July 2004

Identity crisis

By Don Lee
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Japan may possess the world's greatest disparity between public decorum and private perversity. This darker side of Japanese life is explored in Country of Origin, the first novel by Ploughshares editor Don Lee.

The plot centers around the disappearance of Lisa Countryman, a young American who finds herself working in dodgy Tokyo establishments catering to the peccadilloes of Japanese businessmen. Or those who pass for Japanese like one David Saito, an American spook whose wife is having an affair with Tom Hurley, a U.S. embassy official charged with investigating Lisa's case. Also on Lisa's trail is Kenzo Ota, a neurotic cop entangled in the corruption marking Japan's elephantine bureaucracy. Empty the closets of these various characters and the skeletons would fill a graveyard.

Speaking of closed doors, behind Japan's lurks a vast array of bizarre sexual entertainments, in which men pay to grope women on subway mock-ups, or pay "splash girls" for cocktails and fellatio. But as the novel's title implies, Lee's main concern is with the interplay between identity, ethnicity and nationality. Lisa believes herself to be the orphaned offspring of a black man and a Korean woman, but through some genetic alchemy she passes for white. Tom Hurley tells people he's Hawaiian to avoid confusion over his own pedigree. And the son of Kenzo's ex-wife has been raised in America, thereby shedding Japanese manners and gaining American pounds. Lee concludes the novel with a celebration of America as the true home of "outcasts" and "orphans," but Lisa's fate suggests that the labels are not necessarily desirable ones.

Lee's prose is precise and inventive, and he's not a bad storyteller either. But his worldview is cynical, even Darwinist, and with the exception of the bumbling Kenzo none of his characters is likable. Perhaps that's the novel's point: when no one knows who he or she is, no one knows whom to trust. In the global village, no one is kin.


Kenneth Champeon writes from Thailand.

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