The Age of Dreaming

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.

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11 Responses to The Age of Dreaming

  1. Pingback: Asian North American Authors « Diversify Your Reading

  2. Deb says:

    I’ve never heard of this book until I read your review, but anyone who doesn’t realize why a Japanese-American (who was a big star in the silent era) suddenly “disappeared” doesn’t know much about U.S. history during World War II. Perhaps the author thought this was a big revelation.

    I chuckled at the “allergy medicine” anachronism. I once read a book set in the 1300s where the heroine tells a prospective suitor that she won’t “flatter his ego.” I closed the book and never opened it again. Some failures are irretrievable.

    • Jenny says:

      Deb, I don’t actually mind small anachronisms like references to the ego (medieval people did have the idea that the mind was separated into layers, after all.) And one anachronism won’t spoil a book for me. But one after another after another…

      The main thing I didn’t get from the book was whether a Japanese-American could be a star in that era at all, or whether that was pure imagination.

  3. Jenny says:

    What a shame this wasn’t better, but hey! At least you have can have a historical fiction corrective emotional experience with Sarah Waters. She does her research like whoa, and charmed me by saying in an interview once that you just have to do enough research to sound like you know what you’re talking about.

  4. Oh, I just hate it when a book doesn’t live up to its premise. I’m sorry you had to deal with that one, but hey, at least Fingersmith is up ahead!

  5. Kathleen says:

    This sounds like one to skip for sure. And Fingersmith is definitely the one you would have rather been reading. I just finished it a week ago and am still basking in the afterglow of that wonderful story!

  6. Emily says:

    I appreciate that you took the time to review this book. However, I strongly feel that you have misunderstood several crucial issues.

    You say that you wanted “…very serious issues of race during the early Hollywood years”.

    Does this mean that the struggle of Japanese Americans during the time of internment and World War II wasn’t a serious issue of race? I beg to differ.

    “No one was allowed to be human.” Everyone in this novel is human! Mostly Jun. This novel addresses the moments in life that you fail to seize and the consequences of people’s choices. But, more importantly, it’s about what happens when you stop doing what you love. Is this not a problem we’ve all faced being…human?

    There is much more to this novel and I hope that now you will take a deeper look and discover all it has to offer.

    Thank you.

    • Jenny says:

      Emily, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I wasn’t suggesting that the struggle of Japanese-Americans during World War II is not a serious issue of race. This book, however, does not deal with that struggle even a little bit. The action of the early part of the book stops before World War II (Jun passes the war in England) and picks up again in the 1960s. The issues of race that *are* dealt with in the book are, in my view, unsubtle at best, and could (should?) have been better.

      As far as being human — of course, everyone’s going to read a novel differently. I felt that the characters were two-dimensional, and didn’t ever exceed what they seemed to be on the surface. The book is much less about what happens when you stop doing what you love (this question is in fact scarcely touched) and more about what happens when you do what you love well, but at the expense of some of your friends’ principles. The question was not carefully worked out, in my view. I would have loved for it to be more thorough.

      I’m so glad you loved the book! I know it has a big following. It just wasn’t one I thought was for me. Thanks for coming by.

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