Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every month. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
I have seen a classification of public restroom disasters based on the question word it evokes at first glance. Your “whats” and “whys” are bad enough, but if you make it to “how,” you know you’re in trouble. Pray that your experience stops there, and does not progress to the final question, “who.” It’s the same for books. When I find myself asking “what” and “why” a lot while reading, it’s bad. If I ask myself “how did it even come to this,” I am in for serious pain. But when a book is so baffling, so infuriating, so punishingly miserable that I ask myself “who in the Punctured Christ would subject another human being to this,” that is the only time I am truly happy. Gaijin Monogatari is what you get when you take the backdrop from Earthquake Bird or Lost in Translation, insert a less accomplished Wesley Crusher as the lead, and have the whole thing eat itself halfway through like Wet Hot American Summer, but without being a parody. None of these is a good thing, and I loved every second of it.
I’m going to front load the recommendation, because I have to spoil this book for you. It’s just something I need for me, OK? Pause here and go buy it, so you can follow along. You can get a paperback copy, or print the ebook, because you’re gonna want to take notes. Anyway, let’s jump in. The only name we know our main character by is Jay, and he lives in Denver in the year 2043. International travel (and, we later find out, social media) is difficult to the point of being nearly impossible, due to legal repercussions from the pandemic. But luckily, there is a service that uses society-wide memory scans to reconstruct other times and places, which you can visit in VR for a price. Jay travels to Japan, circa 2021. There’s a lot of directions you can go with this premise, right? Total Recall, The Matrix, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, the list goes on and on. We’re not doing any of those things.
“He was a medium build, not particularly thin or overweight, kind of somewhere in the middle.”
Jay wakes up on a suburban street in Zama City, south of Tokyo. The program usually provides you with a guide within the simulation, so he introduces himself to the first person he meets, who luckily speaks English. His name is Jerome. Yes, Jerome. It’s not subtle. Jerome doesn’t seem to understand what the deal is with this random twerp, but he politely drives Jay through the incessant clapboard and corrugated tin midrise of suburban Japan to meet his friend Michiko, who might be able to hold Jay’s hand more effectively. This was the first point in the book where I watched a potentially interesting plot device zip past the passenger window. You see, Jay is reluctant to tell Jerome that he is an AI in a simulation, because it is likely to crash the system. This opens a whole book of ethical questions that is firmly shut when Michiko shows full, untroubled awareness of being an NPC in someone else’s adventure.
Naturally, she takes him to Japanese Olive Garden, aka Saizeriya. This is when we establish a theme that will play on a loop until the last page of the book: every ordinary thing in Japan is amazing to Jay. The ramshackle Hoovervilles along either side of the street are “neat and cool.” The signs advertising noodles are “fun and interesting.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with being affected by prosaic things in a foreign country. What gets me is the one-two punch of Jay exclusively witnessing the most boring aspects of the world around him, while simultaneously having the descriptive power of a magic 8 ball. At the Olive Garden, he tries Mexican Coca Cola, and is impressed that it tastes more “clean and fresh and good” than American Coke. That’s just Mexican Coke. France has Mexican Coke. South Africa has Mexican Coke. That’s what Coca Cola tastes like in any country not built out of corn and deregulation. This happens constantly. “Wow,” remarks Jay, upon seeing the train station, “do you ride the trains often?” Mother fucker. You have trains in Denver. You’ve traveled twenty years back in time and you’re leaving your brain matter on the floor of Olive Garden because you got there on a beat-up privatized commuter rail line.
OK, I need to come clean. That one-two- punch ends in a nasty uppercut for me personally, because in pride of place on my elaborate shrine to my hundreds of pet peeves is my irrational hatred of Weeaboos. This hatred is going to develop in stages as we go through this book, but we’re currently at Stage 1, in which Japan is heaped with commendation for doing ordinary shit. I can’t tell you how many Americans I’ve met in Japan who accept illegal working conditions and an unheated apartment, because they are so honored to be walking on the same ground that gundams walk on or whatever. Yes, in case you haven’t guessed, I was once that very Weeabtrix I now despise, living in Japan at the bargain price of my own sanity. Let’s see our boy eat a sea urchin gonad that tastes like a balloon full of harbor water, and find out if it’s “neat.”
“He couldn’t help but think that as attractive as she was now, she must have been twice as beautiful years ago.”
