T.C. Boyle, “East is East” (1990) – Somewhere, and I don’t know where, I got the conviction in my head that there’s a good writer inside T.C. Boyle. The best I can figure it’s a combination of hope and approval of his choice to go with high-concept novel ideas instead of mulling on themes like divorce, being horny for the wrong people, the usual ideas that spur “literary fiction.” I read “The Inner Cycle” and it wasn’t great but it was an interesting premise, doing a novel about Kinsey and his group.
Truth be told, “East is East” doesn’t even have an especially interesting premise. A Japanese sailor named Hiro (get it?! I wonder if Boyle and Neal Stephenson read each other) jumps ship on a real rural, real purty island off of the coast of Georgia inhabited by all kinds of bucolic yokels, and also a writer’s colony. I’ve been told this a novel about stereotypes. That’s basically right- whatever there is in terms of Hiro or the other characters reacting to others based on stereotypes, the characters themselves are also flat cardboard cutouts- the honorable idealistic young Japanese, backbiting pretentious writers, assorted rustics. Other than the rustics it’s not like the characterizations are especially damning. They’re just boring. The writer stuff especially was disappointing- the biggest, easiest target for an up-and-comer (at the time) like Boyle, and he just whiffs it. I just finished the book last night and I can barely remember it.
Am I alone in detecting a certain strand of late-80s/early-90s literary writing where whimsicality in prose and high-concept, sometimes genre situations covers up for a whole not of nothing happening to flat characters? Walker Percy gets close to that in “The Thanatos Syndrome.” You’ve got Tom Robbins. Tom Wolfe- “East is East” was compared to “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which I also despised. Ishmael Reed’s eighties novels are definitely a lot flatter than the rest of his work. I feel like there’s others. The End of History era wasn’t great for literature, either, it seems. It all seems like setup for David Foster Wallace to come along with his GRE words and vast tragic self-importance to identify himself with the umpteenth version of “the new sincerity…” Anyway. This was bad. Don’t bother with it. I might continue my quest to see if there’s a good T.C. Boyle book but at this point more to test my hypothesis on high-middlebrow flatness in the late twentieth century. *