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Ransom ()

Ransom (he doesn't like his first name, Christopher) is an American expatriate in Japan.  Fleeing an interfering father and a drug deal gone very bad in the Middle East, he now teaches English classes and studies martial arts.  He hopes that through his studies he will be able to escape his past:

    The Monk embodied something that Ransom did not understand: a larger set of possibilities than the
    pursuit of, say, football or golf.  Ransom knew that eventually, with practice, he could do what
    Yamada did, which was a sophisticated form of kick-boxing.  But he aspired to that which he did
    not know he could do.  He didn't just want to be good.  He wanted to be transformed.

But even as he has devoted himself to this new discipline, he has begun to realize that he is unlikely to find what he seeks in Japan, no matter how hard he tries:

    Gaijin could not fail to understand that everything and everyone Japanese had its correct place,
    because the gaijin's was outside the concentric rings of race, country, family.  Just as the houses
    had walls around them, so was everything enclosed.  When Ransom arrived he had wanted to
    penetrate the walls, to become intimate with whatever it was he imagined was within, behind the
    walls and the polite faces, something outside the conceptual frames he had inherited; he wanted to
    breach the appearances of the world and look into the heart of things.  A discipline rigorous enough
    would purge and change him, he was certain.

    But Ransom was no longer sure he believed in satori, the final lightning stroke in which all is
    revealed.  The monks stayed in the mountains, cross-legged, unmoving; and the samurai who
    studied Zen and landscape painting had also chopped heads at the whims of their overlords.
    Ransom was no samurai; at best he was a ronin, a masterless samurai, and this was a contradiction
    in terms.  A ronin, a "man on the wave," unmoored and tossed on the waters, was an instrument
    without a purpose.

Still, when a young woman that he knows through mutual acquaintances gets in trouble with the Yakuza, Ransom realizes that what he has really been preparing for is some kind of quest, a chance to fight against evil, and he eagerly embraces the opportunity.  Eventually he realizes that even this seemingly pure confrontation is more complex than he initially believed.  Instead of a showdown with the Yakuza, he ends up fighting another expatriate American, a borderline psychopath whom he has offended.  This idealistic young man's quest eludes him completely.

The reviewers all point out the parallels to Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises and universally feel that McInerney's work loses the comparison.  I feel just the opposite to be true. Hemingway's expats run around France and Spain boozing and carousing, spitting venom at each other and at the American values that they left behind.  It is unclear whether they are actually seeking anything in Europe, other than the comforts that a strong dollar could buy.  Indeed, as soon as the Depression took hold and the cost of living started going up, that whole flock of American writers returned home.  Cheap wine may have its attractions but it does not embody a set of principles.

Ransom on the other hand, adopts a nearly medieval value system; he seems like an Arthurian knight in search of the Grail.  He is morally centered and consumed by guilt over the one major ethical lapse in his life.  He is in Japan not because the living is easy but because he is in search of something that is difficult to find.  That his crusade ultimately fails is less a reflection on him than on the Japanese culture that he encounters and on the manifestations of American culture which follow him there.

I discussed in my review of his terrific first novel, Bright Lights, Big City (see Orrin's review), the fact that the critics' hostile reaction to McInerney's books seems to be a function of pure jealousy at his early success.  To that I think we have to add another factor; McInerney is one of the most conservative novelists currently writing.  In preparing this, I found a book review in the New York Times where Jeffery Paine is reviewing the book Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction by John W. Aldridge.  It seems Aldridge bears a particular animus towards a group of authors called the minimalists, which includes McInerney:

    His chief villains are those authors often labeled "minimalists," writers like Raymond Carver and Ann
    Beattie and the brothers Barthelme, Donald and Frederick, who pile up intriguing details beneath
    which, Mr. Aldridge finds, nothing significant ever happens. Never before have these writers'
    failures and limitations been underscored with a more astute or ruthless pen. He concedes that they
    hold up an accurate mirror to our daily life, but such a mirror can reflect nothing but surface --
    brand-name products and isolated acts and individual moods -- which these novelists fail to burrow
    under to explain or make connections. In addition to Carver and Beattie, Mr. Aldridge examines a
    half dozen other authors of "underdone fiction," near minimalists and post-minimalists.  He subjects,
    for example, the "brat pack" novelists Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis to their first serious
    scrutiny, only to show that they don't merit serious scrutiny at all.