Sorry, back to the story. Jay is sitting in the restaurant, taking stock of how hot his benefactor is. She’s well endowed, and in pretty good shape for her age, but the fact that she’s several years older rules her out as a potential love interest. The reason Michiko brings Jay to Olive Garden is to meet other potential guides on his journey. And wouldn’t you know it, before Jay even gets a chance to try the ketchup and hot dog spaghetti, some woman spills wine down the front of his shirt. Maiko, as it turns out she’s called, apologizes profusely. Jay gets a look at her, and notices that she is hot, and much closer to the Window of Bangability. Is this what it’s like to live your life as a cis-het man? Just scanning the room at all times with Terminator vision, but instead of looking for Sarah Conner it’s tits? Anyway, Maiko offers to wash his shirt if he comes over to her place. Once there, she strips his shirt off him, and suggests he get under the covers of her bed to avoid being embarrassed about having his shirt off. If you’re new to my little self torture chamber, you may not know just how tightly I’ve been clenched the whole way up to this scene. Gaijin Monogatari is a story where a nerdy college-age loser uses VR to meet women, and in previous works this premise has been used as a thinly veiled fantasy to finally get Jessie from third period to touch the author’s entire wiener. So to see that the first real romantic encounter is basically a random woman subjecting our protagonist to the D.E.N.N.I.S. system, I was both anxious and intrigued. But like the other potential plot twists that zipped past my window, the Japanese femdom utopia never materialized. Jay is still a virgin when he takes the walk of shame back to Michiko’s place.
Jay’s next big day out is with a girl named Ai, who brings along a couple of Japanese friends for an evening of beer and karaoke. You can probably guess how this goes. The beer is amazing, even though it’s Kirin, so it’s literally the sweat of Satan’s taint. Jay finds a banana to be more delicious than its American equivalent, and is impressed to learn that it is imported all the way from the Philippines (as opposed to those Colorado bananas he’s used to back home). The friends all have the same narrative voice as Jay, by the way, so when they describe Japanese customs or attractions to him, they stick to the same set of four adjectives: neat, fun, cool, and interesting. It’s like an Orientalist version of Delicious Dish with Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer. Jay quickly earns the admiration and respect of his companions by doing basic things. He can stand to the side when riding the escalator, which I guess they don’t do in Denver, so this is framed as a “Japanese” thing, and everyone praises him for “fitting in so well.” He’s met enough people by this point to have picked up the phrase “nice to meet you,” and when he whips it out everyone in the room is flabbergasted. It’s the most animu thing I’ve ever read, complete with diagonal cut-ins of background characters going “But that’s impossible!” This, for those keeping score at home, is Weeaboo Stage 2.
A lot of this can be blamed on the difference between visiting Japan, i.e. a brief romp through an Asia-themed amusement park, and actually having to live there, i.e. a Groundhog Day scenario but with even more stupid rituals. Consider the toilet-gradient. In a hotel, you’re likely to have a Western-style toilet, possibly even one of those robot toilets that sing Happy Birthday, so you go back to Dubuque and tell everyone they’re crapping in robots out there in Japan. Try the landlord specials that put the phrase “hole in the ground” to shame, or the one in my closet that doubled as the apartment’s only sink (don’t work too hard to visualize that). Have you ever tried to walk to work in Japan? Every square meter of the country is five railroads at once; they’re all privatized, and they all hate you. You can’t pass through a station without a ticket, because of the dangerous possibility that you will use this sudden embarrassment of mobility to reach a competitor’s station. If you live in a rural area, this means walking a mile out of your way to the nearest level crossing. And when you get to work, trying to kvetch about it to your coworkers is like trying to have a conversation with an answering machine, because they cannot conceive of anything better. Sure, visitors gawk at how the trains always arrive on time, but sit through a mandatory meeting during your planning period about better use of planning periods before you talk to me about Japanese efficiency. But hey, their Mexican Coke is very neat and cool!
“There was nothing else to say, Jay thought, so, McDonald’s.”
