Friday, 16 March 2012

Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist

(February 2012)

You knew this one was coming, sooner or later. I finally got a dead-tree copy and for once I’m not going to hide behind my usual ‘these are just some of my thoughts’ disclaimer. I’m going to try to do a proper review. Loco’s blog was a contributing factor towards my starting this one. A small one, admittedly, but a real one none-the-less. There’s also a decent chance he might actually read this, so I figure I should do us both justice and take it seriously.

Like others, when I initially bought this book I wasn’t really expecting much beyond a tidied-up collection of blog posts. Pleasingly it’s definitely not that, bar a couple of exceptions. There are recognizable posts in there, if you’re read them on his blog already, but it’s smartly structured and flows well. It definitely avoids the disjointed nature I was half-expecting. I finished it in two days, which you should take as a ringing endorsement on its readability.

But if it's an easy read in terms of style, the content is another matter. This is not a book you should read if you don't want to experience some uncomfortably honest thoughts about the author, wider society, and ultimately yourself.

Loco opens in Japan with some of his experiences with other ex-pats and Japanese women. This section’s pretty shocking in its own right. The race stuff is to be expected, obviously; this book does exactly what it says on the tin in that respect. The ugly misogyny is more of a surprise.

The more obnoxious views are expressed in reported speech from third parties, and are clearly presented to provoke thought (which they certainly do). However, with one exception, all the significant interactions with individual Japanese people described in this book are in fact interactions with Japanese women. The exception involves trying to visit a soapland. While the dehumanization of Japanese people is used to serve a very clear purpose, it is more often than not dehumanization of Japanese women, and that passes without comment.

I don't know if this was intentional or not. Sexual politics is one of the few human conflicts older than that of race, and you can only do so much in one book. It would require several more volumes to tease apart the interlocking stigmas and psychoses of Charisma Men, Yellow Cabs, and the like. But for someone who obviously thinks as deeply about his situation as Loco does, the failure to address this gender aspect specifically, even just to put it aside, seems like a fairly glaring omission.

So as much as I was predisposed to like the guy, I have to confess that as the first section was drawing to a close I was starting to feel that he was actually a bit of a prick. Then he delivers a round-house kick straight to your emotional gut and you wonder if you shouldn’t perhaps reserve judgment for a bit.

Following that we’re thoroughly into memoir territory as we shift back to Loco’s formative years in New York in the early 80’s. This is so far beyond my experience as to be completely alien, and is all the better for it. It’s why you read autobiographies, isn’t it? To get a feel of other people and environments as close to first-hand as possible, and this delivers. I have no way of knowing whether Loco’s voice here is genuine to the time and place or not, but it feels that way. ‘A real sense of place’ sounds like a stock phrase reviewers drop in when they can’t think what else to say, but it’s definitely true here.

You worry a bit for the shift key on his keyboard though. For all that it’s a memoir, there are occasional passages so littered with the first-person singular that they look like the aftermath of some frenzied caber tossing exhibition; like the fallout from a particularly genocidal cockroach extermination exercise. Maybe rephrasing a few passages to use ‘I’ less might have been an idea, is what I’m saying.

On which note, there are a couple of simile log-jams as well. On occasion he piles one into the back of another like a writer who has already used the word ‘like’ three times in the last two sentences and who should perhaps just cut to the chase and use a straight-up metaphor instead.

These are very much minor quibbles however, presented here because of Loco’s avowed preference for constructive criticism from uptight Brits, which only speaks well of him, I have to say.

More seriously, his description of Wordsworth and Coleridge as ‘European’ poets speaks less well. This simply will not stand, sir!

He ameliorates this insult/inaccuracy slightly by quoting at length from Kubla Kahn. The story goes that Coleridge started composing the poem in a drug-addled trance, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door after which he couldn’t get back in his zone. It’s why the first half of the poem reads quite differently from the second. I mention this because the final section of the book brings us back to Japan, and the quality of writing between the Japanese bookends and the American filling is markedly different. There’s more polish to the Japanese sections while the middle is looser, coarser. I mean that in a good way, as this suits the subject matter well. If Loco's early years are painted in bold primary colours, then later he acquires a better appreciation of the shades of grey, and the tone and language reflect this.

I know I’ve picked a couple of nits, but they really are no more than that. On the whole this is a very well written book, with a compelling narrative and important points to make. Loco’s humour is best when at its driest, and there are a healthy number of very funny lines. The 'harrowing sight' of a closed 24-hour McDonalds is a perfectly judged piece of bathos.

