One of the great pleasures of blogging with Teresa is getting wonderful book recommendations. While we’re not often reading the same thing at the same time, we have very similar taste, and I frequently read her reviews and think, Oh yes, I must get to that. Sometimes I’m even jealous when she reads something that sounds particularly delicious, or something that I’ve read before and loved, and that she gets to experience for the first time.
Take, for instance, this last week. Teresa got to read Sarah Waters’s marvelous Fingersmith, dark velvety wicked historical fiction. I, on the other hand, was stuck reading Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming — historical fiction, yes, and a novel that did its sad best to be wicked, but a book that alternately bored and irritated me. Guess which one I’d rather have been reading?
The Age of Dreaming takes place in 1964, in Los Angeles. Jun Nakayama is an aging silent-film star — although others, like Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, are better remembered, his career was meteoric in its time. A journalist wants to interview him about that career and why it ended so abruptly, but Jun is uncertain that he wants the history dredged up. Through a series of flashbacks, we see his rise to stardom, his controversial roles (as a Japanese man in the 1920s, he could play only villains), his relationships with his co-stars, and his sudden disappearance from the spotlight. Part of the plot is a kind of murder mystery (though the identity of the killer is not actually in much doubt, and the investigation is not the point of the story.) Part of the plot is a scandal, and a storm brewing that the young Jun is unable to foresee.
This should have been a better book. It was clear to me that Nina Revoyr did a huge amount of research in two areas: the stars of the silent-film era, and the status of Japanese citizens during that era. It seemed to me that those two parts of the book (which, admittedly, were important parts) were detailed and lively. But it was as if anything outside that purview wasn’t interesting to Revoyr, and she didn’t bother to make it interesting to me as a reader. She missed ludicrously obvious details. For instance, in one flashback to 1907 Japan, a wealthy American is golfing at a hotel and begins to sneeze. “I forgot my allergy medication,” he says, and sends Jun back to the hotel for it. When he takes it, he quickly feels better. Now, the word “allergy” was not even coined until 1906, and the first antihistamine was not invented until 1943. I’m thinking either this golfer was a time-traveler, or something got whiffed here. This is not the kind of thing that by itself will ruin a book for me, but when it piles up, example after example, I begin to feel that if the author doesn’t care, why should I?
I also felt that the characterization was unsubtle, to say the least. Not a single character turned out to be anything other than what he or she appeared to be on the surface. The drinker with a heart of gold. The Englishman whose dandyish exterior reveals his sexuality. The cruel stage mother. The noble Japanese woman. No one was allowed to be human, which to me means complex and messy; instead they moved like figures on a chessboard.
And finally, and perhaps most unforgivably, the prose was lumpy and awkward. The blurb on the back of the book promised “Nabokov-worthy” writing, but in fact it was lamentably stilted. I so wanted a book that really dealt fearlessly with some of the very serious issues of race during the early Hollywood years, when white actors played people of color and people of color played villains and thieves; when Mexicans played Arabs and Asians, when there was a black maid in every filmed home. I didn’t get it. Perhaps it’s still out there to be read, or to be written.