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La Japonaise | The Nation

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La Japonaise

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While it's clear that Jenny's rage at the American government on her father's behalf is the deep engine of her radicalism, the catalyst for her involvement was a man, William Weeks, of whom her father disapproved and whom she ended up choosing in his stead. "William became her world," Choi writes, "his language her language. She remembered thinking to herself, and sometimes even daring to utter aloud that They Had Become Lovers. And she remembered the joy she'd felt being propelled, by a manner of speech she would never have used, toward a life she had never imagined." Father and daughter haven't spoken in years, and the paradox of their estrangement forms the book's emotional core.

About the Author

Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan's most recent novel is Look at Me (Anchor). She has just begun a Mel and Lois Tuckman Fellowship at the...

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Jenny, with her Asian face, has instant credibility among the radicals, and Choi's rendering of the kneejerk racial pieties of that world may be her most trenchant contribution to the literature of the counterculture. When the first bomb Jenny plants explodes, "William sees her quaking...and kneels quickly before her, grabs her hands...as if she is a child. 'Think of that being dropped onto people,' he hisses. 'Balls of fire dropped down onto children. Little children who look just like you.'" To the radical left, Jenny is a symbol of everything worth fighting for. And the very nature of her symbolism brings her into conflict with Pauline, whose symbolism is the inversion of her own. "She knows how important she is," Juan says to Jenny of the heiress. "The Publicity Princess. But she's still got to learn that there's no substitute for a Third World perspective like yours. Brown, yellow, black, red: those are four things that she'll never be. And she isn't just white, she's a filthy rich white...she can't kill what she is. She can only atone."

As women chafing against their symbolic freight and growing weary of the overbearing males who are as plentiful inside the radical movement as outside it, Jenny and Pauline have much in common. In time they figure this out. After Juan and Yolanda's plan for a bloodless robbery goes brutally awry, Jenny escapes with Pauline and the two make a lengthy drive back to San Francisco. This exodus is Choi's real flight of fancy: the part of the story with no apparent basis in reality, and the occasion for some of her strongest writing. In describing the boundary-less intimacy between the two women, Choi brings us closest to the sensory experience of underground life, or, as she puts it, "dropping into a rabbits' warren of the imagination where reinvention of the self was possible." In a world without rules, the daughter of a man jailed for his Japanese blood can merge, in some sense, with the daughter of the man whose newspapers championed internment camps. Choi beautifully evokes the eroticism inherent in this liminal existence. "Prior history all seems unreal," she writes. Jenny and Pauline "don't remember that they are two girls, fabulous prey, on the run from the law everywhere. In this sticky cocoon it's surprising, perhaps, that they never make love to each other." Pauline, we learn, has had sex with women in the years since her kidnapping. "She's done it, at the outset always more obediently than with desire, then abruptly overshooting desire for something narcotic and unprecedented. Yet now it is barely remembered; it is the way, though they don't realize yet, this time also will be."

In dishing up the swoony blend of violence, sexuality and self-creation that coalesces in underground life, Choi's narrative achieves an immediacy that it sometimes lacks when her stance is more analytical. For all the pages we spend inside Jenny's head, she often comes across as someone viewed from a distance. For example, several times during her tenure in the farmhouse we're told that she's reading, but never what she reads. (Hearst gives us more on that front; in Every Secret Thing, Yoshimura is caught reading a book on French separatism in Quebec, for which Bill Harris "lambasted her unmercifully for wasting her time on such a bourgeois irrelevant subject.") And Jenny speaks to her fellow fugitives with such unfailing reasonableness--always demurring, for example, when she is lauded for being Asian, apparently never for even one second buying into the notion of her specialness--that it can be hard to imagine her taking the actions she does, despite her persuasive psychology. I longed for the unreason of Jenny's actions to infect her thoughts and words--it would have allowed me to experience her plight in a more urgent way.

Of course, the very nature of liminal states is that they must end, and the normal rules of life reassert themselves. For Jenny and Pauline, that end comes in the form of their arrest inside their shared apartment, at which point they are separated forever. Jenny is crushed to discover that despite their promises to shield each other from blame, Pauline betrays her instantly. Later, Jenny comes to see that this betrayal was as inevitable as her allegiance to the heiress was unlikely. "Pauline had realized her adventure was over," Choi writes. "Pauline knew that her place in the world was assured--she need only resolve to accept it. And she had, out of fear, or resignation, or hard pragmatism, or perhaps just because, for them both, youth had come to an end." The decision wasn't really a decision, in other words, so much as a relaxation into the grip of forces--race, class, history--that are hard to transcend for very long, much less destroy.

Jenny, too, has a place in the world: She is her father's daughter. Choi doesn't show us the reunion between them, and her restraint is both what keeps American Woman from ever listing into sappiness or cliché, and what maintains an emotional distance between reader and story. But Jenny and her father find each other again, and the book's last scene--their visit to a reunion at the camp where Jim Shimada was interned--is just right.

Still, I couldn't help wondering, as I read American Woman, what Wendy Yoshimura would think of it. Patty Hearst is a public figure, a period icon who by now must be accustomed to the fact that she pops up in the dream lives of a certain generation of Americans. But Yoshimura, a California painter, has kept a low profile all these years. She has never written a book about her experiences. Should she ever decide to, she'll find herself up against a work of real achievement that is built around the facts of her early life. Choi's reflective voice has its price: This is not a novel that subsumes the reader in a whirligig of emotion and suspense, though at times I wished it would. But it is deeply impressive: confident, historically astute, psychologically persuasive. By its end I had come to believe this pithy remark of Frazer's that jumped at me in its opening pages: "The most shocking act, closely examined, is just a louder version of some habitual gesture."

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