My only really significant criticism is that weakest section of the book is, unfortunately, the opening. This is one of those parts that does feel like a blog post, and that’s not a good thing. It seems hastily written; a rushed and insufficiently edited last-minute addition too close to deadline day. Unless ‘bug specie’ is what beetles use to pay for their provisions, it could have done with better proof-reading or typesetting. I suspect the former, as there's also far too much punctuation, which really could use some pruning (and I speak as someone who falls prey to over-punctuation only too often myself). There’s a caterpillar metaphor which teeters on the edge of clunky, and string of prison rape gags which fall right into the chasm of gratuitous. The title and other content are arresting enough by themselves; the story stands up on its own and the sphincter lines feel like a forced and unnecessary attempt to grab attention early on.

It’s only a light apéritif though, and once the main courses are served there’s real meat to be had. This is not one of those half-arsed ‘I Taught English in Japan, it was so Wacky!’ pamphlets that somehow seem to find an audience. This has intellectual, emotional, and (at nearly 400 pages) literal heft. This is the real deal.

Highly recommended.


  1. Hey Kamo!! Yes indeed I have read it...four times now. I feel like I've had a proper going over by a London Times book critic and survived, bloodied but intact (-: thank you for sharing your critiquing my work with the seriousness with which it was written. I would love to talk with you about some of your editorial comments (particularly those dealing with misogyny) for as much as most of us are products of racist societies (I believe) even more if us are products of misogyniistic cultures. Maybe we can SKYPE some time because I would love to get to know the person behind the bit of brilliance above. Thank you!!

  2. And PS: what are my chances of getting you to post this on Amazon? It deserves a wider audience and readers need to know what they're getting into (-;

    1. Blimey. Brilliance is severely overstating it, but I’ll definitely take that from you. It certainly wasn’t meant to be a bludgeoning. Perhaps I should have stacked the more obvious praise at the start instead of leaving it until the last line. This is a very good book. I should make that explicitly clear, as it’s apparent I’ve not done so already.

      I don’t think you’re a misogynist, I should clarify that as well. Certainly no more than I think you’re a racist as most people would understand it (and I know, that’s the whole point of the book, but bear with me).

      The version of you that you chose to present in the book is not the complete you. That much is obvious, I’d hope. While I do know more about you as a person through reading your (excellent) blog, I’ve tried as much as possible to take this book on its own merits. So please forgive me if I talk about you here more as a character in a story than as a real person. Though you knew that would happen when you chose to publish this, right?

      Reading it back, I think I’ve done a poor job of explaining the misogyny bit. There are two separate but related things going on here, and I think I smashed them together in a fairly crude fashion.

      The first is that the conversations you present in the opening ‘Japan’ section contain lots of very ugly thoughts about Japanese people (ugly is not the same as worthless or untrue, it should be noted). But the people expressing these thoughts aren’t merely talking about Japanese people; they’re talking about Japanese women.

      Ugly ideas about another race = racism. Ugly ideas about women = misogyny. It’s a matter of emphasis, are *Japanese* women sub-human, or are Japanese *women* sub-human?

      The answer is both (except that it’s neither). Focusing on one aspect or the other is completely justified, but it seemed odd to me that you didn’t acknowledge the clear duality of meaning.

      The second is that, as I say, all the significant interactions you present with individual Japanese people are interactions with Japanese women. All except the soapland bit, which is a thwarted ‘interaction’ with Japanese women. Even the stand-off with the student is really about the teacher with the tits.

      This is a vision of Japan seen through the prism of its women, and thus any comment on Japan in general can’t help but be a comment on its women specifically. Large sections are highly critical of Japan, and you can fill in the implications of that yourself. This isn’t really misogynistic, just skewed by gender, but the genuine misogyny in the opening section makes it harder to recognize that distinction.

      I know from personal experience that many gaijin men find it far easier to form personal bonds with Japanese women than with Japanese men, so this bias is completely understandable. Exploring the reasons for this would take another book in itself, but again, it isn’t mentioned at all. Given that many/most people who read this won’t be gaijin men who have lived in Japan, it seems like a fairly important piece of the puzzle to leave out.

      Thinking about it further, it strikes me that most of the individual relationships you talk about in the book are with women, but the male relationships are in the context of some sort of gang/tribe (the Five Percenters, the military, even English teachers). The only real exception is Chris. I’m not even going to try to unpack that here ;)

      I’ll get on to the amazon thing, though judging from Will’s reaction I should probably pretty up the start a bit. My kid’s learning to walk, so finding uninterrupted time to skype (or do anything at all really) is tricky. I’m definitely up for hammering it out in a less time-sensitive medium though. My email’s to the left there.

