The trouble with stereotypes is the fact that they all contain an element of truth. So you can’t just dismiss them out of hand as being lies, but you have to realize they are generalizations that don’t necessarily apply to all the people they refer to. For instance you could say that white people are so lacking in rhythm that they can barely walk and talk at the same time, and while it will be true in a number of cases, there are white people who can keep a beat.
The use of any sweeping generalization, especially a pejorative one, is a sign of intellectual laziness reflecting an unwillingness to get to know something or somebody who is different from you. As long as we remain content to live like that, whole cultures will remain closed to us. The path of ignorance is an inviting temptation that ends up costing us more in the long run then doing the hard work of searching for the truth from the onset.
One of the more difficult societies for outsiders to get a handle on, and not just Westerners but anybody, is Japan. It is seemingly a country of serious contradictions, being not only home to one of more rigid codes of behaviour complete with hierarchies and rules for the proper means of addressing people, but also Karaoke bars, manga, and anime, as well as a penchant for making some the most degrading game shows.
It’s also an incredibly insular society where no matter how long you lived there, you would still be considered an outsider if you had not been born on the islands. That’s something Kit Nouveau — sometime English language teacher and full-time Irish Bar owner — is only too aware of after living in Tokyo for 12 years. Even if he were to somehow master the intricacies of the language completely, he would never be able to keep track of all the subtleties of body language and behaviour appropriate to the demands of status recognition in a conversation.
Kit is one of two central characters in Jon Courtenay Grimwood new science fiction/fantasy novel End Of The World Blues, published in Canada by Random House Canada through their Bantam Spectra imprint. Lady Neku, central character No. 2, appears to be just another 15-year-old girl dressed in the garb of a Goth girl playacting the role of dangerous assassin. (“Cos-play” is the slang name given the young men and women who indulge in these live role playing games, which usually amount to nothing more than posing and judging each other’s efforts at costuming.)
But one night when Kit is being mugged, and his assailant turns out to be something more then just a junkie in search of the money for his next fix and is about to kill him, Lady Neku swings into deadly action armed with only a knitting needle removed from her hair and a small knife. Somehow or other the needle ends up in the would be mugger’s brain via an ear, and the knife in his heart through his ribs.
Kit would spend a lot more time trying to figure out who Lady Neku really is, if the rest of his life didn’t start to literally blow up in his face. His bar, with his wife trapped inside, is incinerated. If things weren’t crazy enough, the mother of an ex-girlfriend shows up demanding he help try and find her – the only problem is that she vanished from the upper deck of a ferry crossing the English Channel leaving behind only a suicide note and her shoes.
What Lady Neku has to figure out is what to do about her life on earth. As far as we can tell, she is the youngest daughter of an ancient and decadent family that live sometime in the future. But who are they really and where are they since they aren’t on planet? How did Lady Neku come to be in possession of the $15 million that now sits in a locker deep in the bowels of the Tokyo subway system?
As Kit and Lady Neku travel from Tokyo to London looking for answers, they both realize that they might not even know the right questions to be asking let alone who to be asking them. Do the parents of Kit’s ex-girlfriend know more then they are letting on about something? Her mom runs one of the biggest criminal gangs in London after all so she knows where a lot of bodies are buried.
From the seedy bars of the sex trade in Tokyo to the boardrooms of the elite corporate gangs, Jon Courtenay Grimwood has Kit and Neku travel through all the levels of Japanese society. Along the way he has written a taut, but very human story, about the uncertainty of life, the vagrancies of memory, and the quiet desperation of people trying to figure out who they are and where they belong.
I think what really impressed me about his writing was the ease he was able to deal with the scenes set in Japan and with the Japanese characters. His knowledge of the culture and the language were obvious, but even more important, I think, was how he turned characters who were ready made for stereotyping into real human beings. Nobody behaved in particular way because of what they were (Japanese, English, etc.), but because of who they were.
The perspective of Japanese culture and people was still through the eyes of the outsider, the one who will never be accepted as being one of them. But they are the eyes of an informed viewer, so we see more then the usual bowing and protestations of honour that are normally presented as Japanese characteristics. This is one of the few stories I’ve read by a Western writer that manages to create real characters from a culture that is often poorly represented in ours.
End Of The World Blues is a step above your usual science fiction mystery story, with a plot that has some unexpected twists, well developed characters who hold our attention, and comes with the unexpected bonus of providing an interesting look at life in Japan, a country few of us know very much about. Unexpectedly intelligent and thoughtful, End Of The World Blues travels a lot further then most books of its genre and is more than just another piece of escapist fiction.