At this point we get a sort of second act low. Jay is interested in Ai, but scares her off when he mentions sleeping in Maiko’s bed the night before. He returns to Michiko’s only to find he is unwelcome there as well, after her boyfriend discovered a man was living there. Jay reflects on what a blow this must be to a woman of her age, to lose her last chance at happiness. She forgives him soon enough, but in the mean time it gives him an opportunity to spend more time with Jerome and his two children, Alexei and Danielle. Danielle is around his age, so naturally Jay asks Jerome to his face why the program is sending him Jerome’s daughter as a guide, when his previous ones have been romantic encounters. Jerome shrugs this off like it’s not something he’s going to have to repeat to the police in about six hours, and the youngsters go to Tokyo to see the sights. “The sights” mostly boils down to the parts of Tokyo that would be destroyed in a Roland Emmerich movie, but I guess you never get around to doing this stuff unless someone comes to visit, right?
Jay’s next guide is Yayoi, a girl who teaches him the basics of photography around Shibuya Station. She does this mainly without verbal instruction, because the guides are getting progressively worse at English. Not because Jay is getting better at Japanese, but just because. I was still clenched for the eventual transformation into a shameless dubcon power fantasy, but that’s not the turn this story was about to take. The two of them go to the Starbucks at Shibuya intersection, the famous one that all the videos of “busy Japanese intersection” are taken from. Jay is fantasizing about kissing Yayoi when she trips (while sitting in a chair), shouts “ayee,” and lands on his lips. Actually, I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this yet, but this happens a lot, where the narration tells us one thing, only for it to be immediately addressed in the action. Usually this takes the form of the narration and the dialogue endlessly parroting each other: Jay just had one more question. “I just have one more question,” said Jay. So we have secondary characters who use the same voice as the perspective character, and all of them are mirrored by the narration. Should make the sex scenes more interesting, if they ever happen.
“As Jay observed the woman, he realized what a pretty sight it, or she, was.”
Yayoi is replaced by Akane, a hot girl who takes him to Akihabara, which you may have heard is famous for maid cafes. Jay thinks nothing of picking out a maid from a lineup to serve him and his date tea and omelets. Now fully dependent on a translator app, Jay and Akane talk about baseball and Star Wars. Jay reveals that he has no knowledge of dogs or cats, but finds them “cool and fun.” The pair buys tickets for the next day’s baseball game at 7-11, which amazes Jay both for being a place to buy baseball tickets, and for existing at all. He seriously considers pursuing a romantic relationship with Akane during the time remaining to him inside the simulation. For the third time, a possible interesting plot complication zips by, in which Jay tries to play out his bodice-ripper fantasy in a fake scenario under a time limit. But instead, we get something I never saw coming.
The first thing that threw me was when Jay met his own grandmother, and took her out to Burger King. I wish I had more context for you, but that’s just how it unfolds. He seems only mildly surprised that she’s there, even though she’s the one who had to explain to him that they’re related. Or rather, that she is the VR representation of an AI based on his grandmother’s memories. Then she reveals that her husband is Jerome. If you’re following along, that means that Jay and his grandfather did not recognize each other, and also Alexei and Danielle are Jay’s uncle and mother, respectively. Does he not know that his mother’s name is Danielle? This adds another layer of bafflement to the scene where Jay is confused that the program wants him to hang out with Danielle in a non-romantic way, given that he’s speaking to people who all have the same names as his immediate family. So without warning, the story pivots from an abortive harem fantasy to a Becket play about spending wholesome time with his American family who live in Zama City.
And then! And then, we find out that Danielle and her husband have already had their first child, so apparently Jay was born in Japan. And Jay isn’t even his real name! Schoolyard bullies of near-future Denver started calling him “Japan Boy,” or “J-Boy,” which our protagonist reclaimed as “Jay.” I flipped back to the first chapter, looking for some clue about all this. When Jay is getting hooked up to the VR, he tells the tech that “his family loved it” in Japan, but neglects to mention that a) he was also there, and b) he is missing the part of his brain that stores facial memory. “I used a false name on the form, by the way,” he goes on to not tell the tech. His family are ecstatic to spend time with him, which in my pessimistic brain raises further urgent questions. Do these AIs cease to exist when he logs out, or do they just go into storage? Jay meets another time-visitor to 2021 Japan named Mion, so it’s a possibility that these characters just hang around indefinitely, forever reliving 2021 in case any tourists show up, while another set of AIs infinitely loops 2022 for a different set of tourists. Jay has no time to focus on these questions, because just before his time in the simulation is up, he returns to hot milfu Michiko, who strips naked and tells him about the Genji Monogatari.
