I recently re-watched Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. I was house sitting for someone with a television. It was on Netflix. Sue me.
I don’t know why I chose that movie in particular. There were hundreds of things to choose from–but there I was watching this strangely pre-9/11 post 9/11 film. Maybe I wanted to explore that feeling I had when I first watched it–when I myself was a freshman foreigner in a strange land; maybe I watched it too because I thought, maybe, with a little bit of distance between my last viewing sometime in 2008 and now the movie would have lost its value to me and I could (finally) move on from it–no more sublime moments of Johansson smiling knowingly at me as I read to her at the kitchen counter (a fantasy, you know), or those times when I could see, like the movie was flashing in front of me, Murray squatting under the showerhead, living in a world that no longer gave a damn about him, or for that matter, his basic comforts.
I enjoy a movie that employs isolation in setting. There is something incredibly delicious about a character stuck in a place, or alone, exploring the possibilities of that atmosphere, the limitations of human defense, the layered defiance and razor thin servings of surrender.
I recently had the opportunity to read the debut novel Baby, You’re a Rich Man, by Christopher Bundy. The story follows, like Lost in Translation, the tale of an American actor who is living out the end days of his career in Japan. Unlike the forlorn Bill Murray however, whose only real complaint is boredom, the protagonist of Baby is Kent Richman, who has fallen from his former television glory by way of a sultry affair with the wife of another gaijin celebrity, Ozman–a man who after discovering the affair, strikes out violently. The subsequent barbaric response from Ozman rips Kent and his wife Kumi apart, and sends Richman’s career into the toilet.
Baby, You’re a Rich Man follows Kent Richman as he tries to rekindle his career, flashing back throughout the piece to more comfortable times–when Kent was in love, a celebrity, and destructively selfish. Kent’s agent, Renzo, in the hopes of igniting new interest in Richman has found/hired a documentary team that will follow Richman as he checks into rehab–an idea conjured by Renzo, who hopes that he can get Kent off all the crystal meth he’s been smoking, back into the hearts of the public, and set Richman back on the road to cash and stardom.
The book is an interesting use of trope, slapstick and melodrama–a book comfortable skewering the contemporary media while at once teetering between the serious and the universally comic, and threatening to fall apart all together. The author behind this lampoon of contemporary media is Christopher Bundy, whose long list of publishing credits precedes him.
I was interested in speaking to Bundy about his process and why he chose to tell the story of this down and out actor, and what he’s working on next.
This interview was conducted over email over the course of a few days.
Could you tell me a bit about your time in Japan?
I spent about five years there altogether, teaching most of the time in a public high school. I lived in the mountains of central Japan, which I recreated in the book by blending several places into one.
I understand the novel’s genesis was a short story you wrote called “Big in Japan”. Can you explain how you fleshed out this short story into a full-length novel?
“Big in Japan” (also the original novel title) was written specifically for Thug-lit, an online magazine that publishes hardboiled crime fiction. I was toying with the idea of attempting a pseudo-crime novel and was reading some of the classic hardboiled fiction, like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and some more contemporary attempts from unlikely suspects like Denis Johnson and Thomas Pynchon. I liked the antiheros found there, the fact that they were nearly as corrupt as the villains, losers most of them on a downward spiral of violence and addiction. So, I wrote “Big in Japan” around Kent Richman, who is a much flatter character than the one we find in the novel. From there, I got curious about who Kent Richman might really be and how he got himself into this situation.
I worked from the short story as a prologue, eventually losing it and spreading those details throughout the book. The process was not one I plan to repeat—I kept going back to the beginning, trying to figure who Kent was and how he got there, but I kept rewriting it when I should have just kept going forward. At one point I had an entire separate subplot that was alternated with the present narrative.
Kent definitely changed a lot—I hope he is more three dimensional, sympathetic, and human than in the short story. I wanted to explore a character who had been given these (arguable) “gifts” and exploited them all until he lost them. I wanted Kent to not only attempt to escape his past but also find a new way forward, to reinvent himself out of desperation and necessity.
Your view towards the media throughout the book is cynical at best: do you believe there are any redeeming characteristics to the media you lampoon?
Popular media is cynical. It emphasizes our worst group mentality and rewards style over substance, simply in the interest of occupying our time and selling ads. It does the exact opposite of what I believe fiction achieves—compassion. Instead it encourages us to judge and even take pleasure in others’ dysfunction.
I fell in love with the idea that Kent was a celebrity simply because he looked like someone famous (John Lennon). What’s more ridiculous? Who among us might be able to resist instant celebrity, even if that celebrity status was just a shell (or, in Kent’s case, a pair of glasses, a tag line, and a theme song)?
