|Sept/Oct 1999 Book Reviews|
Ruth L. Ozeki
Pan Macmillan, 1999 431pp
ISBN: 0 330 n36845 1
"Meat is the Message. Each weekly half-hourly episode of *My American Wife* must culminate in the celebration of a featured meat, climaxing in its glorious consumption."
Jane Tagaki-Little is one very determined and independent young woman. Quite how she managed to foist a TV programme about a vegetarian, lesbian, American couple on her employer's BEEF-EX[porting] sponsors I never really fathomed, but it earned her top prime-time TV ratings in Japan. It also cost her her job.
Still, some of the Tokyo Office's list of "Desirable Things: ...docile husband, obedient children, wholesome lifestyle, clean house..." might inspire rebellion in any red-blooded American. And the lesbian couple certainly had "warm personalities" and "exciting hobbies"; and they didn't actually fit into the list of "Undesirable Things: ...physical imperfections, obesity, squalor, second-class peoples...".
Jane's boss for the "My American Wife" promotion, Joichi Ueno (dubbed "John Wayno" by his American business partners) is married to Akiko, a not quite typical Tokyo housewife. Akiko has the job of watching each weekly episode, following the cooking instructions, and rating the programme for General Interest, Authenticity, Educational Value and Deliciousness of the Meat. Akiko thoroughly approves of Jane's more idiosyncratic programmes, including the one about vegetarian lesbians. She finds Jane's choices of great "Educational Value", learns a lot of unexpected things about American wives, and gives Jne's programmes high Authenicity ratings. "John" Ueno violently disapproves.
Ruth L. Ozeki follows Jane and Akiko through the eventful year of "My American Wife". Characters and events which begin rather culturally stereotyped become more realistic as we get to know people. And Ozeki handles sex, violence and moral dilemmas smoothly and subtly until the sub-text of corrupt marketing takes centre stage in a dramatic and compelling way.
Jane Tagaki-Little and her creator obviously have more in common than a bi-cultural heritage. Both are documentarians, like Sei Shonagon whose ancient (c. 100AD) Pillow Book musings delightfully preface each chapter. But documentaries, as Jane notes, need a story to make them palatable and to penetrate the psychic numbing which constant media presentation of bad news engenders in us all. Both find a suitably gripping story to tell their tale.
Ozeki's book is entertaining, well written, humorous and thought provoking. But you just might give up eating meat after reading it.