The Genji Monogatari is an unreadable tome in which some nonce who kidnaps a ten year old learns that life is pointless (if you like allegorical Buddhist literature, I would recommend The Cloud Dream of the Nine). But I guess Jay has gone on some journey of self-discovery and shit, so whatever. He’s Genji now. In case the subtext wasn’t already blinding, some minor character points out that the reason Jay gets on so well with cute Japanese girls, and can figure out how to stand on an escalator and say hello, while being such a pathetic loner in Denver, is because deep down he has a Japanese soul. This is Weeaboo Stage 3: Exoticizing foreign cultures to cope with your own inferiority complex. Sure, in America you might be the left half of that Virgin/Chad meme, but in Japan, you will be cool. You’ll dance with their wolves, kiss up their ladies, and everybody back in Denver will be jealous. The story ends with Jay using his contacts in Japan to secure the nearly-impossible task of moving to Japan, and in the airport remarks that he feels like the “luckiest, most loved person in the place.” This is objectively true, and that’s a bad thing.
“Never had any experience with cats.”
I did a lot of complaining about the first part of the book for being such an insipid fantasy. It’s like those author insert Star Trek fanfics, but instead of effortlessly perfect teen genius Mary Sue, the protagonist is Reginald Barclay, the guy who fails performance reviews and spends too much time doing “something” in the holodeck. It also takes a page from bodice rippers set in World of Warcraft, but instead of a large n’ lusty swordsman, the protagonist feels his sciatica threatening to act up, so he just stays at the tavern until last call. It bears some resemblance to a harem story, but the protagonist is a fizzle that no man or woman in their right mind would want to sleep with. Wait, that last one is just Tenchi Muyo. I think I may have solved the riddle. But somehow the ending makes it worse.
Besides the moral qualms around ethnic essentialism, this sort of fantasy runs into the problem that Japan sucks (yes, I am doing the same thing I’m complaining about; try to keep up). I have always been of the opinion that Americans who are easily impressed with Japan are not good people. People who like plastic smile politeness are people who are fundamentally uncurious about what people around them are really thinking and feeling. People who eagerly absorb the constant back-patting for knowing two words of Japanese do not stick around to see that praise dry up once you are fluent enough to understand what people are saying around you. I mean honestly, what’s the appeal of a maid cafe? Is it a sex fantasy so milquetoast that it forgot the sex, or is it nostalgia for a time when the labor market was even more dystopian than it is now?
The clunky writing doesn’t alleviate any of this, but adds another layer of weirdness to explore. There are lonely “thoughs” with no obvious point to contrast against. I’ve already mentioned the hall of mirrors of having all characters plus the narration repeat the same ideas in the same words over and over. On rare occasion we are directly told a secondary character’s thoughts, which is extremely unsettling in a narrative otherwise in third person limited, especially when our perspective character is struggling to interpret what’s going on around him most of the time. Something I should address is the fact that the author may be from the Philippines, and it is possible that English is not his first language. Foolish people might take this to be a reason to leave this book alone, and not pick at its every loose thread. This is nonsense. Besides the obvious fact that millions of Filipinos speak fluent English, you don’t have to speak flawless English to write a good book. I taught ESL for years; my brain auto-corrects most common errors. I couldn’t care less if an author uses the simple past where the present perfect would be better, or says “all intensive purposes.” What I care about is things like “the room had brownish-themed accents.” What the fuck is that? What does that mean?
I started this rant with a recommendation, and I stand by that. This book is an encyclopedia of Weeaboo brain-curse, with hypnotically bad writing, plot holes so blatant they are entertainment unto themselves, and a protagonist limper than Olive Garden linguine. Reading this book should be mandatory for writers, travelers, and anyone who has ever thought about going to Saizeriya. Seeing the world through the eyes of a case study in mediocrity like Jay is like staring into a yawning abyss, only to find that it’s about three feet deep. I cannot recommend Gaijin Monogatari enough. It’s eight dollars on Kindle. Buy it. Educate yourself. Just whatever you do, don’t go to Japan.
N.B.: This one got a little long and personal, which is perfect because I want to make these reviews more in-depth and less frequent, so I’m switching to a once-a-month format. Hopefully this will allow me to bring you more apoplectic rambling about even stupider grievances.
The world would be better off today if George Bush’s response to [the existence of Japan] was to do absolutely nothing.Tweet