will have corrected themselves: “But male desire is also powerful, intense, urgent. It can take a man to strange, new places and open up new doorways of experience. It’s never tied down, never sedated, and can incite a man to wander great distances in search of fortune and adventure. It drives dazzling visual creativity, such as Japanese anime” (3281-84). Or maybe not. As an added bonus, the authors are now insinuating that anime is an entirely male-dominated enterprise (hint: it’s not). Ogas and Saddam make similarly ridiculous statements about Japan, such as “it is widely understood in Japanese society that women enjoy gay romances” (3579-80) and “the most popular comic books (known as manga) among Japanese girls feature handsome, slightly feminine heterosexual boys who have sex with one another” (3581-82). Right. And were you aware that, in America, it is widely known that comics popular with female readers, such as X-Men and Iron Man, are about handsome, slightly feminine heterosexual boys who have sex with one another? I bet you didn’t know that. I bet you didn’t know that because it’s not true.

Finally, to add insult to injury, A Billion Wicked Thoughts is peppered with some truly stupid statements (and by “stupid,” I mean senseless, tactless, and apropos of nothing). Here is one: “The romance novel has long been described as ‘pornography for women.’ This is a somewhat unfair and misleading comparison. After all, would we characterize gang bang porn as ‘romance for men’?” (1418-19). Here is another: “Sex is the end of the journey, rather than the journey itself. PornHub is a collection of sexual moments, devoid of romance. On the other hand, men can fall head-over-heels in swooning, romantic love, like Tom Cruise’s frenetic display of passion on Oprah’s couch” (2038-39). Here is yet another: “A compilation [of cum shots] is basically a staccato succession of similar cues. It’s like getting the Uno’s appetizer sampler. You get a collection of highly cravable bite-sized morsels you can pop into your mouth, one after the other: potato skins, nachos, chicken fingers, onion rings, chicken wings” (3512-14). Comparing cum shots to salty appetizers? Really?

I hope that such sad attempts to add color to the writing don’t give the reader of this review the impression that A Billion Wicked Thoughts is in any way interesting or a pleasure to read. It’s actually quite monotonous and repetitive. The chapters in the second half of the book follow a paint-by-numbers pattern of sexist generalizations followed by a walk-through of porn sites dedicated to a particular kink followed by numerical data followed by graphs followed by soft science interspersed with randomly placed off-topic remarks followed by more sexist generalizations. Really, there’s nothing to see here. It’s a bad book filled with bad writing that I can’t imagine being useful to anyone. It has nothing to recommend it. It boggles my mind how it got published in the first place, seeing as how an actual editor had to sit down and actually read it. What I find even more remarkable is that real scientists, such as Donald Symons, David M. Buss, Roy Baumeister, Simon LeVay, and Paul Vasey, wrote nice things about it and allowed their comments to be published as promotional material. It is my sincere hope that this book will quietly fade away into obscurity, the sooner the better.

I understand that certain people might be curious about this book, as it is the final product of the infamous SurveyFail 2009 incident and the resulting debates over the ethics of online ethnography. If you are one of these people, let me promise you that this book isn’t worth the emotional investment. From what I have been able to piece together, the authors and their supporters have been extraordinarily disrespectful to the people who formed the initial core focus of the project. If you are upset about this, please don’t justify the indignity with a response – or by spending any money. As I hope I have successfully argued in this review, A Billion Wicked Thoughts is simply not worth your – or anyone’s – time.

Translucent Tree

Title: Translucent Tree
Japanese Title: 投光の樹 (Tōkō no ki)
Author: Takagi Nobuko (高樹 のぶ子)
Translator: Deborah Iwabuchi
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 188

My past experiences with romance novels have been few and far between. My grandmother used to keep a few around her house back in the early nineties, and they were mostly period pieces with titles like “Master and Maid” and “Forbidden Tryst” (my favorite was “The Pirate Slave;” the cover art was epic). I’ve never actually read a romance novel all the way through, but I’ve always been curious about them (especially after finishing Loving with a Vengeance a few days ago). I’ve heard that Takagi Nobuko is a famous and prolific romance novelist in Japan, so I figured that a translation of her award-winning novel Translucent Tree would be as good of a place as any to begin a foray into the magical world of bodice rippers. If nothing else, I was drawn by the cover, which displays a super-phallic pinecone superimposed over a triangular spray of pine needles, which are suggestively cleft down the middle under the dust jacket. Classy, right?

Translucent Tree is a story of star-crossed lovers. Following the conventions of a tale as old as time (or at least as old as 1949, when Harlequin established its basic formula for romance), the man is wealthy and a bit of a jerk, and the woman is struggling financially and a bit immature. The man, Go, lives in Tokyo, and the woman, Chigiri, lives in a town close to the Japan Sea called Tsurugi (which actually exists). Go, who makes his living as a documentary filmmaker, had once worked on a piece featuring Chigiri’s father, a metalworker knowledgeable about traditional sword-smithing techniques. During the filming, Go met Chigiri. Chigiri was a child at the time, but the two left strong impressions on each other.

