“This is a potentially great intergenerational narrative marred by overwriting and too many pages” – Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

hlyThis’ll be a much-hyped autumn title, if the cover blurbs on the proof copy are any indication – Lorrie Moore on the front, no less! – and it certainly ticks a lot of book-club boxes: immigration, identity, coming-of-age, domestic violence and parenthood. Intense, eh? But what did we think? Well, we had mixed feelings.

Harmless Like You, Buchanan’s debut novel, is a twin narrative: first we’ve got Jay, more or less happily married but a very unimpressed new father, who’s travelling to Berlin with his beloved cat, Celeste, in order to track down his long-lost mother, Yukiko, who walked out on Jay and his dad when Jay was a toddler. Then, in the alternating sections, we’ve got Yuki (Yukiko) herself, and the story of her adolescence and young adulthood as she moves out of her childhood home, tries to become an artist, and defaults into becoming a wife and mother before, miserable and desperate, she flees her home once again (not to be heard of again until she pops up on Jay’s sections as a reasonably successful performance artist in Germany). So Jay’s section spans just a few days, though he covers a lot of further ground in flashback, and Yuki’s tracks through fifteen years, give or take; the two combined give us a portrait of a doomed and accidental family, a woman crippled by self-doubt and a son whose terror of being just as bad a parent as his mother has left him unable to bond with his own infant daughter. It’s rich material, no doubt about that. Yuki’s a sheltered, anxious, Japanese kid in NYC, who falls under the thrall, first, of the streetwise Odile, a girl who’s quick to ditch Yuki when she, Odile, is scouted as a model, and second, of Odile’s mother’s boyfriend, Lou, a sportswriter and wannabe poet who regularly hits Yuki and alternately supports and demeans her faltering attempts to make it as a painter and a photographer. By the time she ends up with the kindly and supportive (if anodyne) architect, Edison, she’s internalized the self-hatred and disdain the other two have thrown at her, and which have been made considerably worse by her feelings of alienation – she feels she’s neither American nor Japanese (having moved to the US as a very young child), she’s got no family (they moved back home when she was seventeen, which prompted her to move in with Odile), and she’s too shy to make any friends. She sees herself as an oddity; she can’t find a mode with which to express herself. Jay, meanwhile, raised by his dad alone, is doing pretty well by anybody’s standards – he co-owns a gallery with Miranda, his wife, whom he adores – until his father suddenly dies. And this coincides with Miranda giving birth: Jay was repulsed by her pregnancy and is disgusted by Eliot, their child – he can’t relate to her, and he can’t see a role for himself as her father because he can’t see how he can live up to Edison’s superb example; he fears, rather, that he’ll be as useless as the absentee Yuki. Instead of facing these problems, he battles with Miranda about his cat, Celeste, a pet that his therapist prescribed years ago to help him combat his fainting fits. Miranda doesn’t want the cat; Jay doesn’t want the baby. And now Edison is dead and has left his house – Jay’s childhood home – to his estranged wife, Yuki, and Jay sets out (aging, ailing Celeste in tow) to see his mother in what he’s privately considering as a test-run for walking out on Miranda and Eliot for good, just as Yuki did to him.

So the themes are solid. Buchanan’s exploration of dysfunctional family structures, the effect of absent parents on their children, the complexity of the bonds between parent (of both genders) and kids, and the effect of parenthood upon relationships (Edison and Yuki, Jay and Miranda, and even Lou and Odile’s mother) – it’s all rich and fascinating. What we found lacking was a degree of nuance: Jay’s repulsion from Eliot, his lack of attraction towards pregnant Miranda, his lack of empathy for her as a new mother or interest in his new child is so extreme as to feel somewhat unrealistic. People can be extreme, sure, but this felt like overkill: there’s no subtly, barely any guilt, no real stew of emotions that would help the reader occupy his position. It’s not like we’ve got to like him – which would be difficult, sure, but isn’t at all necessary – but it’s definitely possible to create a character who’s struggling with his situation (in order, ultimately, to effect a u-turn after his late encounter with Yuki) without making that guy so extremely insufferable. (Example: he cheats on his wife, whom he professes to love immensely, and, rather than suffer at all as a consequence, worries only about getting caught and refers to the event as ‘sticking his dick in’ the other woman.) His sections, also, while reminding us of the consequences of Yuki’s abandoning him, are somewhat repetitive – nothing really happens until the last few pages, other than various illustrations of what a bad dad he might be. Yuki’s portion of the book, in contrast, is very eventful, but again, feels a little drawn-out because of a degree of predictability in the situation: of course Lou, who beats his ex, will beat her, and of course she won’t settle in her new independent life, and of course the path to the artistic life will be problematic. The prose, too, is somewhat overwrought: the heavily laden imagery is indicative of Yuki’s artistic sensibilities, of course – and fair enough – but it also sits a little uneasily with her status as a relative newcomer to the language, and the overly poetic diction feels deliberately literary rather than native to the focalizing character, as, aged seventeen, she describes herself as a ‘dutiful sidewalk slab of a citizen’ and thinks about Odile’s ‘fanged charm’. Jay, too, whose voice is distinguished by his native vernacular (a lot more swearing), falls foul of this: he’s not lazy, but ‘’rendered indolent’; on a hot day, sun ‘butters’ the pavement. It’s misplaced, rather than bad – it distracts from the story because the words don’t seen to match the narrators.

Any Cop?: As we said, mixed feelings. This is a potentially great intergenerational narrative marred by overwriting and too many pages. It could have been pared into a book two-thirds the current size – lose some of Yuki, say, and give Jay more action in the present; show us less Lou and more Miranda – and that book would have excited us a lot more than this one.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 


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