The reader gets to know Kent quite well, but there is still a bit of distance–what made you decide on third- instead of a first-person narrative?
In an attempt to understand Kent, I began using first person via his amateurish and self-conscious attempts at writing a memoir to tell his story his way. I liked this approach as satire—we could understand things about Kent via dramatic irony, characteristics he revealed in the first person but didn’t himself understand—but I could never find the right balance between his voice and the narrative, so I dropped this POV (and some other devices) for the close third person. At one point, I even had a very cynical, ironic narrator in the form of Boy Wasabi, a comic book character created by his friend Shin, telling Kent’s story—but that proved to be far too manipulative and lazy. It became too easy to tell the reader what I wanted them to think rather than simply letting Kent’s story unfold as it happened.
There are several points in the book where the actions of the characters fall into melodrama or slapstick. Why did you decide to go so big?
I’m usually very careful to avoid melodrama, preferring subtle, nuanced scenes and smaller victories/resolutions. But, the more I wrote Kent Richman and his story, the more I realized what a (sadly) comic character he was and what a cartoonish world he inhabited. That seemed to demand big comic and melodramatic gestures. Many of those slapstick actions and scenes are some of my favorites in the book because I always saw the book as satire. I recalled some of my favorites satirical novels like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Wallace’s Infinite Jest, both of which have some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read. I also liked Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story for many of the same reasons.
These cartoonish qualities also informed the decision to include illustrations in the book. I like what illustrator Max Currie came up with: a stylistic blend of manga and his own raw polish, but undeniably comic/overdrawn style.
What Japanese television were you thinking about when writing about Richman’s career? Are there any shows that stood out to you as an influence?
I watched Japanese television when I lived in Japan, in part out of boredom in an isolated community, before the rise of the Internet, and in part in an effort to learn the language. Japanese game and panel shows make up a significant percentage of TV programming and are fairly well known to Western audiences now for their amplified sets, glitzy celebrities, and pretty vacuous content. Comedians and other celebrities, many of whom make a living on these shows and do little else, host them. The content often revolves around comic banter (most of which is scripted), a bizarre activity or challenge put to the panel regulars or an audience member with panel commentary. The farting scene described in the book is adapted from an actual episode on Japanese television.
Many of these shows have a gaijin-tarento (gaijin talent) for variety and color. They are typically on these shows because of their fluency with the language, ability to provide a Western POV, and comic sensibilities. When I was in Japan in the 90s, there were actually two very popular gaijin talents, both named Kent (often referred to as the “two Kents,” Kent Derricott and Kent Gilbert, both of whom were former Mormon missionaries). Kent Richman bares no resemblance in any way to either of them beyond his general TV role and language ability. I thought it would funny to add one more “Kent” to the list.
Were you going out of your way to make the reader dislike Kent Richman? What do you think about him is redeeming?
I’ve always preferred antiheroes. I wrote Kent the way I saw him: deeply flawed, desperate, lost, and a victim of his own very bad, often selfish choices. I wasn’t so concerned that you “like” him. Some of my favorite characters in fiction are not inherently likable people, and I suspect that some readers will be unable to get past his more unpleasant and selfish qualities.
Kent is responsible for most of what happens to him. Few others are to blame for his bad decisions and the consequences of those decisions. I didn’t want Kent to simply be a victim of circumstances but the author of his own destiny, for good or bad.
I think he is as redeemable as any human. The beauty of fiction is that it allows us to walk in another’s shoes, to feel compassion for someone who on the surface is hard not to judge for their perceived weaknesses and flaws. I love that fiction can inhabit a mind and a body of someone we might otherwise ignore or dislike. I do hope that you will at least care about what happens to him, and eventually root for him.
Do you have another project in the works?
I finished a book early this year—a Southern gothic called For the Love of Mary Hooks set in 1960s Georgia, which my friend Jamie Iredell suggests I describe in an elevator pitch as “about infanticide.” Best to leave it at that.
Now, I’m deep into The Wire Walkers of Niagra Falls, an episodic odyssey about a dysfunctional father who, after his wife dies, drags his daughter to Niagara from South Carolina in an effort to make a name for himself as a wire walker, all told from the young daughter’s POV.
Daniel J. Cecil is a writer and editor living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is the Managing Editor of Versal, the international literary and art journal. His work has appeared in the Heavy Feather Review, HTML Giant, The Review Review, and is upcoming in Knee Jerk.