Years later, Chigiri has divorced her husband and moved back to Tsurugi with her daughter to take care of her bedridden father. Go returns to Tsurugi on a whim in order to revisit a famous cedar tree and ends up running into Chigiri. The sparks fly, and the two enter into a strained long-distance relationship in which neither can be completely honest with the other. Go offers money to Chigiri in an attempt to help her father, to whom he still feels a debt of gratitude, and Chigiri tries to compensate Go by sleeping with him. Since they love each other but can’t bring themselves to admit it, their brief encounters are fraught with sexual and emotional tension.

Takagi’s portrayal of Go and Chigiri’s relationship is heartbreakingly honest at times. Their inane phone conversations are painfully awkward, and their inability to communicate is endearing, as is the emotional blackmail to which they subject themselves. Neither Go nor Chigiri is portrayed as being particularly attractive, and both of them have legitimate personality flaws. Go can be an asshole, and Chigiri can be annoyingly dense. Despite this, they’re attracted to each other in what strikes me as a very human and realistic way.

What I didn’t appreciate, however, were Takagi’s attempts to add an element of timelessness to the narrative by characterizing Go as some sort of Eternal Man and Chigiri as an Eternal Woman. Translucent Tree is filled with overgeneralizing sexist statements, like:

What she hadn’t counted on was the inability of men to understand the depth of a woman’s resolution. Women are determined and tenacious when men are of precious little use merely because women lack adaptability; it’s impossible for them to take a step or speak a work unless they have thought things over thoroughly and adopted a plan of action.

Really? No one taught me that when I was going to woman school. I had no idea I was supposed to lack adaptability. There are similar statements on subjects such as how men and women lie differently (apparently, women reveal information selectively while men just make things up) and why men travel but women don’t (women are roots and men are branches, you see). The utterly non-ironic way in which these pronouncements are made grated on my nerves every time I encountered one.

Another aspect of Takagi’s writing that hit slightly off the mark was her pillow talk. Being a romance novel, Translucent Tree has its fair share of eight-page sex scenes. Fun sexytimes are always a welcome addition to any narrative; but, unfortunately, each of Translucent Tree’s bedroom shots is more awkward and stilted than the last. It’s possible that this awkwardness is largely the fault of the translator, who apparently never got the memo on how not to write sex, but I am still going to have to point my finger at Takagi herself for her descriptions that read like something out of bad fanfiction:

They were both thinking about the same thing, but from different positions. Chigiri was at the top of the mountain peering down at the deep valley between her legs and, beyond that, at her slippered feet, which felt oddly detached from the rest of her body. Go was standing at the foot of the mountain gazing deep inside the valley, waiting for the right moment to start the trek in.

I use this particular passage as an example because it’s a paragraph of self-contained awkwardness instead of two pages of gradually building awkwardness, but I think it’s also useful to illustrate not only what is merely amusing about Translucent Tree but also what is genuinely interesting. The numerous nature and geography metaphors throughout the text posit Go and Chigiri not just as the Eternal Man and the Eternal Woman but also as New Japan and Old Japan. Romantic conceits relating to nostalgia for an imagined Japanese tradition have been embodied in female characters before, but I think Takagi handles this device remarkably well. Chigiri’s hometown of Tsurugi is an appealing mix of old-style sushi shops and historic trees in the middle of rice fields. Chigiri herself is less of an idealization of well-bred Japanese femininity and more of a portrait of an earthier type of woman who has weathered the blows of misfortune yet still maintains the passionate core of her being. Go’s Tokyo is not a steampunk wonderland of trains and tall buildings but rather a shabby place where the human relationships are shallow, the food is all takeout, and the old pinup calendar on the wall is slowly turning yellow.

Go’s attempts to capture and preserve Old Japan through the lens of a camera are ultimately meaningless, while Chigiri’s charm is wasted as she slowly goes to seed out in the boondocks. It’s only through their relationship with each other that the two really come alive, and their first tryst is perhaps the most memorable scene in the book, if only because of its setting in a beautiful, “traditionally” Japanese estate in the countryside. In this scene, cultural imagery and sexual imagery are reflected back on one another repeatedly. Through its interaction with New Japan, then, Old Japan is both refreshed and refreshing. In the impact of its use of geography as metaphor, Translucent Tree is just as brilliant as As I Lay Dying or Deliverance. I can see why the book has won awards, even though the “romance” aspects of the novel are somewhat lacking. Although its gender politics tended to rub me the wrong way, I enjoyed Translucent Tree, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Japan fantasies of the sort written by Kawabata Yasunari or Muriel Barbery.

