In this case of Junichiro Tanizaki's Naomi, the strength of the plot probably has as much to do with the circumstances of publication as anything. Tanizaki, like Dickens, published his novel serially, with installments coming daily and extremely short deadlines dividing the writing and the marketplace. The upshot is that the book has to hit a new source of tension every few pages and has to avoid a lot of the lingering minutiae of scene-setting and characterization that kills the appeal of much modern fiction. It'd be a worthy experiment to see whether this kind of serial publication could still work in a modern publishing environment, what with its complete lack of centralization and its overwhelming lack of audience. But that's neither here nor there.
The plot of Naomi: Joji Kawai meets young Western-looking Naomi serving drinks in a wicked cafÃ©. He effectively adopts her in order to train her as a beauty and in short order they fall into the standard sexual relationship of nightmarish jealousy, exploitation, and desolation. The tension, as I said, is good throughout; Joji consistently has some relationship, job, or hunk of income at stake, and the machinations of Naomi's night existence among the wild Western-influenced youth of 1920s Japan are interesting and revealed just sporadically enough to make the whole thing work.
The obvious comparison here is to Lolita. The distinction between the two books is the place of moral culpability (other than all the obvious differences, including the fact that Nabokov is a jerk and Tanizaki probably isn't.) Naomi takes Joji for granted, uses him exclusively for a place to live and fancy clothes to wear. Lolita doesn't have the luxury of taking Humbert for granted. Her emotional survival depends on her viewing Humbert as a contingent proposition, and one that needs to be gotten rid of. It's definitely gross to hear Joji talk about keeping a "baby book" to detail the measurements of Naomi's legs at different ages, or about giving Naomi horsey rides around the floor of their "fairytale house." But it's a long leap from this to Humbert gloating about how generous he is, giving Lolita quarters for sodas in exchange for her performing her "daily duty."
So why does the plot work as well as it does in Naomi, even without the queasy moral complexity of Lolita? Is it just the breakneck speedwriting-for-money circumstances of composition? Or is there something else about this bare-bones variant on Lolita's plot, something about its structure that just works?
Basically, why does the plot of this 1924 novel about the encroaching modern world hold up so much better than many of the novels published post-1924? Why? Why does the modern world abandon this kind of plot, and how can we bring it back? And should we bring it back?
I'm going to ditch that last question for a later article. Instead I'm going to list some things from Naomi that do contribute to the book's structure, things that should really turn up in more books than they do. As a special bonus assignment, you might want to take two or three items from this list and write your own novel for you and your friends to read! Why not?
- Land holdings. So many good books are written about land holdings. In Naomi, you can always tell when Joji is doing something stupid because he moves to a new house, usually larger and more Western-looking than the previous house. Try this in your own fiction! If your character decides after a long night of drinking not to call back that girl he met in the bar, the one with vitality and a sad kind of wisdom, maybe he should buy a condo in the next chapter. That is symbolism.
- Dances. There are so many dances in this book that a major newspaper pulled the novel from circulation. This means something! Dances are a good opportunity to get characters mixed up with one another in a situation that all but demands that individuals obscenely merge their own identity with the common herd. At a dance, the river that flows to dignity runs in reverse--that which is high shall be cast low, etc. etc. A dance is also a good way to get some sex in the book. Throw a dance in there, why don't you.
- Scenes where old men punch young men. There are only one or two occasions where Joji cuts loose in here, but by God, they're worth it. If your characters are not behaving badly at a party you're doing something wrong. Stop doing something wrong.
- People avoiding certain train stations. Again, people actually meet people at train stations because everyone needs to use the train. It's always crazy when people do something monstrously inefficient in order to avoid meeting the wrong sort. Next time you're tempted to let a character take the train, make them walk the whole way instead. Serves the jerks right!
- Emergency money sent from an ailing parent. This is a great device, especially if your character uses the money for something ridiculous. There's nothing for great plotting like sending characters into debt to finance folly, especially if the creditor is someone genuinely nice. Whenever you're tired of the device, you can also let the parent die, which is good for a few dozen pages.
- An old man sexually pursuing a young girl. Why mess with success?
Look, folks, fiction is in trouble, and it's time we start fighting back. Next time we're all tempted to write wistful novels in which we don't leave our bedrooms, let's just include these five elements instead. Junichiro Tanizaki did it, and he won the Nobel Prize. If all of us agree to do this stuff the next time we write a novel, they'll have to give the Nobel Prize to one of us, won't they? Maybe it will be you!
Let's not be Joji: let's not forget what made novels great in the first place while we're all running around looking for the next great cultural leap forward. Everyone who's ever tried to rent an apartment in, say, New York City for cheap can identify with a bad housing deal. Let's keep our stories rich with fighting, sex, and symbolic real estate holdings. We have to draw that line somewhere.
Posted by future on Wed, 25 Jun 2008 21:28:13 -0400 -- permanent link