    But Mr. Aldridge has failed to keep up with the times and fashions. Nobody has had a good word to
    say in the minimalists' defense for the better part of a decade. They are now considered to occupy a
    narrow (and not too important) several inches on the mile-wide and wild range of American fiction

I hated Less Than Zero so I won't defend Ellis; and I've never read the Barthelmes or Carver's short stories, only his poems.  But I have read Ann Beattie's very fine novel Love Always (see Orrin's review), in fact I unwittingly grouped it with Bright Lights, Big City and Bonfire of the Vanities
in that earlier McInerney review.  I find the critique above, at least as it applies to Beattie and McInerney, to be totally misguided.  Something has gone badly wrong with our understanding of the Arts when critics feel that good fiction has to burrow into characters' personalities and psyches in order to be taken seriously.  Writers like Beattie and McInerney seem to me to have made the decision that we can learn just as much, or more, about characters by studying their moral life.  The critics demand that authors indulge in the kind of Freudian navel gazing that has made so much modern fiction nearly unreadable or at a minimum totally unenjoyable.  This calls to mind Edmund Morris's difficulty in writing his biography of Ronald Reagan (see Orrin's review).  He has complained incessantly that he could not penetrate to the "real" Reagan, all he could find was the "outer" man--admittedly, a decent man, a patriot and a Christian who spent forty years preaching the gospel of political freedom at home and abroad and by the force of his own will became President of the United States and was reasonably successful in imposing his vision of freedom on the Nation and the World.  What is there that is not real about the man so described?  How is a man who is so inspired by a vision that he brings it to fruition for the planet any less "real" than a man who say, expresses his profound feelings of inadequacy by sodomizing and being sodomized by interns and physically accosts any skirted figure unfortunate enough to be left alone in a room with him?  Is our modern standard of authenticity so degraded that the self pity, egomania and sexual predations of Bill Clinton make him a more significant object of study than Ronald Reagan, who though he was also the son of an alcoholic father, took responsibility for his own actions and felt no need to have us all share his pain?  God, I hope not.

If you are someone who actually enjoys the bathetic mewling of authors like Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and the whole panoply of modern authors whose works consist of little more than picking at emotional scabs, then you may not like Ransom.  If on the other hand you enjoy the work of Tom Wolfe (see Orrin's review of A Man in Full), Frederick Buechner (see Orrin's review of The Storm), Andre Dubus (see Orrin's review of Collected Stories) and others, who actually assume that there are things beyond the personal and that they matter to our lives, by all means give Jay McInerney a shot (but start with Bright Lights, it's just a better book than this one).


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Jay McInerney (2 books reviewed)
Jay McInerney Links:

    -REVIEW: of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon (Jay McInerney, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Featured Author: News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "Jay McInerney"
    -ESSAY: RAYMOND CARVER: A STILL, SMALL VOICE  (Jay McInerney, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Did Andy Warhol Overlook Me? (Jay McInerney, NY Times)
    -ESSAY:  How We Fell, Then and Now (Jay McInerney, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Roll Over Basho: Who Japan Is Reading, and Why: A Dialogue Between Jay McInerney and Haruki Murakami (The New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1992)
    -REVIEW: of  TURNING JAPANESE Memoirs of a Sansei. By David Mura (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  HOCUS POCUS By Kurt Vonnegut (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  TOKYO RISING The City Since the Great Earthquake. By Edward Seidensticker (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   LIFE ON EARTH By Sheila Ballantyne (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  FAST LANES By Jayne Anne Phillips (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  SLAVES OF NEW YORK By Tama Janowitz (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  SELF-HELP Stories. By Lorrie Moore (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Infinite Jest By David Foster Wallace (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE Stories and a Novella. By George Saunders (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  MICROSERFS By Douglas Coupland (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  LOVE JUNKIE By Robert Plunket (Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Jay McInerney on the aftermath of literary stardom (DWIGHT GARNER, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Bright lights, big bouquet Brat Pack novelist Jay McInerney has become a jet-setting wine writer -- and the best one in the country (Matthew DeBord, Salon)
    -ARTICLE: More Than Bright Lights, Big City (NICHOLAS A. BASBANES, Salt Lake Tribune)
    -INTERVIEW: Jay McInerney on Model Behaviour (ON THE ARTS WITH LAURIE BROWN, CBC)
    -REVIEW: of RANSOM By Jay McInerney (Ron Loewinsohn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bright Lights, Big City  You're Fired, So You Buy a Ferret (WILLIAM KOTZWINKLE, The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Story of My Life By Jay McInerney (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of STORY OF MY LIFE By Jay McInerney (Carolyn Gaiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW:  of Bright Lights, Big City The Fast Lane  (Darryl Pinckney, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of  Brightness Falls By Jay McInerney (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of BRIGHTNESS FALLS By Jay McInerney (Cathleen Schine, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE LAST OF THE SAVAGES By Jay McInerney (Geoff Dyer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Robert Penn McInerney  The Last of the Savages  by Jay McInerney (Charles Thompson, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Last of the Savages 'Savage' satire: Jay McInerney makes his point short and sweet
(David Walton, Detroit News)
    -REVIEW: of The Last of the Savages  (YVONNE CRITTENDEN -- Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Last of the Savages (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Model Behavior A Novel and 7 Stories. By Jay McInerney (A. O. Scott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW & CHAPTER ONE: of Model Behavior (Alan Gottlieb, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of Model Behavior: A Novel and 7 Stories by Jay McInerney (Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of How It Ended by Jay McInerney (Robert Hanks, booksonline UK)

    -ESSAY: The Financial Fiction Genre: The Rise of the Yuppie and the Social Commentators
    -REVIEW: of TALENTS AND TECHNICIANS Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction. By John W. Aldridge (Jeffery Paine, NY Times Book Review)