Speaking of geography, I’m sure that by now everyone has heard about how Japan survived its most recent encounter with subterranean catfish tremors and walls of liquid death marching toward the coast. Not to lessen or belittle the tragedy, but I think the country handled the situation remarkably well, and I hope that the governments of other countries (*cough* such as my own *cough*) were paying attention. That being said, there are still many people who are evacuated and homeless. If you’re interested in making a donation but skeptical of the Red Cross, Global Giving is the site that everyone seems to be vetting, for what it’s worth.

Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese

Title: Turning Japanese
Author: Cathy Yardley
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 310

I think that the cover of this book was obviously designed to attract a specific demographic of me, personally. Pink! Cherry blossoms! Serious business woman! Anime! I saw this book in the bookstore and didn’t even look at the back cover until it was safely home with me. Thankfully, what the cover promises, the book delivers: Japan-themed super-fun. According to Amazon, author Cathy Yardley already has quite a few novels under her belt, many of them romances with titles like “Ravish” and “Crave.” There are no heaving bosoms in Turning Japanese, though, and the book is much more of a comedy than a romance. I wouldn’t call it a travelogue, either, as the emphasis is much more on plot and character development than descriptions of exotic Japan. I genuinely enjoyed reading it; it was fun.

Okay, now the plot. Lisa Falloya is a 29-year-old factory office worker in upstate New York. Despite having lived in the same town her whole life, she can speak and read Japanese thanks to her Japanese mother. She loves reading and drawing manga and ends up winning a competition at a sci-fi / fantasy / anime convention, which gives her the opportunity to work as an intern at a manga publisher in Tokyo. Going to Tokyo would mean leaving behind her two best friends and fiancé, but she goes anyway after everyone she knows practically bullies her into it. Once she gets to Japan, Lisa has to deal with a mean boss and nightmare host family; but, as she begins to overcome those challenges, she also has to deal with the resentment of her friends and fiancé, who have started to feel that she has left them behind.

And now it’s time for me to explain why, even though I couldn’t put this novel down, it upset the shit out of me. Perhaps the least significant issue I had with this book were the small inaccuracies concerning Japan, which mostly involve mistakes with the Japanese language. As I said, these are fairly insignificant, but there are quite a few of them, and several of them are repeated quite often. Which is annoying to a Japan snob such as myself.

Second, Lisa is an almost textbook definition of what people in the various universes of fandom like to call a “Mary Sue character” (perhaps “self-insert character” would be a good translation), who is a bit shy and awkward but whose only real flaw is that she has no flaws. But, whatever, this isn’t high art here, and there have been worse Mary Sues who have stalked across the printed page.

My main problem with Lisa is that she more or less allows people to walk all over her while constantly apologizing and blaming herself. Even though the narrative demonstrates that it is when Lisa forces a dramatic confrontation that any sort of progress is achieved, the author doesn’t seem to put much stock into this method of resolution and instead allows most inter-personal relationships to stew in barely concealed mires of passive-aggressiveness, which I found extraordinarily frustrating.

To give a good example, Lisa’s fiancé is a self-absorbed, hypocritical, and emotionally abusive MBA student – I believe the technical term is “douchelord.” When he is studying for finals, he won’t give Lisa the time of day; when he wants to get married, he forces her to plan everything according to his schedule; when she starts to express passion and ambition concerning her own life, he asks her (at least two dozen times) to re-evaluate her priorities. And then, when he breaks their engagement because she brings up the possibility of pursuing a career in the same part of New York City where he will be working, she acts as if the failed relationship were entirely her fault, an assumption that the author is almost completely uncritical of. Of course, it can be argued that people are silly when it comes to love, and that men sometimes get to be selfish too, but this sort of relationship pattern is repeated again and again throughout the novel. It perhaps comes as no surprise that none of the relationships that follow this pattern are ever successfully resolved – at least they weren’t to me.

It therefore seems that the moral of this book is that you can be a strong, independent woman with dreams and aspirations as long as you are still meek and submissive to anyone who has any real control over your life. I found this to be a problematic message, personally, and it ended up undermining a great deal of the fun I felt I should have been having with this book. That being said, however, there’s still a lot of fun to be had, and I would still recommend this novel, which is on the whole well-written and well-edited, to any of my fellow Japan dorks who have always wanted to live the Tokyo dream. Also, to any of my fellow Japan dorks who have not yet lived the dream but are considering it, I believe Turning Japanese offers a painfully accurate portrayal of reverse culture shock, or what happens when you go abroad and return home to find that everything has changed. I also believe that it is its honesty about this particular phenomenon that makes the novel worth reading not as popular fiction but perhaps as literature in its own right.