Nakamura Reality, by Alex Austin. Sag Harbor, New York: The Permanent Press, March 2016. 272 pages. $29.00, paper.
I am far from an expert on Japanese culture. While I’ve not yet had the chance to visit Japan, I have always been drawn to the aesthetics and themes in Japanese art, have felt a certain magnetism from Japan, and admire several Japanese writers, among them Natsume Soseki and Kenzaburo Oe. I also practice Zen in my daily life. All of these things attracted me to Alex Austin’s novel, Nakamura Reality.
This is a challenging, constantly shifting, consciously disorienting novel. Its main character is Hugh McPherson, a teacher and writer, husband to a Japanese woman, Setsuko. They live together for a time in Southern California and have twins, Takumi and Hitoshi. Hugh loses his sons to the Pacific Ocean when he takes off to have a romantic encounter while the boys are surfing, taking on waves perhaps larger than their skills can handle. In their father’s absence, the boys perish. Hugh and Sesuko divorce; she returns to Japan, while Hugh remains in California.
After a decade of grief, Hugh attempts suicide, swimming out to drown himself in the ocean that took his sons. In an early scene, he sinks, inverting his body “the way a woman urged her womb to release a baby,” experiencing a vision of his boys swimming to him underwater, presenting the suicide note he had sent their mother. This vision spoils Hugh’s attempt, and he returns to shore.
This is where the book’s thematic development really begins. Nakamura Reality is a work of metafiction in which a novel, penned by Sesuko’s father, Kazuki Ono, mirrors, foretells and merges with the adventures Hugh meets following his suicide attempt. Hugh has been following Ono’s career carefully, seeing avatars of himself in his father-in-law’s books. Those narratives refuse to forgive or redeem him. In a variation of something like the Pygmalion myth, Ono’s writing acts to heap greater guilt on Hugh. Curiously, this guilt drives him to reconsider his sons’ deaths. Perhaps the waves were not actually beyond the boys’ skill level. Perhaps their death wasn’t an unfortunate accident?
Hugh begins an adventure, and I want to stress the adventure here. Nakamura Reality certainly makes reference to Japanese culture, even to Japanese aesthetics and the direct simplicity of Japanese art. Characters are Japanese; there are references to the Buddha, to the bombing of Hiroshima, and seemingly to Kurosawa while it presents questions on the nature of reality, suggesting a Zen-like argument about it being an illusory product of the mind. Despite all this—and this is not a negative criticism—I found Austin’s book much less an attempt to understand or evoke a Japanese point of view and much more an expression of West Coast consciousness and the sociology of Los Angeles.
Central to this narrative are surfer culture, particularly surfing skill, and a Southern Californian relationship to the Pacific Ocean. The book is not merely set in LA; the geography of Los Angeles lays sprawled out like a body for the story. The guilt and secrecy associated with sexuality—forbidden affairs and various taboos—are thoroughly American, while the attention to car culture, the film industry, and a look to the Far East, including Japan, as a source of wisdom, or at least a point of view that contrasts and critiques American consumerism and triviality, are deeply Californian.
Nakamura Reality is, then, an intriguing read with a lot to say about both America and Japan. Buried deep in the metafiction lies an interesting and provocative critique of American emphasis on achievement as a motivation for action. It seems that Austin believes our constant American need to be motivated by something—righting a wrong, redeeming ourselves or getting to the bottom of a thick plot—should be scrutinized. I strongly agree with this idea and only wish Nakamura Reality had explored it to greater depth.
Still, readers should find this novel a curious puzzle. Its shapeshifting narrative, self-reflective structure, and folded layers demand but also reward careful attention. Readers interested in multicultural conflict and in challenging representations of Southern California should pick it up.
Gint Aras (Karolis Gintaras Žukauskas) has been trapped on planet Earth since 1973. He is the author of two novels, Finding the Moon in Sugar (Infinity, 2009) and The Fugue (Tortoise, 2016). His prose and translations have appeared in The St. Petersburg Review, Quarterly West, Antique Children, Criminal Class Review, The Hellgate Review, and other publications.