      This is, demonstrably, a very thought provoking piece of work. I hope you’re proud of it, because should be.

    2. Huh? did you get the impression that I felt this review was anything but forthright and fair? Or that it needed clarification certain areas? If so, rest assured it did not. Otherwise I wouldn't have asked you to post it on Amazon. nor would I have acknowledged and shared it as I have. Thanks again for taking out the time to do so, and so thoroughly. And expect an email from me in the near future!

    3. Nope, nothing really to do with you. In the light of Will's comment I had another look and I realised that I'd spent two-thirds of a review of a book I really liked not really saying that I really liked it. I felt that balance needed correcting a little.

      I also felt their were parts that needed clarification for their own sake. There's a lag on most of the stuff I put up here (February 2012 is when I read the book). This review was written and scheduled soon after I read it, and in the intervening couple of weeks I've been kicking stuff around in my head, and what I think now is subtly different from what I thought then.

      As I say, this is a book that provokes thought long after you close its covers. I'm looking forward to that email.

  3. Hi fellas. Definitely takes cahones to do this in public. Witnessing the process is really amazing and educational. Admittedly, after the first read-through of the book review, some cooling off time was required, time well spent with the cousins chatting over tea in Coffee and Cigarettes. Second time through reading the review felt much better... especially at the end. It really is interesting to watch someone who obviously reads a lot interact with someone who writes a lot. Thank you both.

    1. "Definitely takes cahones to do this in public."

      You think? Not on my part, certainly. I’m just giving my opinion on a product I paid real money for. I see no reason to judge it any differently from any comparable item. That said, if your first reaction on reading this was to need a cup of tea and a sit down, then I’ve done a poor job of conveying my opinion.

      It is probably the case that, because I knew he might read this (not least because I told him I’d written it), I’ve reported my thoughts more fully than I might have done otherwise. But this blog’s readership is measured in the dozens, and that’s being generous. Loco could have ignored this and let it die. The fact he has responded the way he has has only confirmed my already high opinion of the man.

      To be clear, this is a very, very good book. But only if it were perfect would there be nothing to criticize, and I don’t think anyone anywhere would claim that for their work.

      I was looking forward to reading your take on this anyway, but the given you seem to disagree with some my opinions on it that’s even more true now. My assessment of Loco is he wrote it not because he wanted to garner praise but because it’s what he needed to do. Speaking from my own far humbler platform, praise is nice, but genuine, considered engagement is much better. I hope that’s what I’m doing here.

    2. Coffee and Cigarettes is a movie that starts out with two preseumeably well known actors from your neck of the globe. So, true to the Hollywood stereotype, they have tea. And since we are divided by our common language, I felt the need to watch a clip on YouTube in order to be able to 'hear' a voice while I was reading the review through a second time. It was either that or Life of Brian.

      After the second time, it made more sense. No, your writing is fine, I just read slow and wasn't sure if you were following some standard book review format.

      As you mention in your response to Loco, the use of misogyny was something I found confusing. You do a good job of clarifying what you mean in your comment.

      The 'cahones' reference... uhhh... this is perhaps another case of misunderstanding. That is to say, I see the engagement as genuine.

      In an attempt to be direct, you both are folks who appear to share a reverence for the written word. To put your material out there for anyone to see is, in my opinion, brave. This line of thought is based on my assumption that good writers tend to be sensitive about their work when it comes from the heart.

      About the foot that's in my mouth at the moment... I am just glad it's mine.

      I would still like to count myself as one among the dozens of your readership.

      Thank you for your response.

    3. This hasn't been the first time we've crossed wires, has it? I hope it won't be the last either. If we're putting out feet in our mouths its because we're trying to walk forward, and I'd much rather that than standing still.

  4. Ohh, I should so not get involved in a twitter spat. Signing up would be the kiss of death, time wise.

    But since we're all here; @Shogannai, the compliments here are all as genuine as the criticisms. It's unfortunate you feel they're left-handed, because I specifically tried to avoid the whole 'this is a promising first effort' patronising tone which would be easy to fall into.

    Praise and criticism are not mutually exclusive. Loco is clearly a talented artist and the main theme of the book was his growth through challenging his own ideas and having them challenged. It didn't seem such a stretch to feel he'd welcome honest feedback, and that's why I've tried to be specific in my criticisms. On reflection, that's probably why the bulk of it reads as such, because I've tried to be more detailed than with the praise. That praise is genuine though, and thoroughly deserved.

    Loco - I like bathos too. I like to pretend he's one of the Three Musketeers.

    That'll teach me to follow the 'referring sites' links...